AI for Good and the Bootstrapping Problem - Monash Prato Dialogue

Event date:  9 March 2023

The Monash Prato Dialogue is a Distinguished Lecture series on Artificial Intelligence and its impact on society. In this edition of the lecture series, Professor Shannon Vallor delivered a superb and timely discourse on the critical interplay between the power of AI platforms and our challenges in democratising the design of our futures.

Watch the lecture recording below.


“There is one force which has driven a particular constellation of virtue into a dominant global position over the past 2 centuries: the virtues associated with the cultivation of modern industrial technology and its socioeconomic order—culminating in AI.” 

Many “AI For Good” projects are incontestably good, for example improving accessibility and opportunities for disabled people, and predicting natural disasters that require timely emergency resource allocation. However, as technology in general and AI in particular undergo rapid development, software companies and engineers attain enormous power to design our futures, disrupt and transform our institutions, and steer the daily behaviours of billions. This has important consequences, for example –

  1. AI requires large amounts of data, computer power, and surveillance or data collection technology. This can be highly effective but requires an enormous input of resources, and over time may push low or alternative technology options out of contention by reducing the pool of available funding. This undermines the promotion of a circular global economy that emphasises the virtues of restoration and repair in parallel with development and production.
  2. The centralisation of techno-power, along with recent global events, has already led to considerable public distrust of technical and scientific expertise, along with reactive fears and resentments of technology itself.

The virtues of the AI domain, as applied to both products & people, are almost entirely unquestioned by its proponents – notably the virtues of efficiency, seamlessness, speed, and lossless transmission. Professor Vallor proposed that today’s social, political, and environmental problems demand an unprecedented alignment of moral and technical competence. Excellence in the design and development of technical systems can no longer ignore the ethical dimension.


Professor Shannon Vallor is the Baillie Gifford Professor in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence in the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Philosophy. She directs the Centre for Technomoral Futures in the Edinburgh Futures Institute and co-directs the UKRI Enabling a Responsible AI Ecosystem programme. She is also a Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute.

Professor Vallor's research explores how emerging technologies reshape human moral and intellectual character, and maps the ethical challenges and opportunities posed by new uses of data and AI. Her work includes advising academia, government and industry on the ethical design and use of AI.

She is the author of Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting (Oxford University Press, 2016), editor of the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Technology (2022), and recipient of multiple awards for research, teaching and public engagement, including the 2022 Covey Award from the International Association of Computing and Philosophy.


It is widely accepted that the digital age, and artificial intelligence in particular, presents increasingly urgent ethical challenges that call for responses guided by collective moral and political wisdom. One response, to call for an alignment of AI with ‘social good’, appears to have a noble and uncontroversial aim.

In this lecture Professor Vallor will discuss an unexamined problem with this framing that requires our attention. There is a ‘bootstrapping’ problem with calls to align AI with social good, a problem that also impacts related suggestions to develop more virtuous or responsible models of AI innovation. The problem is that the very models of human and technical excellence most familiar and accessible to us today, are precisely those that led us into the moral, political and environmental crises that humanity now faces.

Professor Vallor will confront the problem of cultivating virtues and social goods of a new moral shape, and the radical cultural transformations this may entail.

Monash Prato Dialogue - Fostering Global Dialogue & Discovery in AI and Data Science

The Monash Data Futures Institute Prato Dialogue Distinguished Lecture Series aims to explore the evolving impact of data science and AI in society by fostering a global dialogue.

The lecture series takes its name from Monash University's Centre in Prato, Italy. Located in the heart of Tuscany, our Prato Centre represents a European base for international research and education, intellectual and cultural exchanges and brings people together to meet, learn and collaborate with peers and colleagues from around the world.