Carnegie Mellon University

David widder wearing a leather jacket, black tee, and combat boots, sitting on a street corner sketching in his notebook

August 01, 2023

Widder Wins Beatrice Medicine Award for AI Ethics Research

By Josh Quicksall

Josh Quicksall
  • Communications Manager, S3D

David Gray Widder, a recent PhD graduate from Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering program, has been awarded a Society for Applied Anthropology’s Beatrice Medicine Award for his influential work on AI supply chain ethics. This has not only led to further research with colleague Claire Le Goues, but also resulted in several speaking engagements, as well as informing EU discussions on AI governance.

Widder's paper, co-authored with Dawn Nafus, titled "Dislocated accountabilities in the “AI supply chain”: Modularity and developers’ notions of responsibility" was published in the prestigious journal Big Data and Society. The researchers examined modularity in software engineering and its potential ethical implications, particularly within AI systems. Their interview study with AI developers revealed a diffusion of responsibility due to modularity, leading to overlooked ethical considerations.

The authors suggest “'located accountability,” a feminist approach originated by Lucy Suchman, as a way to address the ethical challenges presented by modularity. They suggest that this may help broaden discussions about accountability in AI by recognizing where relations and obligations might intertwine as datasets, frameworks, models are combined in AI supply chains to enable particular end uses.

Widder's research attracted significant attention, including a panel discussion with Catherine Stihler, CEO of the international nonprofit advocacy group Creative Commons, and coverage on popular anthropology podcast This Anthro Life. Widder has also been invited to discuss his work on a forthcoming episode of The Data Fix podcast, hosted by Associate Professor Mél Hogan, and in an upcoming invited lecture at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany.

Professor Richmond Wong from Georgia Tech collaborated with Widder to explore the policy implications of his groundbreaking work presented at the Design X Policy CHI workshop. Notably, the findings from this paper have had a noted influence on recent discussions within the EU regarding the regulation of AI. As evidence of its significance, the renowned Ada Lovelace Institute drew heavily on this work in their resource on AI supply chains.

Carnegie Mellon's Software and Societal Systems Department (S3D), where Widder pursued  his PhD, is renowned for its cutting-edge research and commitment to solving the complex challenges posed by the intersection of society and computing technologies. With the rise in demand for AI systems and the ever-increasing potential for misuse, Widder's research represents a crucial step in addressing these ethical challenges to ensure that emerging technologies are developed responsibly.

Widder has now earned his PhD, and will soon join Cornell Tech as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Digital Life Initiative, collaborating with Professor Helen Nissenbaum. 

Find the full research paper at: