Intelligence and Autonomy

The Intelligence & Autonomy Initiative—active from 2014-2018—developed grounded, qualitative research in order to provide nuanced understanding of emerging technologies and to inform the design, evaluation, and regulation of AI-driven systems.

Rather than focus on utopian dreaming or dystopian fears, our work began from the position that the historical and social contexts in which AI systems emerge and operate should be central to debates about their uses and potential effects. To contribute to and develop these understandings, we produced empirical research ranging from an analysis of the ways in which service platforms, like Uber, may present a potential backdoor to employment discrimination to the history of aviation autopilot litigation and its implications for legal responsibility in autonomous systems. We also engaged a range of stakeholders, aiming to foster productive interdisciplinary and inter-institutional conversations. These engagements included invited talks and workshops, including Futures Forum 2015, a cross-disciplinary convening that used scenarios drawn from commissioned science fiction stories as a collective starting point for new and inclusive ways of planning for the future. We also published An AI Pattern Language, a booklet based on interviews conducted in 2015-2016 with practitioners working in the intelligent systems and AI industry that presents a taxonomy of social challenges facing AI industry practitioners and articulates an array of patterns that practitioners have developed in response.

The Intelligence & Autonomy Initiative was founded with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Microsoft Research, with additional research support from The Ethics and Governance of AI Fund.


An AI Pattern Language

09.29.16 | book | Madeleine Clare Elish, Tim Hwang

D&S researchers Madeleine Clare Elish and Tim Hwang discuss the social challenges of AI in a new collection of essays, An AI Pattern Language. In A Pattern Language, the...

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Journal Articles

Discriminating Tastes: Customer Ratings as Vehicles for Bias

10.19.16 | paper | Alex Rosenblat, Karen Levy, Solon Barocas, Tim Hwang

D&S researchers Alex Rosenblat and Tim Hwang and D&S affiliates Solon Barocas and Karen Levy examine how bias may creep into evaluations of Uber drivers through consumer-sourced rating systems:...

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Regional Diversity in Autonomy and Work: A Case Study from Uber and Lyft Drivers

10.13.16 | paper | Alex Rosenblat, Tim Hwang

D&S researchers Alex Rosenblat and Tim Hwang explore “the significant role of worker motivations and regional political environments on the social and economic outcomes of automation” in this new...

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The Wisdom of the Captured

09.16.16 | paper | Alex Rosenblat, Tim Hwang

D&S researchers Alex Rosenblat and Tim Hwang analyze how widely captured data of technologies, which enable these technologies to make intelligent decisions, may negatively impact users. More broadly, how...

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Moral Crumple Zones: Cautionary Tales In Human-Robot Interaction

03.20.16 | paper | Madeleine Clare Elish

In this Working Paper from We Robot 2016, D&S Researcher Madeleine Elish employs the concept of “moral crumple zones” within human-machine systems as a lens through which to think about...

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Praise the Machine! Punish the Human! The Contradictory History of Accountability in Automated Aviation

02.24.15 | paper | Madeleine Clare Elish, Tim Hwang

Abstract: What will happen to current regimes of liability when driverless cars become commercially available? What happens when there is no human actor—only a computational agent—responsible for an accident?...

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Articles and Posts

The future of designing autonomous systems will involve ethnographers

06.28.16 | | Madeleine Clare Elish

D&S researcher Madeleine Clare Elish asserts ethnography and anthropology’s role in studying automation and intelligent systems. Cultural perceptions of the role of humans in automated and robotic systems need...

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Letting autopilot off the hook

06.16.16 | Slate | Madeleine Clare Elish

D&S researcher Madeleine Clare Elish discusses the complexities of error in automated systems. Elish argues that the human role in automated systems has become ‘the weak link, rather than...

