Carnegie Mellon University
PhD_Dissertation-WIDDER.pdf (2.08 MB)
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Ethics down the AI supply chain: playing with power

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posted on 2023-08-22, 20:49 authored by David WidderDavid Widder

Discussions of ethical issues in Artificial Intelligence have moved from the realm of science fiction and academic debate and into headlines and broad public discussion. Researchers, company leaders, and politicians have ideas about what “Ethical AI” should look like. However, too rarely do these ideas take into account the working realities of the engineers building these systems, to whom ethics work is often relegated. 

I conduct qualitative studies of an open source community building a deepfake tool; engineers working across disjointed AI supply chains; practitioners who develop and seek to raise ethical concerns about what they create; and teams discussing AI ethics in a game context. Based on this, my dissertation shows how organizational norms, incentives, and boundaries limit software creators’ sense of responsibility and agency over the downstream impact of what they create, and examines the possibilities and shortfalls of play as a way to expand these limits. I find that limited conceptions of and authority in their roles, limited visibility into downstream uses, time pressures, licensing constructs, and other reasons often mean engineers do not feel responsible for–or power to do–ethics work. I conclude by discussing how future tech ethics research, practice, education, and policy can better consider the sense of responsibility and power of those asked to do ethics work in technology. 




Degree Type

  • Dissertation


  • Software and Societal Systems (S3D)

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Laura Dabbish, James Herbsleb