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David Gray Widder
David Gray Widder

Cornell Tech

When (ET)


Epistemic Power in AI Ethics Labor: Legitimizing Located Complaints


What counts as legitimate AI ethics labor, and consequently, what are the epistemic terms on which AI ethics claims are rendered legitimate? Based on 75 interviews with technologists including researchers, developers, open source contributors, and activists, this talk explores various epistemic bases from which AI ethics is discussed and practiced. In the context of outside attacks on AI ethics as an impediment to “progress,” I show how some AI ethics practices have reached toward scholarly authority, automation and quantification and achieved some legitimacy as a result, while those based on richly embodied and situated lived experience have not. This talk draws the works of feminist Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies scholars Diana Forsythe and Lucy Suchman together with the works of postcolonial feminist theorist Sara Ahmed and Black feminist theorist Kristie Dotson to examine the implications of dominant AI ethics practices.

I argue that by entrenching the epistemic power of quantification, dominant AI ethics practices—Model Cards, and similar interventions—risk legitimizing AI ethics as a project in equal and opposite measure to which they delegitimize and marginalize embodied and lived experiences as legitimate parts of the same project. In response, I propose and sketch the idea of humble technical practices: quantified or technical practices which specifically seek to make their epistemic limits clear, in order to flatten hierarchies of epistemic


David Gray Widder (he/him) studies how people creating “Artificial Intelligence” systems think about the downstream harms their systems make possible, and the wider cultural, political, and economic logics which shape these thoughts. He is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Digital Life Initiative at Cornell Tech, and earned his PhD from the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He has previously conducted research at Intel Labs, Microsoft Research, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and published in FAccT, CHI, CSCW, and Big Data & Society. His research and activist work has been covered in Motherboard, MIT Technology Review, Wired, and Fortune. He was born in Tillamook, Oregon and raised in Berlin and Singapore. He maintains a conceptual-realist artistic practice, advocates against police terror and pervasive surveillance, and enjoys distance running.

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