I am at the European Computing and Philosophy Conference ECAP 2007 at the University of Twente, The Netherlands.
Already yesterday I met by chance next year’s organiser, Jean Sallantin, Research Director at LIRM (Montpellier Laboratory of Computer Science, Robotics, and Microelectronics). He has some interesting and challenging ideas on Wiki-usage for preparing the next conference. As he thinks already about using XWiki, Stéphane Laurière, my trusted colleague in the Nepomuk project, was the logical connection to make. And there are some other interesting ideas.
The conference started with some introductions and welcome notes. One was given by Luciano Floridi, President of the International Association of Computing and Philosophy IACAP, which is doing quite good on “the market of philosophical thinking”. He provided an overview of the IACAP structure with the three chapters (Asian Pacific) APCAP, (European) ECAP, and (North American) NACAP, each with their own successful conference. Expansion plans are under work for creating a Latin American chapter (LACAP) and for including China, Japan, and India. Going for a non-profit organisation is another important step, a step IACAP needs to take in order to give the association a legal form. Luciano Floridi asked us to advertise IACAP. Well: Become a member, dear reader, and support IACAP.
The conference’s first and very interesting keynote talk was given by Jeroen van der Hoven (Delft University of Technology and Australian National University) on “The ethics of Wideware Engineering”. Wideware (or “cognitive scaffolding”) encompasses more than hardware or software. At least, that is my understanding now. Quoting Clark and Chalmer’s “extended mind hypothesis”, “the mind leaks into the environment. […] Where does the mind stop and where does the rest o the world begin?”. This corresponds quite well to the semantic desktop and its metaphor of a “semantically enlarged supplement to [human] memory”.
Thought-provoking, at least for me, was Jeroen van der Hoven’s analysis of “epistemic enslavement”. For example, a flight operator in his epistemic niche (his technical environment, which provides data on flight paths etc.) needs to believe what is presented to him screen. In his epistemic niche there is no opting-out for the narrowly embedded user of the system. “If I believe that the system provides the output (p) on good grounds, then I myself have good grounds to believe that (p).” This is called epistemic dependence. The user here has no cognitive ability to find non-obvious defeaters! From all that follows epistemic enslavement. “Non-compliance with system output constitutes taking a moral risk the user cannot justify at the moment of non-compliance.” For example, the flight operator cannot think for himself. He needs to rely on the system.
The basic ethical issue, thus, in Wideware Engineering is: “Do we get epistemic enhancement/engineering at the expense of our moral autonomy (”think for yourself“)?” I believe my research on explanation heads exactly into that direction where decision support systems are concerned, in order to provide the user with the information to lessen the moral risk mentioned above. Of course, such real-time systems in flight control are an extreme, but expert or decision support systems in medicine also need to deal with the issue of responsibility.
So much for now …
[composed and posted with ecto]