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Mobilising the intellectual resources of the arts and humanities

Mobilising the intellectual resources of the arts and humanities

Challenging and redrawing framings of technology to serve human flourishing and justice

By Professor Shannon Vallor, University of Edinburgh

This article was commissioned by the Ada Lovelace Institute as part of its series on the contribution of the arts and humanities to AI ethics. Read the original article here: https://www.adalovelaceinstitute.org/blog/mobilising-intellectual-resources-arts-humanities/ or read others at Ada Lovelace Institute, or follow on Twitter, @AdaLovelaceInst

In this Ada Lovelace Institute blog post ‘The role of the arts and humanities in thinking about artificial intelligence’, John Tasioulas offers an impassioned and eloquent articulation of why AI needs to be aligned not just with human interests (a goal shared by many in the AI research community), but with the humane ideas and visions that have defined our species’ unique aspirations to be good.

The ‘good life’ that Socrates called us to seek is a trope of academic philosophy, but as Tasioulas notes, this aspiration is embedded in a far broader array of humane endeavours, from efforts to draft more just laws, to an artist’s capturing of the many shapes of human struggle, to the science-fiction novelist’s framing of possible worlds where untested futures and forms of life can be explored.

Long before AI was even a dream in those visions, we already shared the planet with many other intelligent creatures. Quite a few can satisfy their own needs and wants more efficiently and reliably than we can. What is less clear is whether any of them lose sleep over what their needs and wants should be, or whether they envision new kinds of lives that would be better for them to desire and build together.

Philosophers may be uniquely obsessed with reasoning about the good, but the good itself is not a philosophical or even academic pursuit. It’s the pursuit of all creatures with the aspirational capacity that Harry Frankfurt defined as that of a person: the reflective and self-critical ability to want to have better desires and impulses than we already do.

If this is part of what it means to be intelligent, then intelligence is not merely the ability to devise means to get what one already wants. It’s the ability to discover what is good to want. And if that’s not part of intelligence, then intelligence is neither rare nor particularly valuable. As Tasioulas notes, an AI system that devises a perfectly efficient method for converting all sources of meaning and value into utter meaninglessness – the notorious ‘paperclip maximizer’ from Nick Bostrom’s imagination – is no sage. It’s the epitome of the fool.

Humanity’s greatest challenge today is the continued rise of a technocratic regime that compulsively seeks to optimise every possible human operation without knowing how to ask what is optimal, or even why optimising is good. As Tasioulas points out in his call for ethical pluralism, there is in any event no single ‘optimal’ shape of life or configuration of values to pursue in exclusion of all the rest.

How could there be? No one would think to reduce music to a search for the one optimal note to play for all time, or even the superior chord. No one would define painting as the quest to cover a canvas with the ‘optimal’ colour. Nor could one create an ‘optimal’ painting or symphony that would replace all the rest. Yet otherwise intelligent people still readily embrace reductive approaches to ethics that seek to accomplish the equivalent for all areas of human life, imagining that the diversity of human goods and values can somehow be algorithmically converted to a single scale and summed to maximise our net ‘utility’.

The good life with others is not an optimised steady state of being. It’s a flowing, changing, jointly envisioned and constructed work of art – good-lives-in-the-making. The form of the good life is, of course, not whatever we say or imagine it to be; as Alasdair MacInytre, Martha Nussbaum and others have noted, its contours and edges are set down by some basic realities of human flourishing, as the dependent social animals we are. But the good lives we mould and shape around them are not predetermined by any optimising equation.

So we need to deflate once and for all the bubble of technological determinism that keeps forming around the AI discourse – the idea that we are all passengers on a journey to a particular destination for humanity already charted by AI’s optimising mechanisms. Each time this fairy tale gets punctured by sober and careful thinking, it reinflates itself, because technological determinism is a political force, not just a random error. The idea that things are inevitable serves certain people’s interests – whether consciously or unconsciously, people who are very much benefiting from our present trajectory are inclined to make sure no one else thinks to grab the wheel.

