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Making the case for artificial intelligence

What risks to society go hand in hand with speed and convenience?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has opened myriad possibilities to make life better—faster, more efficient, cheaper. At the same time, using data and machines to speed things up has also increased the chances of lost human connections, missed steps in deliberation, and over-simplification of life’s messiness.

The Utah Informatics Initiative (UI2) and Tanner Humanities Center are hosting a virtual symposium Sept. 21 and 22 to explore the facets of AI’s role in society.

The University of Utah is uniquely situated as the host for these discussions, said Mike Kirby, UI2 director. The U has a notable cohort of researchers studying informatics, data science and machine learning, while working alongside interdisciplinary partners in the humanities and arts. “That crossover allows us to really dig into the thorny ethical questions raised by technological advances,” Kirby said.

Moshe Vardi

On the first day, keynote speaker Moshe Vardi will talk about “Ethics Washing in AI.” Vardi, director of Rice University’s Initiative on Technology, Culture and Society, says many companies have developed internal ethical standards after several incidents of AI and Machine Learning going wrong: self-driving cars on autopilot crashing, face-recognition software disproportionately targeting dark-skinned people. But those much-touted standards could be superficial, Vardi said.

“Talk is cheap. ‘Ethics washing’ — also called ‘ethics theater’— is the practice of fabricating or exaggerating a company’s interest in equitable AI systems that work for everyone. An example is when a company promotes ‘AI for good’ initiatives with one hand, while selling surveillance tech to governments and corporate customers with the other,” Vardi added.

“I will argue that the ethical lens is too narrow. The real issue is how to deal with technology’s impact on society. Technology is driving the future, but who is doing the steering?”

Vardi will discuss with symposium attendees in a question-and-answer session moderated by Kirby.

On the event’s second day, six U researchers will present their work using, or examining, artificial intelligence:

  • Lisa Swanstrom
  • Trafton Drew
  • Eliane Wiese
  • Aniello De Santo
  • Alan Kuntz
  • Bei Wang

Following the presentations, Vardi, Tanner Humanities Center Director Erika George and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dan Reed will participate in a panel discussion moderated by Professor Valerio Pascucci.

To register for the symposium:

In its third year, the Informatics Initiative was established by Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dan Reed to build on the university’s existing education, research and workforce development strengths in data science. The initiative is funded using annual performance-based funding from the Utah Legislature.

For more information about UI2, visit, or contact Mike Kirby, executive director ( For more information about the Tanner Humanities Center, visit, or contact Director Erika George (