Dr. Theresa Züger, Head of the AI & Society Lab at HIIG © HIIG

16 March 2020

AI doesn't just expose us to technical questions, it exposes us to social ones.

#ki_berlin has met Theresa Züger, Head of the AI & Society Lab at Humboldt Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft (HIIG) for an interview to talk about the ethical implications of the technology of the future.

Dr. Züger, the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) launched the AI & Society Lab under your lead. What exactly is the Lab working on and what is it supposed to achieve?

The AI & Society Lab sees itself as an interface between science, business, politics, and civil society and works on the social questions that the increasing spread of AI poses to our society, for example: Which regulatory approaches make it possible to guarantee democratic rights in an infrastructure that is increasingly automated? How can AI applications be integrated into infrastructures in a way that is understandable and comprehensible for citizens so that automated decisions can be checked and challenged in case of doubt? 

In different professional communities AI is currently discussed very differently. In the technical community, for example, the issues at stake are quite different from those that concern civil society. In the AI & Society Lab we develop formats that mediate between these perspectives. In our research we want to find answers to how our society can deal with the changes brought about by AI in an informed and self-determined way. 

Is there a research topic that has a special place in the lab? 

One topic that is currently moving us is the question of how to move from an abstract debate about so-called "ethical AI" to the actual implementation of social values in infrastructures and governance processes. I am particularly interested in how AI can be implemented for the common good, which is a much more concrete and socio-political question than how the individual (like AI developers and their institutions) should design "ethical AI" - although I doubt there is a consensus on what exactly that is. AI is becoming so important for the future of our society that we as a society should also have a say in how and for which applications and fields of use AI is used. 

Why was the lab founded and why in Berlin?

At the moment a lot of initiatives and research centres are emerging that deal with AI and that is great. But what is often missing is the interdisciplinary connection to social and political issues. However, AI does not only present us with technical questions, but also with social ones. At the HIIG, it is exactly this connection that interests us and it was important to us to give these questions a central point of contact, because up to now, the scientific discussion of social questions about AI has been rather sporadic and depends partly on the initiative of individuals in the research landscape. Berlin is the ideal location for this, as it is here that the political discussions on AI find resonance and are promoted. The long-term goal of the AI & Society Lab is to become a thought leader for an inclusive and sustainable AI strategy in Europe, which is explicitly committed to human rights and the common good. 

What is special about the AI & Society Lab? 

The special thing is that we take the Lab idea very seriously. Research in the field of AI must not only work on new thematic questions, but also find new ways of knowledge transfer and interdisciplinary exchange. This requires a spirit of experimentation and creativity, which we bring together in the Lab. Above all, it is also important for us to conduct research in a particularly practical and application-oriented manner in exchange with partners from politics, business and civil society. We already experience it as a great enrichment to reflect the different perspectives on AI and our society in this exchange. 

What is the significance of the AI & Society Lab for the AI scene in Berlin?

In principle, the AI & Society Lab can be a partner for every organization that has something to do with AI in Berlin, be it a start-up, an established foundation, a technical research institution, a tech company or a civil society organization. What is decisive is that a common socially relevant issue and research question is found that is exciting for both. A special format for research cooperations are our so-called Pop-Up Labs, in which an interdisciplinary research team accompanies a partner on site and pursues a practice-oriented research question in close exchange. In addition, we will organize a number of exciting events within the framework of the Lab, some of which will be open to the public, but some of which will also be aimed specifically at important stakeholders in the field of AI in Berlin and the political environment.