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The Truth About How Uber’s App Manages Drivers

04.06.16 | Harvard Business Review | Alex Rosenblat

D&S Researcher Alex Rosenblat examines how Uber’s app design and deployment redistributes management functions to semiautomated and algorithmic systems, as well as to consumer ratings systems, creating ambiguity around...

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How Politicians Should and Shouldn’t Use Twitter Bots

03.08.16 | Slate | Tim Hwang, Samuel Woolley

D&S Researcher Tim Hwang and Samuel Woolley consider the larger trend toward automated politics and the likely future sophistication of automated politics and potential impacts on the public sphere...

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Weapons of Mass Persuasion

09.18.15 | Vice | Tim Hwang

“Just as the software and hardware of the internet has been militarized by the imperatives of a mostly secret ‘cyberwar,’ so too are online social spaces being weaponized in...

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Uber’s Phantom Cabs

07.27.15 | Motherboard | Alex Rosenblat

“Uber’s access to real-time information about where passengers and drivers are has helped make it one of the most efficient and useful apps produced by Silicon Valley in recent...

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The Mirage of the Marketplace

07.27.15 | Slate | Tim Hwang, Madeleine Clare Elish

“Increasingly, what underlies the debate over the so-called sharing economy is a nascent, bigger battle about how society wants machines coordinating and governing human activity. These apps don’t match...

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“Moral Crumple Zones”: When your self-driving car crashes, you could still be the one who gets sued

07.25.15 | Quartz | Madeleine Clare Elish, Tim Hwang

“In a self-driving car, the control of the vehicle is shared between the driver and the car’s software. How the software behaves is in turn controlled — designed —...

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Might Intelligent Machines One Day Convince Us It’s Time to Die?

05.27.15 | Vice | Tim Hwang, Madeleine Clare Elish

Data & Society’s Intelligence and Autonomy initiative commissioned authors to envision future scenarios for intelligent systems in four domains: medicine, labor, urban design, and warfare. The future scenario around...

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Bring on the Bots

05.14.15 | Civicist | Samuel Woolley, Tim Hwang

In this piece for Civic Hall’s Civicist, Samuel Woolley and D&S fellow Tim Hwang argue that “he failure of the ‘good bot’ is a failure of design, not a...

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Back Stage at the Machine Theater

04.10.15 | Medium | Karen Levy, Tim Hwang

D&S fellows Karen Levy and Tim Hwang ask after the ethics of design theater. Excerpt: “A machine’s front stage performance gets enacted through design. Just as a human provides...

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Future of Labor: Understanding Intelligent Systems

10.08.14 | primer | Alex Rosenblat, Tamara Kneese, danah boyd

Science fiction has long imagined a workforce reshaped by robots, but the increasingly common instantiation of intelligent systems in business is much more mundane. Beyond the utopian and dystopian...

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What does a fair algorithm actually look like?

10.11.18 | Wired | Madeleine Clare Elish

For WIRED, Data & Society Research Lead Madeleine Clare Elish complicates algorithmic transparency. “‘Algorithmic transparency isn’t an end in and of itself,’ says Madeleine Clare Elish, a researcher who...

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AI Research is in Desperate Need of an Ethical Watchdog

09.18.17 | Wired | Jacob Metcalf

When Stonybrook University researchers launched NamePrism, an app that guesses someones ethnicity based off of their names, D&S researcher Jacob Metcalf identified the ethical issues apps like this can...

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AlphaGo and AI Fears

03.22.16 | Future of Life Institute | Madeleine Clare Elish

D&S fellow Madeleine Clare Elish was quoted in a Future of Life Institute piece discussing public fear of AI. “When the media focuses on AI in this way, it...

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Finding the Line Between Data Collection and Authenticity

12.16.15 | PSFK | Tim Hwang

D&S researcher Tim Hwang was interviewed by PSFK in the series, The Future of Digital Safety & Security: A Consumer Guide, to discuss policymaking around intelligence systems. “The issue...

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Past Events

Research Team

Madeleine Clare Elish


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