Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual Gikii workshop, this year hosted in England’s historical capital, Winchester. Since 2006, Gikii has had IT lawyers and technologists come together to spin novel arguments that fuse together legal, technological and popular culture perspectives. Papers have plenty of LOLCats, sci-fi refs and a serious point at their core. This year’s Gikii was no exception, with many wonderfully nerdy indulgences of the community on display. Gikii was the first conference I ever attended in Goteborg back in 2011. At the time, I thought, are all conferences like this? How naive 😉
After a 2 year break, (last year Gikii coincided with Ph.D. submission day so I couldn’t go) it was good to be back. As ever, all presentations were great and highly entertaining, but a few stuck out in my mind:
- Michael Veale’s Harry Potter Inspired “Getting pensive about the Pensieve: Governing memory data from Brain-computer interfaces.”
- Tristan Henderson’s “Everybody Gets an AI”
- Daithi MacSitigh’s “Peng ting called disruption: representations of the sharing economy”
- Edina Harbinja’s “Post-mortem Privacy: From creepiness and silliness to The Daily Mail.”
- Reuben Binns, “Freaky Friday, body-swapping and borrowed identifiers: where is the data subject?”.
- Damian Clifford and Jef Ausloos’s “Technobabble and Technobulls*t – what the hell is everyone on about?”
- Roxana Bratu, “What makes a hero? Re-enacting social drama in corruption and cybercrime.”
My own presentation was called “Hunting for ethical innovation in the adventures of Rick and Morty.” The basic premise was to examine some ethically dubious inventions created by the show’s protagonist, Rick, and critique them from a responsible research and innovation perspective. Below you’ll find my thoughts on the topic – hope you enjoy 🙂
Hunting for Ethical Innovation in the Adventures of Rick and Morty, Gikii 2017
“Sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. A lot of people don’t get that.”
Rick Sanchez, Rick and Morty, Episode 6, Season 1
Who are Rick and Morty?
Adult Swim’s cult sci-fi cartoon Rick and Morty is not only entertaining to watch but gives us many occasions to question the nature of scientific innovation. Rick Sanchez, a nihilistic, archetypal mad-scientist, co-opts his naive, shy, reluctant grandson, Morty Smith, into a multitude of adventures across space and time. Despite being the ‘smartest man in the multiverse’ many of his inventions give pause for ethical reflection. Rick is why the RRI agenda exists…his work wouldn’t get through (m)any ethics boards.
Sampling Rick’s Inventions
In “Anatomy Park” (see the clip here) we see fruits of Rick’s biological engineering efforts when Morty is sent in to fix problems with his newly finished microscopic theme park built inside a homeless man. It features dangerous virus exhibits and rollercoasters that flirt with trademark infringement like “Spleen Mountain” and “Pirates of the Pancreas”. Some ethical concerns in this episode include:
- Rick’s coercion of an unwilling lab assistant – Morty is shrunk down and injected into Anatomy Park without much say in the matter. Rick is showing little respect for the autonomy and dignity of his “colleague”;
- Risky bio-engineering – the park features highly contagious germ exhibits including bubonic plague, which is valuable and is due to lack of safeguards is being smuggled out by an insider threat working in the park;
- Vulnerable test subject – Rick’s choice of a homeless drunk man (Ruben) is questionable as the research subject… that is before getting to questions of Ruben’s capacity to consent to medical processes?
Similarly, in “Lawnmower Dog” (see the clip here) Rick creates a headset that increases the family dog’s intelligence to stop him urinating on the carpet. However, Snuffles soon becomes self-aware, forming an army of cyborg dogs that eventually take over the world. Ethical issues here include:
- Robotic augmentation being tested on live animals – Rick’s lack of safety safeguards are pretty considerable. A key trigger in Snuffle’s desire for world domination is learning of his castration and the subsequent trauma this causes.
- Skewed innovation cost/benefit analysis – Rick’s motivation is to provide a way to help improve the dog’s intelligence and ultimately keep the carpet clean… he ends up creating a tool that subjugates the human species to their new dog overlords.
