“My trap is that I find too many things interesting”

“My trap is that I find too many things interesting”

Opening Academic Year 2021: Hustinx Prize for computer ethicist Katleen Gabriels


Can you teach a robot standards and values? And, will artificial intelligence help us in the future to make ethical choices? These are questions that moral philosopher Katleen Gabriels (1983) deals with on a daily basis. During the opening ceremony of the academic year, she received the Edmond Hustinx Prize 2021, which also includes an amount of fifteen thousand euro, for her research.

Gabriels heard last July that she would receive the prize. It was a welcome surprise after a tough COVID-19 year, says the Flemish philosopher. “It is great to receive a sign of appreciation from my faculty, because it was the faculty that nominated me. Although it does feel a little double: there are a lot of researchers at FASoS who work very hard. So, you do need to have some luck on your side.”

The jury emphasised, among others, the “important social impact” of Gabriels’ research. This impact consists to a large extent of raising awareness. In a world where we are increasingly surrounded by computers and artificial intelligence, Gabriels sees that there are still many misconceptions regarding technology. “Many people think that computers are objective, but that is certainly not always the case. The standards and values of the people who develop the technology can –consciously or not – be incorporated in the design. A painful example is the Dutch subsidy debacle.” In this case, in which thousands of parents were unjustly classified by the tax office as frauds, an algorithm determined whether someone who had applied for a subsidy constituted a risk. “This algorithm appeared to be more alert where it concerned people with dual nationality or a name that sounded exotic.”

Parish priest

This philosopher reckons that discussions concerning computer ethics should not be held within the walls of academia. She regularly appears in the media and has written two books for a wider audience: “To provide resistance to the rhetoric of technology companies or politicians who are badly informed or uncritical.”

Not that she minds doing that. On the contrary, Gabriels actually wanted to become a journalist. The fact that she ultimately ended up in research, is pure coincidence. “When I did my master’s of Moral Philosophy, the online environment Second Life was very popular. People ventured there as avatars in a virtual world in which they could be who they wanted to be. So, for me the question arose: who do you become then? What determines the standards and values of such a world? It intrigued me so much that I decided to write my master’s thesis on the subject.” When some time later a PhD position became available at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel on the exact same subject, the unexpected opportunity won from the ambitions of becoming a journalist. “Maybe that is the nicest: when you roll into something without any expectations, everything is a surprise.”

In addition to taking part in the public debate, Gabriels also believes that it is important to teach ethics to technology developers. One of the reasons for her to move to Maastricht University in 2019, was because programmes at Dutch universities paid more attention to technology ethics than the Flemish universities. “Of course, when I am standing there pontificating as an ethicist, future engineers will at times think: ‘There goes our parish priest again’. But fortunately, there are a lot of designers who themselves see the importance of teaching ethics.”

Revenge pornography

As an example, she mentions Tony Fadell, one of the designers of the iPhone, who is arguing for a type of Hippocratic oath for developers, in which they swear to cause no damage to society. “I am especially charmed by the fact that developers came up with this themselves,” says Gabriels. “That makes my work somewhat easier. But just an oath is not enough. We also need adequate policies from government, and unfortunately that is where there are still a lot of obstacles.”

She doesn’t know yet what she is going to do with the prize money of fifteen thousand euro. “But it will definitely go into research.” Which in her case doesn’t say very much, because she is busy with many subjects at the same time. For example, she has just submitted an article about the “purely future-oriented” question whether artificial intelligence can become a moral mentor for humans, she recently completed a report on the effects of revenge pornography, as well as research into how current technology influences the bond between children and parents. “We have never lived in a society that has been so governed by technology. And wherever morality and technology meet, new questions arise. I find practically all of them fascinating. Although that could also be my trap: maybe, I find too many things interesting. I never have enough hours.”

The Edmond Hustinx Prize for research is intended to “underscore the meaning of science for society” and to accentuate the importance of Maastricht University for Limburg. The prize – 15,000 euro – goes to a different faculty every year.

The winner of last year’s Hustinx Prize – statistician Laure Wynants - was honoured as well during the Opening Academic Year. She received the prize for her research on prediction models for COVID-19. The ceremony was however postponed due to – indeed – the COVID-19 measures at the time. Earlier this year, Observant interviewed Wynants about winning the Hustinx Prize.