How do new scientific disciplines get started? For Iyad Rahwan, a computational social scientist with self-described “maverick” tendencies, it happened on a sunny afternoon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October 2017. Rahwan and Manuel Cebrian, a colleague from the MIT Media Lab, were sitting in Harvard Yard discussing how to best describe their preferred brand of multidisciplinary research.
The rapid rise of artificial intelligence technology had generated new questions about the relationship between people and machines, which they had set out to explore. Rahwan, for example, had been exploring the question of ethical behavior for a self-driving car—should it swerve to avoid an oncoming SUV, even if it means hitting a cyclist?—in his Moral Machine experiment.
“I was good friends with Iain Couzin, one of the world’s foremost animal behaviorists,” Rahwan said, “and I thought, ‘Why isn’t he studying online bots? Why is it only computer scientists who are studying AI algorithms?’ All of a sudden it clicked: We’re studying behavior in a new ecosystem.”