Institute for Ethics in AI Seminar - 'Barbies: Goods That People Buy But Wish Did Not Exist'

Cass Sunstein
Institute for Ethics in AI Seminar - 'Barbies: Goods That People Buy But Wish Did Not Exist'

The recording is available to watch from the Institute's YouTube channel.

Abstract: People buy and use some goods, including social media platforms, that they do not enjoy and wish did not exist. They might even be willing to pay a great deal for such goods, whether the currency involves time or money. One reason involves signalling to others; so long as the good exists, nonconsumption might give an unwanted signal to friends or colleagues. Another reason involves self-signalling; so long as the good exists, nonconsumption might give an unwanted signal to an agent about himself or herself. Yet another reason involves a combination of network effects and status competition; nonconsumption might deprive people of the benefits of participating in a network, and thus cause them to lose relative position. These are rapidly growing problems in an age of AI. Efforts to measure people’s willingness to pay for goods of this kind will suggest a welfare gain, and possibly a substantial one, even though the existence of such goods produces a welfare loss, and possibly a substantial one. Legal responses might take the form of nudges, norm changes, taxes, subsidies, mandates, and bans.

The Institute for Ethics in AI will bring together world-leading philosophers and other experts in the humanities with the technical developers and users of AI in academia, business and government. The ethics and governance of AI is an exceptionally vibrant area of research at Oxford and the Institute is an opportunity to take a bold leap forward from this platform.

Every day brings more examples of the ethical challenges posed by AI; from face recognition to voter profiling, brain machine interfaces to weaponised drones, and the ongoing discourse about how AI will impact employment on a global scale. This is urgent and important work that we intend to promote internationally as well as embedding in our own research and teaching here at Oxford.


Prof. Cass Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein is currently the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. He is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioural Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School. In 2018, he received the Holberg Prize from the government of Norway, sometimes described as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for law and the humanities. In 2020, the World Health Organization appointed him as Chair of its technical advisory group on Behavioural Insights and Sciences for Health. From 2009 to 2012, he was Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and after that, he served on the President’s Review Board on Intelligence and Communications Technologies and on the Pentagon’s Defence Innovation Board. Mr. Sunstein has testified before congressional committees on many subjects, and he has advised officials at the United Nations, the European Commission, the World Bank, and many nations on issues of law and public policy. He serves as an adviser to the Behavioural Insights Team in the United Kingdom.

Professor Sunstein is author of hundreds of articles and dozens of books, including Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler, 2008), Simpler: The Future of Government (2013), The Ethics of Influence (2015), #Republic (2017), Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide (2017), The Cost-Benefit Revolution (2018), On Freedom (2019), Conformity (2019), How Change Happens (2019), and Too Much Information (2020). He is now working on a variety of projects involving the regulatory state, “sludge” (defined to include paperwork and similar burdens), fake news, and freedom of speech.

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Professor John Tasioulas

Professor John Tasioulas, the inaugural Director for the Institute for Ethics and AI, and Professor of Ethics and Legal Philosophy, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford. He was previously the inaugural Chair of Politics, Philosophy & Law and Director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy & Law at The Dickson Poon School of Law, Kings College London. Professor Tasioulas has degrees in Law and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a D.Phil in Philosophy from the University of Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. He was previously a Lecturer in Jurisprudence at the University of Glasgow, Reader in Moral and Legal Philosophy at the University of Oxford, where he taught from 1998-2010, and Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at University College London. He has also acted as a consultant on human rights for the World Bank and is a member of the International Advisory Board of the European Parliament's Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA). He has published widely in moral, legal, and political philosophy.