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Is it Research or is it Spying? Thinking-Through Ethics in Big Data AI and Other Knowledge Sciences

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“How to be a knowledge scientist after the Snowden revelations?” is a question we all have to ask as it becomes clear that our work and our students could be involved in the building of an unprecedented surveillance society. In this essay, we argue that this affects all the knowledge sciences such as AI, computational linguistics and the digital humanities. Asking the question calls for dialogue within and across the disciplines. In this article, we will position ourselves with respect to typical stances towards the relationship between (computer) technology and its uses in a surveillance society, and we will look at what we can learn from other fields. We will propose ways of addressing the question in teaching and in research, and conclude with a call to action.

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  1. This essay comes out of a working group that organized around this question at a Dagstuhl Seminar in July 2014 on Computational Humanities. We thank Chris Biemann, Joachim Scharloth, and Claire Warwick for the inspiring discussions.


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We thank the Flemish Agency for Innovation through Science and Technology (IWT), the Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek – Vlaanderen (FWO), the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada for support through the projects SPION (Grant Number 100048), Data Mining for Privacy in Social Networks (Grant Number G068611N), the early career research group eTRAP (No. 01UG1409), and the NovelTM project.

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Correspondence to Bettina Berendt.

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Berendt, B., Büchler, M. & Rockwell, G. Is it Research or is it Spying? Thinking-Through Ethics in Big Data AI and Other Knowledge Sciences. Künstl Intell 29, 223–232 (2015).

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