Responsible Research and Innovation
As we can see, Rick’s actions are often rather ethically questionable but Morty is there to correct for his moral bankruptcy. Back in this reality, there has been a movement to introduce greater responsibility into scientific innovation. Multiple frameworks have been drafted that eschew the need for greater stewardship of the future, by thinking about the social, ethical and legal implications of today’s inventions. These include: value sensitive design; RRI; Real-Time Technology Assessment; anticipatory governance; Privacy/Surveillance/ethical/social impact assessments; computer and engineering ethics. Through structured reflection, scientists/researchers need to establish and forecast risks, put in place safeguards and mitigating measures to make science and innovation, as an institution, more societally conscious. Rick clearly missed this memo…
Throughout the series, his inventions challenge foundations of ethical science and design, and in this Gikii paper, we narrow down onto four in more detail, namely a vole DNA based love potion; a ‘Meeseek’ personal assistant box; an AI defence system and the ‘Microverse’ spaceship battery.
Invention 1: Microverse Spaceship Battery (clip here)
In the episode “The Ricks Must be Crazy”, we discover Rick has created an entire universe (Microverse) that acts as a battery to power his spaceship. Inhabitants of this universe are required to create power by stomping on power generation boxes. When the ship breaks down, Rick and Morty enter the battery (posing as ‘aliens) to discover a local scientist has created their own ‘Miniverse’ in the ‘Microverse’, to generate power using the same ‘universe in a box’ process. Delving down one level further, the ‘teeniverse’ within the ‘miniverse’ is trying to do the same again. Each universe unaware they exist purely to power Rick’s spaceship and charge his mobile phone. Upon discovery, revolt and destruction ensue.
Ethical Issues (mainly around the values in the design)
- Slave Labour – Rick (and the other scientists) creating universes to enslave entire populations for energy generation is disturbing and shows little regard for the human rights of their citizens.
- Trust and deception – Rick tries to trick the local populations into believing he and Morty are aliens to create a power asymmetry founded on deception. The citizens worship Rick, erecting statues in his name in their public squares.
- Psychological well-being – When the inhabitants realise that their entire universe is created to charge Rick’s car and phone, this causes understandable psychological harm and distress.
Invention 2: Keep Summer Safe (clip here)
Rick’s granddaughter/Morty’s sister, Summer, is left behind in the ship with an onboard AI instructed by Rick to “Keep Summer Safe”. The ship AI takes increasingly disturbing approaches to satisfy this simple command. Laser-based violence targeted at curious passers-and psychological tactics towards local police are two examples. As Summer becomes more shocked, she puts greater limitations on what the AI can do, leading to more elaborate responses to keep here safe. This culminates in the ship brokering a peace treaty between warring human and spider population on this planet.
- Lack of Transparency in AI – Summer only realises the literality of the AI system once it starts trying to keep her safe. As she realises the unethical lengths it goes to, she responds with safeguards e.g. don’t kill anyone, don’t use psychological torture. Rick hasn’t hardcoded any of these safeguards into the code (as a responsible IT professional might), and the harms only emerged through use in the ‘real world’. The lack of foresight is exacerbated by lack of transparency.
- Use of torture/Psychological trauma – The creepy methods taken by the AI are disproportionate to the risk posed to summer, causing significant trauma to anyone who crosses its path.
Invention 3: Meeseek Personal Assistant Box (clip here)
- In the episode “Meeseeks and Destroy”, tired of helping with mundane tasks around the home, Rick creates a box that generates bright blue humanoid assistants designed to help with one task alone. Once it is completed they cease to exist, turning into a puff of smoke. The Meeseeks don’t like to live too long, but when asked by Rick’s son in law, Jerry, to help with the ostensibly simple task of improving his golf swing, they struggle to do this. The episode soon escalates as hundreds of Meeseeks are generated to work on this task, quickly descending into madness and desperation as they cannot complete their goal.
