Ethical Things is an exploration of the implications of the huge amount of data available and mundane objects that might become "smarter". It's a system that uses collaboration between a fan and crowdsourced ethical reasoning from remote people to help the object overcome complex daily dilemmas.
Ethical Things is the project that initiated the practice of automato.farm . In the first collaboration between Matthieu Cherubini and myself, we explored a future scenario where "smart" objects might also need to have moral capacities as "they know too much" about their surroundings to take a neutral stance.
If a "smart" coffee machine knows about its user's heart problems, should it accept giving him a coffee when he requests one? Even with such a banal situation, the level of complexity of such products cannot accommodate all parties. The system will be designed to take into account certain inputs, to process a 'certain' type of information under a 'certain' kind of logic.
How are these "certainties" defined, and by whom? How are these autonomous systems going to be able to solve problems without objective answers? And, moreover, as the nature of ethics is very subjective, how will machines be able to deal with the variety of profiles, beliefs, and cultures?
The "Ethical Things" project looks at how an object, facing everyday ethical dilemmas, can keep a dose of humanity in its final decision while staying flexible enough to accommodate various ethical beliefs. In order to achieve that, our "ethical fan" connects to a crowd-sourcing website every time it faces an ethical dilemma. It posts the dilemma it's facing and awaits the help of one of the "workers", or mechanical turks, who will tell the fan how to behave.
This is a mechanism that assures that the decision executed by the system is the fruit of real human moral reasoning. The fan is designed to let the user set various traits (such as religion, degree, sex, and age) as criterion to choose the worker who should respond to the dilemma, in order to assure that a part of the user's culture and belief system is in line with the worker, or ethical agent. Should it be a middle-aged Muslim male with a PhD or a young Atheist female?