Mhairi Aitken

Ethics Fellow Mhairi Aitken is passionate about engaging the public in conversations around the ethics of data science and AI

Tell us a bit about your background

My background is in sociology. I have always been really fascinated by the role of public participation in processes around science, technology and innovation. My previous research has examined this in relation to renewable energy developments, health-related data science, and uses of machine learning in finance and banking.

In a nutshell, tell us about your research at the Turing?

I am an Ethics Fellow in the public policy programme. In the Ethics Theme, a lot of our work involves working closely with public sector organisations – both in the UK and internationally – to conduct research and develop practical guidance and tools to inform ethical approaches to AI.

What first got you interested in your field of research?

Over the last few years, there’s been a huge amount of interest in the ethics of AI. However, what is really exciting about working in the Ethics Theme here at the Turing is that we are moving well beyond abstract principles and theories to develop really practical and meaningful ways of pursuing ethical AI. I find that incredibly exciting and rewarding.

What is the impact of this research?

Our work is shaping public sector approaches to AI and data science, equipping public sector organisations with the knowledge and tools to ensure that ethics is at the heart of innovation and policy processes.

You’ve been involved in some high-profile public engagement activities – any particular highlights?

Yes! This is a real passion of mine. I love finding creative ways of engaging the public in conversations around AI and data. I dabble in stand-up comedy and have performed in several new act comedy nights. For a number of years, I’ve been involved in the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas (CoDI) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. CoDI is a series of shows compered by a professional comedian which pushes academics out of their comfort zones to discuss their research.

This year I will be speaking about the relationships people have with smart devices, and the decisions we make about whether to trust in these technologies. The really exciting thing about CoDI shows is that the majority of a show is reserved for discussions with the audience. Over the years, I’ve found it impossible to anticipate the questions and comments that come up. I love the unpredictability of the discussion and the chance to have really frank – and often hilarious – conversations about the topics I research.

I am especially excited about CoDI this year as for the first time the show will have both an in-person live audience and simultaneously be live-streamed – opening it up to a much bigger audience.

What’s the most surprising thing people should know about you?

If I hadn’t gone into research I would most likely be a goat farmer.

And finally, when not working what can you be found doing?

I’m usually up a hill, in a forest or knee-deep in mud mucking out my ponies’ field!