Practical ethics projects tackle robotics, autonomous vehicles, humanitarian disasters

Seven teams awarded grants by Berman Institute of Bioethics will present their research during symposium Wednesday on JHU's Homewood campus

For almost a quarter-century, Johns Hopkins University's Berman Institute of Bioethics has led national and international efforts to make sense of and find answers to new ethical issues arising from rapid gains in health care, public health, and the biomedical sciences.

But advances in science and technology increasingly touch impact aspects of our lives that go far beyond bioethics' traditional purview. In response, Berman Institute scholars and their colleagues across the university have begun exploring contemporary ethical issues that cross academic disciplinary lines and take place in a wide range of real-world circumstances. To support these efforts, Johns Hopkins created the Exploration of Practical Ethics program, which provides grants for faculty to undertake research in interdisciplinary fields of ethics.

The program awarded nine grants in 2016 to projects examining issues relating to criminal justice, higher education, economics, and environmentalism, among others. Last year, the program held another competitive call for applications and disbursed $350,000 to seven new cross-disciplinary projects.

The faculty selected for the 2017-18 round of Practical Ethics grants will present their work at a symposium on Wednesday, Nov. 14, at 2 p.m. in the Glass Pavilion on the university's Homewood campus. All members of the university community are welcome to attend.

This year's projects are:

Ethical Robotics: Implementing Value-Driven Behavior in Autonomous Systems

In 1942, Isaac Asimov stipulated his Three Laws of Robotics to govern robot behavior. Implementing such laws requires an actionable value system that can be analyzed, judged, and modified by humans, especially because robots will likely soon pervade our daily lives as surrogates, assistants, and companions.

As robots are granted greater autonomy, it's imperative that they are endowed with ethical reasoning commensurate with their ability to both benefit and harm humanity. The project, led by ethics and robotics experts from the Berman Institute and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, aims to develop an ethical framework for robots, implement the framework by extending existing robot capabilities, and assess the framework's impact on robot behavior.

The team will use APL's Robo Sally, a hyper-dexterous robot with Modular Prosthetic Limbs and human-like manipulation capabilities, to derive design guidelines and best practices to implement practical ethics in next-generation robotic systems.

Are We Asking the Right Questions about the Ethics of Autonomous Vehicle Testing?

The current development of autonomous vehicles promises a future of effortless mobility. But what if there are unanticipated, negative consequences? A wait-and-see approach is irresponsible in the realm of AVs, especially because some consequences can be irreversible.

A team of investigators from the Berman Institute, the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Injury Research and Policy, and the Whiting School of Engineering's Department of Civil Engineering will examine pathways of testing and deployment of AVs that could lead to widening disparities and a declining quality of life for certain segments of society. The team began with a systematic exploration of possible negative outcomes and engaged multiple stakeholders, including those who may be most impacted by these outcomes, then developed recommendations for the sponsors and implementers of AV trials and testing programs that would enable stakeholders to voice their concerns and influence the design of these trials.

Housing Our Story: Towards Archival Justice for Black Baltimore

"Housing Our Story" engages in the practical ethics of building an archive about African-American staff and contract workers at Johns Hopkins University. Even with many librarians making new commitments to diversity and social responsibility, few have considered the ethical imperatives raised by structural racism, archival silences, and failed efforts to resist erasure on the part of marginal populations. In practice, archivists may unintentionally institutionalize the choices of the powerful, because they and their benefactors, with their own biases, determine what belongs in special collections, where to locate archives, how to organize them, and even what counts as an archival source. Their choices may ultimately result in silences that, not infrequently, infringe on black people's ability to form social memory and history. This team, made up of researchers from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, aim to redress this problem.

The Law of Unintended Consequences: Will the Implementation of California Senate Bill 27 Impact Animal Health and Well-Being?

This project aims to analyze the ethical trade-offs between California Senate Bill 27, which limits antibiotic uses in food-producing animals to benefit public health, and the potential costs from this legislation in terms of animal health and welfare.

The policy went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, and the team of researchers from the Bloomberg School, the School of Medicine, Kaiser Permanente, and Cal Berkeley leveraged the natural experiment to determine shifts that occur around the time of policy implementation. The team interviewed poultry and dairy farmers and other stakeholders, evaluated animal health and welfare outcomes, and conducted an ethical analysis to examine the trade-offs. To aid in the development of future policies, the team recommends mitigation strategies and has produced ethical checklists as tools for decision-makers.

The Ethics of Preparedness in Humanitarian Disasters

What are the "everyday" ethical issues that affect war-adjacent professionals such as humanitarians, journalists, and scholars on the ground? How do individuals in these fields resolve them?

This team from the School of Advanced International Studies and the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences will examine the training that professionals working adjacent to war receive; how these individuals' understandings of professional conduct interact with local populations' concepts of ethical and moral behavior; and how professionals' protocols and practices subsequently evolve—or do not—in the field.

Focusing on the humanitarian crises that conflicts in Syria and Iraq have produced, this project uses multi-sited, immersive fieldwork with foreign and local professionals in Iraqi Kurdistan and Lesvos, Greece to identify communities of practice, indigenous innovations, and emergent ethical tensions. Subsequent workshops in each field site bring together scholars, practitioners, and community representatives, to identify key ethical issues and discuss potential cross-field policy interventions.

Determining the Number of Refugees to be Resettled in the United States: An Ethical and Human Rights Analysis

Executive Orders by President Donald Trump reduced by half the number of refugees proposed to be admitted in 2017 as compared to the Obama Administration's determination, raising policy and ethical questions about the criteria used to determine the number of refugees admitted to the United States. This project will undertake a literature review related to ethics, human rights, policy, and refugee resettlement; conduct qualitative interviews with key informants; identify relevant ethics and human rights frameworks; and seek to create a framework to help guide decisions on the number of refugees to be resettled. The team plans to seek feedback on its proposals and then publish them and make recommendations to policy-makers and the public based on its analysis.

Conducting Research on Commercially-Owned Online Spaces

People increasingly spend time in online spaces that are created by commercial interests, such as retail websites, brand-specific web pages, and commercially-owned social spaces. It is critical to understand the potential impact of such spaces on the people who enter them and engage in activity there. But online spaces created by commercial entities often restrict, through their terms and conditions, certain types of people for specific purposes, and such restrictions potentially preclude important "real-world" research efforts that promote and protect public health.

This research team from the Whiting School of Engineering, the School of Medicine, and the School of Public Health seek to understand and elucidate right and wrong action in relation to research on consequential, commercially-owned online spaces to which entry for research purposes is currently frequently prohibited.