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How MIT Scientist Advanced AI Ethics With Philosophy

Yusuf Balogun
Yusuf Balogun
Yusuf is a law graduate and freelance journalist with a keen interest in tech reporting.

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Matthew Kearney, a computer science and engineering at MIT is bringing AI and philosophy into dialogue by aiming at advancing the field of AI ethics. Kearney intended to major in electrical engineering and computer science, at MIT but after taking Moral Problems and the Good Life – 24.02, he fell in love with philosophy. He is pursuing a master’s in computer science and engineering while concurrently majoring in both.

“The part of philosophy that interests me is thinking about how we want to live our lives as people, what matters to us, what’s valuable to us, and how we can do it in a way that respects the values that matter to other people,” says Kearney. “I’ve enjoyed more abstract but purposeful thinking to complement the technical rigour that’s gone on with my computer science major.”

MIT Matthew Kearney
Matthew Kearney | Image credit: Ian MacLellan/MIT News

Kearney was drawn to MIT by the culture of its cross-country team. He enjoyed playing soccer and being outside while growing up in Austin, Texas, but by high school, running had replaced soccer as his favourite activity. He sought out institutions with outstanding academic programs and a supportive team environment. He thought MIT was the place for him after a formal visit with the cross-country squad.

Kearney aims to use his interdisciplinary training to critically analyze and design artificial intelligence systems in the area of artificial intelligence ethics, where his interests collide. He will attend Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar to pursue a DPhil in computer science after graduating.

“There’s not a lot of dialogue that goes from the abstract tenets of moral philosophy to the practical building of an AI tool to solve a problem,” says Kearney. “In my DPhil, I want to ask how we can start off to build certain ethical principles into AI, and how we can bring down layers of abstraction until we understand what technical tools we can build to help realize those goals.”

Bringing AI and Philosophy Into Dialogue

Kearney believes that philosophy and computer science are constantly in conversation with one another and is motivated to keep developing thoughtful systems that have a good impact on the world by the pioneers in the field of AI ethics. Kearney is eager to finish his last track season strong, building on the success of the cross-country squad, as he completes his time at MIT.

He is presently engaged in two research projects. At first, he is developing downscaling techniques to use with climate data as part of a partnership with the Human Systems Lab. The majority of models are global in scope, however knowing how local locations will be impacted could assist inform good policies and give locals insight.

Kearney is working to gain a better grasp of huge language models, which are used to create tools like ChatGPT, for his master’s thesis. In addition to learning the technical aspects of these tools, Kearney is always considering their ethical implications.

“My technical education taught me that any problem can be solved if we throw enough engineering and technology at it,” says Kearney, adding that he believes he and many others have blind spots in their technical research. “This class helped me exit that headspace to see that these problems can only be solved through social-centred, economic, or political approaches. We need to think about how we can use tools from other disciplines to be thoughtful about how we’re using those technologies.”

Kearney is primarily interested in dissecting these models to comprehend them completely. He understands the enormous potential that artificial intelligence has to influence a wide range of industries, but he also understands the necessity to use technology carefully.

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