Matthew Dennis is an Assistant Professor in Ethics of Technology in the Philosophy and Ethics Group at TU Eindhoven. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the universities of Warwick and Monash, and has worked as a postdoctoral researcher at TU Delft and TU Eindhoven. In addition to his academic research, he has also worked as a digital ethics consultant for the start-up, Ethical Intelligence.
4TU.Ethics Blog: What are your research interests and what was your motivation to combine your academic interests with an advisory role?
Matthew Dennis: Primarily, I’m a philosopher of technology who is interested in how digital technologies can promote the prudential dimension of human flourishing. I first started working on this topic – known as ‘digital well-being’ in the academic literature – while doing a postdoc at TU Delft on self-care apps.
Self-care app developers make big claims for the effectiveness of their products, especially how they can cultivate well-being, so I wanted to examine these apps from a philosophical perspective to see if the apps do what they claim. These apps are very good at deploying persuasive technologies – gamification for example – to achieve behaviour changes in their users.
The problem with these apps is that the ethical ideals they direct users towards are often limited, unimaginative, and sometimes downright unethical. In general, one thing I enjoy about working in philosophy of technology is that philosophical problems are not approached in the abstract, but appear in an applied context. These kinds of problems are often readily apparent to users of technology, and often ethically, socially, and politically urgent. This is the case with digital well-being technologies and self-care apps.
There are many wonderful things about working in academic philosophy, but I today find ethics of technology especially important because it is relevant to all of us – the effects of digital technologies are currently transforming billions of people’s lives. Philosophers and ethicists who reflect on human flourishing have a unique opportunity here.
Looking back on my academic work, this is always what has excited me about philosophy – the capacity of philosophy to change how we think and feel. One often sees the world differently after one has read Nietzsche or Spinoza, or Foucault, for instance. This can transform one’s experience of life, so having a real impact on developing technologies through one’s philosophical reflection is an interesting challenge. That was what motivated me to think about the possibilities for working in digital ethics consultancy. Taking ethics out into the real world – what could be more ethical than that?
4TU.Ethics Blog: What kind of projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on digital well-being and the future of work. This will build on some of the research I contributed on COVID-19 technologies (Values for a Post-Pandemic Future, 2023). I’ve also worked on several non-academic projects on AI ethics within the banking industry, focusing on algorithmic credit scoring. With other researchers at Ethical Intelligence, I worked with a major UK-based bank.
This company was noticing that discrimination and marginalization was occurring in the credit scoring of non-Anglophone speakers, which was due to the biases in the datasets that were used. The datasets were often incomplete for those speakers who had recently immigrated to the UK, and the algorithm was making unjustified assumptions about the creditworthiness of these customers. We worked with this banking client to redefine the notion of fairness their algorithm used.
Personally speaking, it was incredibly rewarding to see the tools I’ve developed in my postdoctoral work being applied in a real-world setting. I was part of a team that was collaborating with executives in the banking industry and their data scientists. One thing that was heartening was that, although all these people worked in a highly corporate environment, they were all concerned with whether their algorithms are fair.
I think there can be a tendency to characterise everyone working in industry as not caring about ethics (or only doing so from an instrumental point of view), but in the small amount of experience I’ve had in this field at least some people care about ethics. The people I worked with were passionate about the real-world effects of credit-scoring algorithms not working as they should, so overall I had a positive experience. I know this experience is not always shared, however, so anyone going into this field should proceed with caution.
4TU.Ethics Blog: There is a rising number of ethics consultancies. Could you tell us why you chose Ethical Intelligence?
Matthew Dennis: I heard about a digital ethics consultancy start-up based at Edinburgh University in 2019, so I reached out to Olivia (Olivia Gambelin, CEO of Ethical Intelligence). We had a couple of initial meetings in Brussels, and then eventually started working together. I recently invited her to be on a panel for the STEM panel, which is part of the ESDiT consortium, so she could discuss the role and the work of Ethical Intelligence. It’s been wonderful to work with someone so passionate about tech ethics who does not work in academia or at a university.
4TU.Ethics Blog: What are the qualities that are valued in ethics consulting, and do you have any tips for people who consider this as a career?
One step is to realize that much of what we do and how we practice ethics and philosophy today is historically contingent. There have been many forms in which philosophy has been practiced, so writing a paper, a book, or editing a volume are not the only ways that philosophy can be practiced. There is a lot to be said for the paper form and the book form, of course, but there are other ways of engaging in philosophical and ethical reflection that go beyond this – especially if this way of doing philosophy aims to focus on real world problems. Of course, the key thing to constantly bear in mind is one’s ethical integrity, if one moves into the non-academic ethics of technology space. I think I’ve been lucky insofar as the people and companies I’ve partnered with have a genuine concern for ethics, but I guess this is not always the case.