- Environmental Sustainability – The Meeseek’s only have a temporary existence, which raises questions about how sustainable they are. What are they made of and is it environmentally harmful? Their unnatural blue colour and the puffs of smoke they make when they cease to exist suggests some sort of chemical mix… we now have questions about pollution long-term impacts on air quality to consider.
- Public Safety – When the Meeseeks can’t complete their task, they get frustrated and eventually take hostages in a hotel in order to persuade Jerry to do what they want him to do. This raises clear concerns for ensuring Rick’s inventions don’t harm member’s of the public.
- Universal Usability – In the episode, the Meeseeks are able to satisfy requests from other people quite easily (e.g. for Rick’s daughter Beth, and granddaughter Summer). The Meeseek’s box is thus not universally usable (as would be required of a good IT system), and some users will have issues to deal with in getting help from the Meeseeks.
Invention 4: Vole Potion
In the episode “Rick Potion #9”, Rick creates a love potion made from vole DNA (furry rodents who mate for life) for Morty to take to his prom in the hopes of winning over his high school crush. It works, but the effects of the potion are spread by coming into contact with those who have the flu. Soon affection for Morty has spread to the entire town, and then the whole world. Such global love for Morty leads to jealousy and danger to his safety. Rick cooks up an antidote potion based on praying mantis DNA (among other things) but, predictably, this only makes matters worse. Spoiler alert, the episode ends with Rick and Morty hunting for an alternate timeline to live in, as their own one has been destroyed, inhabited by irreversibly mutated Cronenberg-esque monsters…
- Lack of foresight – Rick sees the impacts of his hastily created potion and antidote. However, with a little more foresight, (or lab testing) he could have avoided releasing his experiments upon the world, turning the entire population into mutants.
- Lack of stewardship – in this episode, Rick and Morty still have an escape route, which impacts his (low) level of stewardship. Realising he cannot fix the problem, Rick’s solution is to abandon this universe and use his portal gun to transport to an alternate universe they can inhabit safely.
- Respect for biodiversity – innovations are meant to respect other species and not cause harm unduly (eg genetically modified foods in the food chain and precaution about nanotech in the wild). In contrast, Rick destroyed all species and ecosystems across the planet, homogenizing all species into one mutated form.
As we can see, such storylines are rich in moral dilemmas, providing ample opportunity for reflection on the nature of ethical innovation.
 Rick and Morty IMDB – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2861424/
 Value Sensitive Design –https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jeroen_Van_den_hoven/publication/45815002_ICT_and_Value_Sensitive_Design/links/5729d34c08ae2efbfdbb8159.pdf ; http://vsdesign.org/publications/pdf/non-scan-vsd-and-information-systems.pdf
 Responsible Research and Innovation –http://www.orbit-rri.org/related-activities/; https://www.epsrc.ac.uk/index.cfm/research/framework/ ; http://www.pacitaproject.eu/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/von-Schomberg-RRI-owenbookChapter.pdf
 Real Time Technology Assessment – http://cspo.org/legacy/library/1104071235F63583901WV_lib_GustonSarewitzRe.pdf
 Anticipatory Governance – http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0306312713508669
 Privacy Impact Assessments – RFID PIA https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2050902 ;
ICO PIA code of practice – https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/1595/pia-code-of-practice.pdf
DP Impact Assessment – Article 35 General Data Protection Regulation 2016
 Surveillance Impact Assessments – https://academic.oup.com/idpl/article/5/1/40/622960/Developing-and-testing-a-surveillance-impact ;
 Ethical Impact Assessment – http://satoriproject.eu/media/D4.2_Outline_of_an_Ethics_Assessment_Framework.pdf ;
 Social Impact Assessment – https://www.computer.org/csdl/proceedings/spw/2016/3690/00/5829a053.pdf
 Computer Ethics – http://web.cs.ucdavis.edu/~rogaway/classes/188/spring06/papers/moor.html
 Engineering Ethics – http://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/other/engineering-ethics-in-practice-shorter