Explorations of human and non-human agency


AI & Agency Across Domains


In July of 2019, at the AI Summer Institute in Edmonton, Canada (co-organized by CIFAR, AMII, and 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

Contributers & Participants

Sarah Newman

Senior Researcher, Principal at metaLAB at Harvard

Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

Abeba Birhane

PhD Candidate, School of Computer Science, University College Dublin

Mike Zajko

Assistant Professor, Department of History and Sociology, University of British Columbia

Osonde Osoba

Information scientist, RAND Corporation

Professor, Pardee RAND Graduate School

Carina Prunkl

Senior Research Scholar, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford

Gabriel Lima

Computer science undergraduate student, KAIST, South Korea

Jon Bowen

PhD student in Philosophy, Western University

Rich Sutton

Research scientist, DeepMind, Edmonton

Professor, Department of Computing Science, University of Alberta

Cathy Adams

Professor, Department of Secondary Education

Vargo Teaching Chair, University of Alberta


For more information about this work, reach out to Sarah Newman