Admissions blog

A word with Joanna Bryson

The Hertie School’s Professor of Ethics and Technology answers three questions ahead of virtual coffee chat on Thursday.

Artificial intelligence (AI) expert and Professor of Ethics and Technology Joanna Bryson joined the Hertie School in February . She is affiliated with the Centre for Digital Governance and her research is focused primarily on AI and its regulation. Ahead of the virtual coffee chat scheduled this Thursday at 4:00 pm CEST, Joanna Bryson spoke with Katharine from the Recruitment and Admissions team for a brief video interview. You can find transcriptions beneath each clip.

You’re teaching the course Governance and politics of AI this semester. What has been the most exciting topic of discussion you’ve had in class?

Joanna Bryson's answer transcribed

Oh wow, that’s really hard to say because the students tend to get excited about all of it. So, I guess for me personally as an academic, the most amazing thing was actually not one of my lectures. I’m co-teaching it with Slava Jankin. And he was talking about AI and medicine. He was thinking about deep learning, and I was thinking about robots. And I was talking about how you have telerobotics in villages – and is that another kind of colonialism? Because here you are keeping all the expertise, the expensive expertise, in the European cities, and you’re just going and distributing services out in these remote areas rather than helping them to do it themselves.

But then, the master’s students are so amazing here. They’re saying, “Are you kidding? No, we cannot get doctors to our home villages. That’s insane. Nobody wants to live there, there’s huge security problems. This is the best thing ever.” And so we actually decided, during a lecture, to write a paper about this. And so we’re working now on a paper for publication about the trade-offs of bringing information that way into villages and into the developing world.



What new opportunities and positive experiences have you observed from online teaching?

Joanna Bryson's answer transcribed

Well, you know, I think you have to be careful about these things because it’s always hard to tell. But a bunch of the students say they prefer it. We made the decision to keep it the same. So we’re still giving a talk, and people were like, “Oh, pre-record your talk.” But it was like, no, we were responding so much to what the students were bringing to the table that we didn’t want to let go of that. So we’re still doing the talks, and then the students, they’re not only able to ask questions – which they can, they can talk – but they’re also able to type questions. And so some students who didn’t really want to ask questions are being able to discuss things on the side channels, and then we can all see it. And there’s now also another person that’s moderating to make sure the technology works, so there’s even more people helping, bringing all the questions and making sure everything happens well. So I guess I think it’s super exciting that it has worked.

I slightly worry that because you can’t see everyone’s faces – I mean you could, in theory, but not everyone turns on their camera – there may be some people that are finding it more challenging than others. But there’s certainly a lot of people who are finding it great. And, yeah, it’s working for us. So I think teaching hasn’t been the biggest problem. There’s been other challenges. For us – and again we have to remember that there’s this whole economy out there, and we won’t be anything if we don’t help the rest of the economy – but for us, I would say we’re absolutely doing our job, if not we’re doing it more so than we were before because of the urgency of the kinds of research we’re doing, too.



You’ve been at the school for a few months now. What do you think makes the Hertie School unique?

Joanna Bryson's answer transcribed

Well, I mean there’s unique, and there’s unique in my experience. I can’t swear that there’s no place else like it, but there doesn’t seem to be any place else like it in Europe or Berlin. I haven’t run into it. I certainly didn’t run into anything like this in Britain. It’s a reasonable size. It’s weird because in a way, it’s more like my undergraduate at [the University of] Chicago, and we had these small, really intensive Socratic-method kind of classes. So I should be reminded of that, but I’m not. It actually reminds me more of MIT because everybody is super high-flying; they’re all so engaged. They’re talking with the government, they’re getting stuff done, they have their own companies, whatever. They’re bringing so much to the table.

I think right now, the people who come to Berlin, it’s not just that right now it’s booming, like many cities are booming. But, you know, it’s a bit north, it’s a bit east. You’re here because you care about people doing a good job and trying to help. Maybe not everybody’s here for that, but there’s a lot of people like that. So I think it’s just really unusual: In terms of being positioned well in a country where interesting things are happening, where there’s an incredibly good relationship between labour and industry – the German experiments that go back a hundred years now have turned out to be really good for the 21st century, in terms of making sure that there isn’t such a disconnect between labour and the executive, for example.

And then these things magnify. So this is the only country, as far as I know, in the world that has their AI/ethics programme in the department of labour. It makes so much sense because there are so many consequences. Well, the department of labour and society. But what matters more than society, right? The society is what defines us. So I think it’s a really unique opportunity, at least for the kinds of work I do.

And then the other thing is that there’s incredible talent. I didn’t come here to try and do something new. I was lazy. I came because there were already great people that really new how to use quantitative methods to connect the modelling into the data, to go out and actually find out what really works in government and policy. So we’re just very excited to meet these people and to be working with them. And even though it’s a bit frustrating now that we’re only looking at each other through screens, it’s still Berlin. The focus is that we’re here, and we’re helping these people, and it’s going out from there, [to] the European Commission. And we’re not that far from Poland, from Hungary, and real interesting issues.



Do you have a question for Joanna Bryson?
Join us for the coffee chat on Thursday, 4 pm CEST, and ask her directly!

About the author

  • Katharine Lin, Associate Student Recruitment


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