I was reminded of this when I read an interview with Daniel Kahneman recently in the Guardian, in which he explains that AI is undoubtedly going to win the war with humans and that it will be interesting to see how people adapt. Daniel Kahneman is a widely respected economist, and many people will take him at his word. But if we say, ‘AI is going to win,’ what we are really saying is that certain humans – because AI is constituted by a particular network of human agents and choices – are going to win a war against other humans.

Understanding that Kahneman’s proposition glosses this perpetuation of human inequalities invites a number of questions. Who declared this war? Who is being conscripted to fight it, and who is supplying the arms? What do the winners stand to win? And why is war an acceptable frame in the first place? We need to have the intellectual resources to challenge these kinds of assumptions. You find them in the arts and humanities.

The desire to keep an ahistorical frame around AI ethics, to think of AI only in the context of what is new and ahead, is also serving a political purpose, and a very regressive one. History teaches us of patterns and dynamics that are still acting on us today, and that continue to shape choices being made about the use of new technologies. You can’t see AI tools like pervasive facial recognition and predictive policing as retracing extractive and repressive colonialist practices if you only look forward.

Thus scholars in the humanities and social sciences are needed to challenge and redraw framings of technology that are dangerously ahistorical. For example, the 2020 documentary, The Social Dilemma, was watched by people all over the world, and major media outlets framed it as the real story of our ethical challenges with technology. In the film, Tristan Harris tells us that AI and social media are radically new forces, unlike mere neutral ‘tools’ of the past that posed no deep threat to human values. After all, he reminds us, ‘No-one got upset when bicycles showed up… If everyone’s starting to go around on bicycles, no-one said, “Oh my God, we’ve just ruined society!”’

When I first heard that, what flashed in my mind was the Star Wars scene when Obi-Wan Kenobi suddenly senses, from the other side of the galaxy, the instantaneous destruction of Alderaan: ‘I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if a million voices suddenly cried out….’ When Tristan Harris talked about bicycles, I couldn’t help but imagine that every historian and science and technology studies (STS) scholar in the world suddenly shuddered in horror without knowing why.

Of course people got upset about bicycles. There have been whole books written about the profound social and political and moral worries that people had about bicycles, automobiles, crossbows, books, you name it. There’s a rich history that can tell us a great deal about what is happening to us today, that is being deliberately walled off from the conversation about AI and other technologies. And it’s vital that we bring those walls down, so that our historical and moral and political knowledge can flow back into our thinking about technology.

As Tasioulas points out, technology is not neutral. Technologies are ways of building human values into the world. There is an implicit ethics in technology, always. And what we need to do is to be able to make that implicit ethics explicit, so that we can collectively examine and question it, so that we can determine where it is justified, where it actually serves the ends of human flourishing and justice and where it does not. But as long as the implicit ethics of technology is allowed to remain hidden, we will be powerless to change it and embed a more sustainable and equitable ethic into the way the built world is conceived.

The arts and humanities are vital to recovering that possibility, and ethics is a part of that. The idea promoted by some AI critics like Kate Crawford, that ethics isn’t helpful because it doesn’t talk about power and justice is, as Tasioulas says, an indication that we’ve let the popular understanding of ethics get stripped for parts. Western philosophy begins with Plato talking about justice and power, and who gets to define these, and how ethics help us to think critically about them. Similar concerns appear in other classical traditions, such as Confucian ethics, where the question of which family and governmental uses of power are morally legitimate is constantly asked.

Today we have a whole moral and political discourse in philosophy from people like Charles Mills and Elizabeth Anderson in conversation with the Rawlsian liberal tradition, challenging its limits. And philosophers like Tommie Shelby saying that the Rawlsian tradition is still vital, and that we can use it to address some of these systemic injustices and power asymmetries.

So in fact, there is a full and vital conversation going on that’s part of ethics in the humanities, that’s not remotely politically denatured. The fact that it’s not often present in the AI ethics discourse is not a reason to have less ethics in the discourse, it’s a reason to have richer contributions from the humanities brought in.

