Yale Faculty of Arts and Sciences

As artificial intelligence and other digital advancements continue to transform Yale’s classrooms, university thinkers are beginning to explore how these technologies will shape society at large.

Yale’s new Digital Ethics Center, founded this year by Italian philosopher Luciano Floridi, seeks to research the societal impact of modern digital innovations. The Center’s aim is to “identify and enhance the benefits of digital innovation while mitigating their risks and shortcomings,” per its website.

“The Digital Ethics Center will serve as an intellectual hub for scholars and practitioners who engage with these issues from a wide range of perspectives, enabling Yale to pursue new approaches to the pressing question of how digital technology will shape the future of humanity,” Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler wrote to the News.

Floridi, considered one of the leading scholars of the “Digital Revolution,” was previously a professor of philosophy and ethics of information at the University of Oxford. 

He contextualized the need for the Center’s research by describing the current period as one of “historical transformation,” of equal significance to the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

“The magnitude of this digital revolution is on par with those major events that have changed human history,” he said. “There’s so much to be done … we can influence legislation, business strategies, educational courses — both on smaller and larger scales.”

In addition to Floridi, the Center currently consists of a five-person research team, three international fellows and two undergraduate research assistants. 

The Center’s current research projects include the ethical and legal framework surrounding chips for neural interfaces and the national control of digital infrastructure. The primary goal of this interdisciplinary work is “to be a hub of excellence, supporting and synthesizing the diverse range of work ongoing across the University,” said postgraduate researcher Renee Sirbu. 

Additionally, this semester the Center is hosting a weekly workshop series in collaboration with the Jackson School of Global Affairs’ International Security Studies research hub and the Schmidt Program on Artificial Intelligence, Emerging Technologies, and National Power. 

This week’s workshop, “Artificial Intelligence and its Ethical Challenges,” focused on the opportunities and limitations inherent in the societal application of AI. Victoria Lacombe ’24, an attendee at the talk, said that while the implications of this emergent technology are “yet to be addressed by legal structures in an adequate manner,” she was drawn to the workshop series because “Professor Floridi is on the forefront of addressing this gap.” 

According to Edward Wittenstein, lecturer in Global Affairs and executive director of International Security Studies at the Jackson School, the event series has drawn participants from multiple disciplines at the University, ranging from the Jackson School, Yale Law School, the computer science department and Yale College. 

Previous workshops have included “Methodology: How to Develop Ethical Evaluations” and “The Age of Design: Cut and Paste.”

“Professor Floridi’s scholarship provides a useful framework for thinking about potential military and surveillance applications of AI, as well as technological competition in U.S.-China relations,” he added.

The center’s establishment comes amid an ongoing discussion at Yale about the growing influence of generative AI models like ChatGPT, and the fear that student work will soon be indistinguishable from that of AI. 

Although the Poorvu Center has resources dedicated to AI guidance, the University has not issued any sweeping policy regarding the technology, leaving faculty to decide on policies among themselves.

Floridi explained that the Center is looking to advance an understanding of issues in digital technologies before they become too problematic or difficult to solve. He used the dentist as a metaphor to explain the Center’s understanding of “success” in their research. 

“Sometimes, I describe myself as the town’s dentist, telling people to floss and brush before it’s too late,” Floridi said. “Sometimes, it’s very painful, leading to the need to abandon an entire business strategy or realize that a piece of legislation is no longer adequate because things have changed too rapidly.”

ChatGPT launched on Nov. 30, 2022.

Ben Raab covers faculty and academics at Yale and writes about the Yale men's basketball team. Originally from New York City, Ben is a sophomore in Pierson college pursuing a double major in history and political science.