Using design fiction to think about food, data, AI and ethics

We all have to eat, but the world of food production and distribution is a complex one which increasingly relies on huge amounts of data. These systems, which were perhaps taken somewhat for granted, are now more in the public’s awareness because of the impacts of the pandemic – particularly at the beginning of the year when supermarkets and suppliers found it difficult to adjust to the new situation in terms of supply and demand.

The Internet of Food Things Network+ (IoFT+) has been thinking about food and data for a while. In late 2019, they released a report on Digital collaboration in the food and drink production supply chain, which talked about some of the many opportunities and challenges that will come if we are going to be introducing new technologies to improve the way food is produced and distributed. This led to an event at Brockenhurst in the New Forest where a large group of people from different organisations, disciplines and sectors were brought together to discuss some of the challenges involved when data is shared between multiple actors across distributed food chains, all the way from farm to table. I was lucky enough to be invited, and joined the set of discussions which led to the establishment of an interdisciplinary working group considering ethical questions relating to digital collaboration, data trusts and the use of new technologies such as AI in the food sector. For example, how do we protect the rights of different organisations who might be sharing data, and make sure that if AI algorithms are used to process the data and make recommendations and predictions, that they are not biased against certain organisations or individuals? How do we ensure that these systems are transparent and have accountability built into them?

The working group is now undertaking a six-month project, part funded by the Internet of Food Things Network+, and part by the AI3SD (Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Intelligence for Automated Investigations for Scientific Discovery) Network+, to dig deeper into some of these ethical challenges, and use methods including design fiction. So far we’ve held several workshops, and we are building a glossary of key terms in this area – one thing that we have found is that the same words (such as transparency or sustainability) crop up in many discussions around this topic, but often different people mean different things by them!

We’re currently working on developing some design fiction objects that will help us explore the ethical implications of a plausible future food data trust that uses AI or similar technologies. These are ‘diegetic prototypes’, digital or physical objects that represent and allow interaction with fictional futures or alternative presents. We will evaluate these using the Moral-IT cards designed by members of our team based at Nottingham University.

We also recently presented our work so far at the IoFT Conference on 29th September, and hope that we’ll get lots of feedback from the wider network that will strengthen our research and ideas and lead to some exciting outputs. We aim to eventually create a framework which will provide a mechanism to enable data sharing in the food industry to be more ethically considered across the food supply chain​, and provide different agents/organisations across the food chain with the necessary information to empower them to engage with ethics​.