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Open Access Publications from the University of California

AI & Agency

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In July of 2019, at the Summer Institute on AI and Society in Edmonton, Canada (co-sponsored by CIFAR and the AI Pulse Project of UCLA Law), scholars from across disciplines came together in an intensive workshop. For the second half of the workshop, the cohort split into smaller working groups to delve into specific topics related to AI and Society.

I proposed deeper exploration on the topic of “agency,” which is defined differently across domains and cultures, and relates to many of the topics of discussion in AI ethics, including responsibility and accountability. It is also the subject of an ongoing art and research project I’m producing. As a group, we looked at definitions of agency across fields, found paradoxes and incongruities, shared our own questions, and produced a visual map of the conceptual space. We decided that our disparate perspectives were better articulated through a collection of short written pieces, presented as a set, rather than a singular essay on the topic. The outputs of this work are shared here.

This set of essays, many of which are framed as provocations, suggests that there remain many open questions, and inconsistent assumptions on the topic. Many of the writings include more questions than answers, encouraging readers to revisit their own beliefs about agency. As we further develop AI systems, and refer to humans and non-humans as “agents”– we will benefit from a better understanding of what we mean when we call something an “agent” or claim that an action involves “agency.” This work is under development and many of us will continue to explore this in our ongoing AI work. 

– Sarah Newman, Project Lead, August 2019

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