Photo of Daniel Rosiak

5 questions with… Daniel Rosiak, CWRU’s first postdoctoral scholar in ethics and AI/emerging technology

The possibilities of artificial intelligence (AI) are often met with excitement—followed shortly by consideration of ethical concerns. At Case Western Reserve University, that’s where Daniel Rosiak comes in. 

Rosiak joined the university in the spring of 2021 as the inaugural Postdoctoral Scholar in Ethics and AI/Emerging Technology in the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence, where he’s focused on ensuring technology acts with human interests in mind across wide-ranging fields. Specifically, he’s working to ensure community partners are engaged in meaningful and productive reflection and discussions of ethical issues in emerging technology at every level. 

“A major goal of the Inamori Center is to help ensure that all of these projects acknowledge and engage with the ethical dimensions of the work,” said Shannon French, Inamori Professor in Ethics and director of the Inamori Center.

Rosiak’s background in ethics, mathematics and the formal frameworks underlying AI puts him in a good position to tackle some of these trickier problems. A native of Maryland, he came to CWRU from DePaul University where he earned a PhD in Philosophy in 2019. He was also a Fulbright Student Researcher at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá and studied philosophy at Oxford University and University of San Diego in California.

“Having a background in philosophy, logic and ethics, and teaching for many years has prepared me to speak to these broader humanity-type questions,” Rosiak said. “I’ve also insisted on teaching across departments—and not always to students who know they want to pursue ethics—[since] it’s really eye-opening to gain other perspectives.”

Next semester, Rosiak is putting that approach to work in a Philosophy course called Ethics of AI. In the course, students will learn about the unique ethical challenges AI presents as they build the knowledge they need to navigate this unique space and formulate meaningful solutions to problems.

“There’s a lot of hype around the future of AI, and that’s real,” Rosiak said. “People will sometimes say things like, ‘How do we get AI to play nice?’ or ‘How do we get it to have the same values as us?’ and the fact of the matter is that we can’t anticipate everything that it will do,” he said. Instead, Rosiak suggests we need an ethical framework, a sort-of “Hippocratic Oath” for AI.

“The question we need to be asking is ‘What do we want the AI to want?’ It’s hard to answer on a number of levels because we need to have a good sense of this ourselves and have a framework for right action,” Rosiak said. 

In addition to his teaching role, he hopes to advance the field of AI with original research and contribute to grant and curricular initiatives across the university. He also hopes to initiate a number of cross-disciplinary research collaborations. 

Rosiak looks forward to collaborating with departments across campus, such as the Interactive Commons, the Human Fusions Institute and the Great Lakes Energy Institute. He’s also teaming up to develop ethics modules for computer science classes, joining a cohort of humanities postdocs and working with students in the Global Ethical Leaders Society.

Across his efforts, Rosiak hopes to confront the ethical issues that affect all of us on a daily basis. “Close collaboration between researchers working in many different areas is needed,” Rosiak said. “And we are uniquely poised to help bring together people of different backgrounds to tackle these bigger issues.”

Get to know Rosiak better with this week’s five questions.

1. What’s the most thought-provoking class you’ve ever taken?

Many years ago, I took a year-long seminar on Spinoza’s Ethics. For years, I had been disappointed by the fact that human beings had developed so many powerful and cool tools for systematically investigating triangles and digits and knots and the like, yet the thing that presumably mattered to each of us most—how we ought to live, arguably the subject of ethics—generally seemed to be handled in more haphazard ways. When questioned, people’s excuses seemed to be that “humans were more complicated.” That always felt like a cheap answer to me. 

Reading Spinoza—who presented his ethical system in terms of axioms and arguments modeled on the style of Euclid’s investigations into geometry, and who argued that humans were not exceptional, though we were certainly determined in a number of ways to believe we were—helped push me further to start exploring ways of bringing some of the powerful tools of modern mathematics and other formal frameworks to bear on ethical matters.

2. Where is the best place to spend a day in Cleveland?

I just moved to Cleveland [in July]! But I like nature spots, and I have especially enjoyed my visits to Cuyahoga Valley National Park (the ledges area) and the Headland Dunes.

3. How do you like to start your day?

Coffee. Are there other ways to start a day?

4. What is the best advice you ever received?

People who give advice seem almost always to dwell on the finiteness of our time, and how the amount of free time appears to diminish as we get older. Observations of this sort generally seem to inspire people to resort to truisms about the need to “use your time wisely.” But it’s not clear to me that we can go through life without wasting a considerable chunk of our time—and what ended up being my most enduring passions were found during “down time.” 

If you are good at something, it is difficult to come to know this unless you have spent (wasted?) considerable time exploring a variety of things in a way that will surely appear unproductive at some point. A friend once said to me: “Wasting time is important. Just make sure you waste it well, so that it becomes an asset later on.”

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

The Inamori Center—my colleagues there and the students! I am still new to Cleveland and Case Western Reserve, but I’m also looking forward to meeting more of the partners of the center and starting on some new collaborations.