Beyond history and philosophy, we also need to revitalise AI with the arts and other sources of humane imagination. When I worked in Silicon Valley, I would often run into people at tech events who shared my love of science fiction. We would have these conversations about what we were reading, and then I would find that they mentioned the same five books – always the same five books. Most of them were really good books! But the lack of breadth was rather stunning. Science fiction, and literature more broadly, gives us so many different visions of possible worlds and futures with technology that a lot of those folks had never heard of. Most had never read Ursula Le Guin. Many didn’t realise that the tradition of science fiction predates Asimov. So I want to argue for the importance of bringing literature and the arts as a new source of moral, political and technological imagination.

Right now the technological imagination is sterile. It’s been breathing its own air for way too long. Start-ups chasing venture capital are stuck in a fixed groove of making apps that replace public infrastructure with something more costly and hackable. ‘How can we reinvent the bus? Or taxes?’ Or, worse, ‘How can we rehabilitate phrenology and physiognomy in AI form?’

There are so many better, morally and scientifically sound things that we can do with technology that aren’t being envisioned. Sometimes that’s because no one can get rich quick from them, but sometimes it’s because we are not feeding the moral and historical and political and artistic imaginations of those pursuing advanced scientific and technical education.

The arts and humanities can take us beyond sterile, impoverished visions of futures that have all the friction ground away and polished out of our actions and decisions; futures where there is nothing to contest or challenge, only the confident following of optimal paths, pre-defined and seamlessly adopted.

Maybe this is the future some of us want, and think would be best! But at the very least we need alternative visions in play before we decide together what progress looks like. We need to be able to contest dominant visions of progress, and worship of innovation for its own sake, as if novelty is in itself good (COVID-19 is novel, is that enough to make it good?).

And what if, instead of creating a new tool that doesn’t meet human needs as well as what we had before, progress sometimes means repairing what used to be and is no longer? The values of care, mending, maintenance and restoration – sustainable values long cherished in the history of craft and mechanical arts – are also wholly written out of the current technological imagination. The arts and humanities can help us reclaim them.

There is no future for humanity without technology, and there’s no reason to think that AI can’t be a part of a human future that is more sustainable and just than the future we are passively hurtling toward. Good – or at least better – futures are still possible. But to find our way to them will require rebuilding today’s technological imagination, and infusing it with the full legacy of humane knowledge and creative vision.

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Collaborative research in predictive biomarkers

Collaborative research in predictive biomarkers

A new collaboration between clinician-scientists at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Inflammation Research and pioneering biotechnology company Genentech is bringing its combined expertise to bear on discovering predictive biomarkers for chronic liver disease progression.

Liver disease is on the rise. The British Liver Trust reports that since 1970 the number of deaths caused by liver disease in the UK has increased by 400%. Despite this alarming escalation, there is currently no way of predicting, from a clinical perspective, which patients will go on to develop complications or deteriorate at a faster rate. To improve patients’ prognosis, it is vital that predictive biomarkers are discovered to inform clinicians of their patient’s likely course and empower them to act before a patient deteriorates.


An informal chat at a conference between clinician-scientist Dr Prakash Ramachandran and a Genentech scientist quickly developed into a collaboration when the two parties discovered their shared ambition of improving the risk stratification of patients with chronic liver disease (cirrhosis).

Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, is a founder of the biotechnology industry, using the power of genetic engineering and advanced technologies to develop medicines for people with serious and life-threatening diseases. In its quest to predict cirrhosis progression, the company needs access to blood, plasma and other samples from a cohort of 100 carefully selected early-stage cirrhosis patients. The thriving scientific-clinical interface at the University of Edinburgh’s Medical School means that the research team of clinician-scientists, Dr Ramachandran and his co-investigator Professor Jonathan Fallowfield, have the depth of clinical experience required to identify the ideal participants for the study; the clinical network that will facilitate access to these patients and their anonymised data; and the scientific expertise to conduct detailed phenotypic analysis on the clinical samples before they are sent on to Genentech for further testing. The research team’s work will be aided by the University’s suite of world-class facilities, such as flow and genomic cytometry and the single-cell analysis facilities within the Centre for Regenerative Medicine.

