Our Work

Digital Ethics and Governance

Digital Ethics and Governance


We conduct research particularly on the ethical and social implications of automated decision-making systems. We bridge the knowledge gap between academics, law professionals, policymakers, and engineers through interdisciplinary workshops, pedagogical initiatives, and guidance for organizations who seek to use artificial intelligence responsibly.

Powerful advances in machine learning over the past decade have brought with them explosive growth in the use of automated decision-making tools. These tools have a direct impact on hundreds of millions of lives. Yet they are often opaque, poorly understood, and sometimes impossible to hold to account. As these decision-making systems become increasingly ubiquitous, and our reliance upon them increasingly widespread, it is crucial to develop an understanding of how fairness, justice, and value considerations apply to the development and deployment of these tools.

At JFI, we believe this must be a collaborative enterprise, engaging the technical knowledge and lived experience of a diverse range of academic experts, government policymakers, community advocates, and the general public. Our work focuses on leveraging our technical and subject-matter expertise to enable this broad spectrum of voices to meaningfully participate in informed debate on these unprecedented ethical, social, and political questions. JFI is advancing this development in three areas: governance, research, and education.


The advent of automated decision-making systems in public life demands the creation of new governance frameworks. JFI seeks to put its research and outreach strengths to work in developing effective structures for governing artificial intelligence at all scales, ranging from individual firms to international agencies.

JFI has worked closely with municipal governments to provide background knowledge in machine learning, statistics, administrative law, and ethical theory, to those involved in making public policy. Most recently, JFI has been working to advance the recommendations of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation.

In partnership with international agencies, JFI is also contributing to the development of new governance frameworks for artificial intelligence in the Global South, where the use of artificial intelligence is both accelerating and potentially very beneficial for millions of people.


JFI fellows are conducting research on the ethical and social implications of artificial intelligence, especially with regard to automated decision-making systems. Our fellows come from diverse academic backgrounds, including philosophy, computer science, mathematics, history, and law. Ongoing research questions include:

  • Are cases of algorithmic discrimination best understood as instances of disparate treatment or disparate impact, as those doctrines are applied in US law?
  • When algorithms are said to discriminate on the basis of race, what conception of race is at work?
  • What exactly is wrong with ‘black box’ systems (i.e. systems whose verdicts are not interpretable by human agents)?
  • Can existing international human rights law regulate artificial intelligence?
  • Can search engines provide results on the basis of value-neutral relevance alone?

As part of our research program, JFI co-hosts academic workshops with partners in higher education, including MIT, Cornell University, and Columbia University. These conferences serve as an incubator for research on the ethics of artificial intelligence and an opportunity to build a supportive academic community for junior scholars. Our inaugural MIT-JFI Workshop on the Ethics of Algorithms will take place in 2020.


The widespread use of automated decision-making systems means that virtually all segments of the population will be impacted by its use. It is therefore critically important that there are equally widespread initiatives to educate professionals and citizens about these systems. JFI is building a comprehensive educational strategy to help share the most relevant information in the most accessible way to the broadest spectrum of stakeholders.

Our fellows have been at the forefront of initiatives to integrate ethics education into computer engineering curricula at institutions of higher education. Notably, JFI fellows are part of the Embedded EthiCS program at Harvard University, which seeks to integrate ethical reasoning into Harvard’s computer science curriculum. We ultimately hope to provide open-access resources to develop curricula at all types of institutions of higher education.

JFI has recently reached out to professionals who have expressed a need for guidance regarding the influx of artificial intelligence in their professions. In particular, JFI has engaged the legal community, including practicing attorneys, judges, and law students, who seek guidance about the use of artificial intelligence in the practice of law, as in the case of recidivism risk tools, as well as guidance about how to advise clients about the ethical use of artificial intelligence in their respective business contexts. JFI attended the first international Roundtable on Artificial Intelligence and the Rule of Law in 2019 and will co-host the second roundtable in 2020.

JFI is also contributing to general public education on algorithmic decision-making systems through interactive tools like the Automating NYC website, which was developed by students at Harvard Kennedy School of Government with support from JFI staff.


  • Columbia University Center for the Study of Social Difference
  • Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences
  • Digital Justice Foundation
  • The Future Society
  • Harvard University Embedded EthiCS program
  • Harvard University Kennedy School of Government
  • MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy
  • MIT Schwarzman College of Computing
  • NYC Automated Decision Systems Taskforce
  • The Sedona Conference


  • What is digital ethics? 

  • What is an automated decision-making system? 

  • Who uses automated decision-making systems, and what are they used for? 

  • What is an algorithm? 

  • What’s the relationship between automated decision-making systems, artificial intelligence, and machine learning? 

  • What is Explainable AI/XAI? 

  • What do ethicists do? 

  • Why is digital ethics important? 

  • How can automated decision-making systems be used for good? 

  • What are the ethical issues raised by automated decision-making systems? 

  • What is the goal of the Jain Family Institute’s digital ethics and governance initiative? 

  • Who is the audience for the Jain Family Institute’s research in digital ethics? 

  • What is the Jain Family Institute doing to help develop digital ethics education? 

  • What is the Jain Family Institute doing to help develop digital ethics governance and policy? 

  • What other organizations are working on similar issues in digital ethics? 

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