AI’s promise for healthcare is ambiguous. Calls for speedy integration of innovative technologies to rescue an over-burdened NHS clash with longstanding principles of medical ethics raising questions about how they might transform practices (FA 2018). Commitments to develop ethical AI -by establishing a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (PM 2018), an AI code of conduct (HoL 2018), and the RSA’s Forum for Ethical AI (2018) – are meant to ease such concerns.  Yet, considering that ethical principles (privacy, responsibility, transparency, trust) are being challenged in this technological landscape (EDPS 2018; Clarke et al 2006; Ananny and Crawford 2016;Stocker 2016), it is far from obvious what ethical AI is.


This study will address this question by leveraging insights from feminist Science and Technology Studies which support a strategic shift from philosophical definitions to relational sociological analysis of situated processes asking how is an ethical AI configured in contemporary healthcare discourses and practices? Such a shift from the representational to the performative builds upon the recognition that figurations of an ethical AI are not only descriptive but also performative, having normative implications in policy, technology development and use. It also recognises that ethics is a contextual socio-material practice, not a feature that can be designed ‘into’ technology (Liegl et al 2016, Nissenbaum 2009, Introna 2007).This basis enables us to understand AI as a material-semiotic actor (Haraway 1997) whose power lies not only in its computational powers but also in the compelling imaginaries and visions it can muster. By understanding the process of its configuration, we open up the possibility to change it.   


Research questions


  • How is an ethical AI configured in current healthcare discourses and practices? What notions of ethics and agency underpin these figurations? How are they contested?
  • Who are the key actors and what are the dominant ideas, stories and myths that shape and motivate ethical AI? Who, where what and how makes AI ethical? Who/what is being left behind/out from such figurations?
  • How can ethical AI be configured differently?




Figuration is a methodology developed within feminist cultural studies of science which enables the articulation of the semiotic and material practices that technologies join together (Kerasidou 2017;Barad 2003;Haraway 1997). Figuration provides the means to attend to the dual performative process through which the figure is brought into being as, in turn, it brings a particular version of the world into being. With figuration at its heart, configuration allows us to examine how things are figured together or might be refigured together differently (Suchman 2007,2012).