Safe hands

When initial discussions between Dr Ramachandran and Genentech scientist Thiru Ramalingam indicated that a genuine collaboration was possible, the research team knew who to call on for advice and support. Both research partners have worked with Edinburgh Innovations’ Business Development Manager Susan Bodie on previous projects and they trusted her expertise. As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, Susan was able to offer reassurance and shepherd both the industry and academic partners through the legal and logistical complexities at a time of unprecedented upheaval, helping with everything from the initial proposal and costings through to negotiating the collaboration agreement and finalising the project’s finer details.

Predicting Success

As the world moves back into gear the research team at the University of Edinburgh is ready. They will first hire the clinical research fellow who will be a key player in the project’s progress, before beginning the meticulous selection process for their cohort. An exciting three-year collaboration now begins, and a means of protecting patients from the ravages of progressed liver cirrhosis is on the horizon.


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Discover more about the University of Edinburgh’s therapeutic discovery capability at Bench to Bedside — Edinburgh Innovations

Investing in innovation, from bench to bedside

Investing in innovation, from bench to bedside

At the forefront of research to develop gene therapy treatment for Rett syndrome is the University of Edinburgh’s Dr. Stuart Cobb, his team and their partnership with Neurogene.

Neurogene began working with Dr. Stuart Cobb shortly after its inception in early 2018. Interested in collaborating with the University of Edinburgh to incorporate innovation into the organisation, CEO and Founder of Neurogene, Rachel McMinn reached out to Dr. Cobb, Professor in Neuroscience at the University.

Following a visit to Edinburgh, their partnership to find a gene therapy for Rett syndrome – a genetic neurological disorder – began.

Creating new gene therapy technologies

After realising that more ‘conventional’ therapies were unlikely to meaningfully improve the lives of people with Rett syndrome, Dr. Cobb, his research team and Neurogene focused on finding innovative and alternative gene therapies for the disorder. The team is working to do this by creating new technologies that will provide a more precise, safe and effective gene therapy for the disorder.

A shared purpose and mission

There is great alignment between Neurogene and the University. They both recognise the importance of collaboration, innovation and the impact of their work. They both share a sense of urgency when it comes to finding solutions for treating a complex disorder like Rett syndrome. And they both appreciate the impact an effective treatment could have on the lives of patients and their families – it is this that motivates the team to constantly innovate and test ideas.

Edinburgh Innovations’ ongoing support

Neurogene is collaborating with the University and Edinburgh Innovations (EI) on more than one research project. Despite some disruption at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the collaboration has successfully continued, and Neurogene and EI have worked effectively together to uphold a robust and productive scientific exchange.

From a business standpoint, EI have been paramount to progress and success so far. Their legal and business support allows the researchers and Neurogene to focus on what they do best – developing life-changing treatments for people living with Rett syndrome.

Success founded in innovation

So far, Dr. Cobb’s team have successfully developed a technology which allows the disruptive gene that causes Rett syndrome to be replaced with a healthy copy. This technology delivers gene therapy to the cells that need replacing with more precision than any standard gene therapy. Such early progress means the team will likely be able to develop treatments with the potential to transform patients’ lives, and they hope to be able to take these treatments to clinical trials.

Neurogene’s investment in gene therapy innovation and technology has opened up an incredible world of possibility for Dr. Cobb and his team, and has the capacity to go on to impact the field as a whole.

“We really value our collaboration with Edinburgh Innovations and the University, and believe that we are all working with a fundamental belief that investing in innovation is critical to successfully developing meaningful treatments for complex diseases like Rett syndrome.”

– Rachel McMinn, PhD CEO and Founder, Neurogene


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Discover more about the University of Edinburgh’s therapeutic discovery capability at Bench to Bedside — Edinburgh Innovations

Bench to bedside: with industry all the way

Bench to bedside: with industry all the way

Collaborations with pharmaceutical companies not only facilitate the transition of a scientific discovery from bench to bedside, but as the University of Edinburgh’s Dr Veronique Miron discovered, can also contribute to career development as a researcher.

