Learning about ethics of design through 'the dark side'

Unethical Machines

This weekend, two Penn professors will present “Unethical Machines,” a gallery show of student projects that combine art, technology and "bad behavior" aimed at exploring the ethics of surveillance, privacy and the sanctity of personal information.

The event is the brainchild of Simon Kim from the architecture program in PennDesign, and Mark Yim from Penn Engineering’s mechanical engineering program. The professors, who run a research group called Immersive Kinematics, teach classes in their respective departments on advanced mechantronics and reactive spaces. The projects in the gallery show were conceived as a way “to learn about ethics through the dark side,” says Kim. He and Yim believe integrating such a nebulous subject into the mathematical precision of engineering and architecture allows for creative experimentation.

Each year, Kim and Yim bring their classes together, pairing up engineering and architecture students so they can learn about each other’s disciplines, as well as how their work fits into the greater world.

“Engineering culture and architecture culture are very different, and just getting them to appreciate each other is a big deal,” says Yim.

In 2010, Kim and Yim added a third dimension to the class—theater— with the students building mechanically interactive sets and props for a performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." This year, the class focused on ethics (supported by a National Science Foundation grant from its Ethics Education in Science and Engineering program), and the works that will be featured in the “Unethical Machines” gallery show are the students’ final projects.

Taking inspiration from developments in airport security, particularly the new TSA full-body scanners, the students explored how the technology has led to outrage and protests by individuals who argue that the machines violate their privacy. Kim and Yim do not want to reveal too much about the projects that will be part of the gallery show, but they promise the exhibit will not include machines that can see through clothes. They say they’re keeping tight-lipped because uncertainty and surprise is a critical component of what makes many of the featured machines “unethical.”

“Making an ethical design involves thinking ‘how could this be abused?' ” says Yim. “That’s the only way to know what safeguards need to be put in.”  

The students' projects will be presented at Meyerson Hall’s upper gallery at 2 p.m. on Friday, May 6, and then at the SINErgy Project Space and Gallery, 2310 N. American St., at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 7. Admission is free, but registration is requested. Participants must sign a waiver to demonstrate they understand that, once inside, they will be subjected to the unethical behavior of some of the students’ projects—whether they realize it or not.   

“This is an experience, not just something to look at,” said Kim. “We’re really pushing boundaries here.”

Originally published on May 5, 2011