Veronique is a translational research leader in the field of central nervous system regeneration. Her team focuses on identifying new therapeutic targets for neurological diseases in which the insulation surrounding nerve fibres, termed myelin, is damaged – causing nerve dysfunction and problems with movement, sensation and intellect.

Such disorders include multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, for which there are no approved treatments to repair the damaged myelin. By taking an unconventional route of harnessing the regenerative properties of immune cells, Veronique’s work has attracted the interest of several pharmaceutical companies looking to meet the therapeutic need for regenerative drugs for neurodegenerative disease.

Working with pharma from the start

Her collaborative journey began when Veronique was a PhD student at McGill University in Canada, where she discovered the regenerative impact of a drug made by Novartis, which was originally aimed at the immune system.

Working with Novartis led to numerous impactful first and co-author publications, allowed Veronique to garner interest in her work at international conferences, and created long-standing networks within both industry and academia.

To the UK, Biogen and MRC award

Moving to the UK to carry out a postdoctoral fellowship, Veronique had the opportunity to develop a project with Biogen to identify regenerative factors released by immune cells within the central nervous system.

Forging this relationship not only led to development of new protocols to isolate and sequence small numbers of immune cells from the injured brain, but also provided funding to bridge her salary between her postdoctoral position and first faculty position. The funds gave Veronique the opportunity to generate the key preliminary data needed to land a prestigious Career Development Award from the MRC, through which she launched her independent research programme.

Prize-winning research

Having established her group, Veronique then liaised with GSK through a joint PhD studentship to investigate what regulates the transition from a potentially damaging central nervous system immune cell to a regenerative one. Veronique and the team discovered that death of immune cells is a surprising but important pathway for therapeutic targeting. In addition, through this collaboration, the student involved was able to engage with GSK researchers and generate a high impact first author publication, which led to a national prize for best paper on neurodegeneration.

By then setting up novel models and platforms for drug testing, Veronique subsequently attracted consultancy contracts which helped bridge salaries for research assistants, allowing the group to maintain its momentum.

Mentor and adviser

These interactions with the pharmaceutical industry have not only facilitated the translatability of the lab’s research, but have also contributed to Veronique’s continued development as a leader and mentor. She advises major funders and pharmaceutical companies on strategic direction in neuro-immunology, and leverages her networks to support trainees interested in transitioning to industry.

Interaction with pharmaceutical companies has been an integral part of Veronique’s research success, and importantly has led to target discoveries that may lead to new drug development for neurological disease.

Related Links

Discover more about the University of Edinburgh’s therapeutic discovery capability at Bench to Bedside — Edinburgh Innovations

Collaboration, Diversity and Impact from Bench to Bedside

Collaboration, Diversity and Impact from Bench to Bedside

Dr Emily Sena from the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh discusses her research and how collaborating with industry brings a diversity of perspectives.

I have been an academic for the past 15 or so years, and I really enjoy what I do. My research is about what makes studies using preclinical models of human diseases rigorous and valid, and understanding the critical facets of translating findings in these models to humans in a clinical setting.

The campaign ‘Bench to Bedside’ aims to demonstrate exactly this: the expertise, track record and facilities at the University of Edinburgh that enable us to translate our research into impact.

In addition to being a neuroscientist, I describe myself as a meta-research scientist and I use systematic review and other meta-approaches in my work.

Colleagues that know me well, know that I consider collaboration as key to both successful and interesting research projects. My first publication, in 2007 as a PhD student, was a study in collaboration with colleagues based in London, Argentina and Birmingham, and it landed me a paper in the BMJ. This was the type of research I liked to do: I had the opportunity to bring my skillset to the table but also learnt a lot from some very smart scientists.

I have been fortunate that in my relatively young career, although no longer an Early Career Researcher, some of my work has already had recognised impact. It has informed laboratory practice guidelines, reporting guidelines for animal research and also editorial policy. I suspect, for many of us, articulating, capturing and evaluating our research impact can feel a little gruelling but it is hugely satisfying and clearly important. I have to admit that these more “academic impacts” felt more within my wheelhouse; and I didn’t fully acknowledge how my research could be of interest to industry.

Inevitably, collaboration with industry colleagues came. This has been in different guises but it all speaks to the ongoing impact and the greater reach of my central aim to improve translational research. My most substantial industry collaboration has been my role in a European IMI project, European Quality In Preclinical Data (EQIPD), where I led the “historical data analysis” work package. The purpose of the project was to investigate the sources of variation on research findings, within and between partners, to guide how we may design robust experiments going forward.

This project opened my eyes to the different approaches to working and the different drivers, particularly between academics and industry, even when conducting the same experiment. But more importantly, we shattered some preconceived notions about the quality of research each type of partner conducted. It also allowed me to forge connections and exert some of my experience and expertise related to rigorous experimental design across the consortium.

One of our industry partners states that their work with us has changed their internal research procedures, that they have a greater focus on rigour and experimental design and that our collaboration not only alerted them to the issues but informed them of how best to address them. This for me was some tangible and novel impact. Even more excitingly, we are now scoping options to co-supervise a research fellow (read “get the project funded”) to take this work even further, make sure that what we do is applicable to multiple stakeholders and maximise our impact.

Ultimately we have similar goals, to ensure that laboratory models better inform us of human disease and lead to effective interventions. Diversity in the perspectives of those you bring to the table to include all key stakeholders and effective collaboration seems, to me at least, a pretty good strategy.


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Dr Emily Sena

Bench to bedside: from targets to treatments

Bench to bedside: from targets to treatments

The University of Edinburgh’s Professor Neil Henderson is leading research – in collaboration with two major pharmaceutical companies – to develop therapies that improve prognosis for people living with liver disease.

Drawn by his reputation, publication record and specialised areas of research, two major pharmaceutical companies approached the University of Edinburgh’s Professor Neil Henderson, Chair of Tissue Repair and Regeneration, to lead several research projects. These projects would identify better targets for liver disease therapies, and positively impact the health and livelihoods of people diagnosed with liver disease.

Developing therapies for liver disease

Both pharmaceutical companies are looking to find therapeutic, rather than surgical, treatments for liver diseases. Each beginning in early 2020, the first collaboration looks at using single-cell approaches to examine the prevalent liver diseases, Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), and the second project focuses solely on NASH, for which there are no effective treatments.

The projects intend to identify relevant and novel anti-fibrotic targets and develop medications to stop, or even reverse, liver scarring. Achieving this would mean that clinicians could arrest, and potentially even reverse, liver disease before it becomes end-stage – greatly increasing the quality of life and lifespan of patients living with liver disease.

Two, true research and industry collaborations

These industry collaborations are a natural fit for Professor Henderson. They resonate with his own academic expertise and research ambitions. Both pharmaceutical companies are very pleased with progress, Neil’s team has maintained momentum and continued to meet milestones despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

The support from both companies is invaluable to the research, progress and development – enabling Neil’s team to double in size to 20, and establishing Neil as a leading expert in this area. These companies are also very keen to embrace technology, which, in such a fast moving industry and field, means Neil and his team are able to quickly integrate new technologies and optimise the outcomes of their research.

Pushing science forward from all sides

The research team, industry partners and Edinburgh Innovations (EI) are working hand in hand to push the science forward from all sides. EI have supported these projects from their inception – from negotiating and securing the agreements of over $2 million each, liaising with the industry partners and legal teams, and ensuring the research team has what they need to deliver the project.

Promising discoveries

So far, the research teams have seen several successes. Not only have they identified new subtypes of scar-forming cells in human liver disease, but they have also built up rich datasets to underpin these findings.

There will also be joint publications arising from each collaboration, further helping to raise the profile of this impactful and cutting-edge work within the liver community, and crucially, will form the foundation for future research projects that will benefit people living with liver disease across the world.

“Edinburgh Innovations’ support has been fundamental to the success of these collaborative projects with major pharmaceutical companies. They have been an excellent source of advice and support throughout this process, and have played a major part in helping set up these large scale collaborations with industrial partners.”

Professor Neil Henderson, University of Edinburgh

Related Links

Discover more about the University of Edinburgh’s therapeutic discovery capability at Bench to Bedside — Edinburgh Innovations