Sidsel Størmer, a philosophy finalist from Newnham College, is doing an internship at Schibsted, Oslo this summer. She is working on AI and ethics, and talks about the freedom and trust that comes with the job at one of Scandinavia’s largest companies, and what it is like to work there while legally blind
What attracted you to consider an internship in ethics and AI?
I am doing a philosophy degree, but I have always been interested in technology as well. I think it is that fascination which attracted me to it initially. It was also the opportunity to use my degree for good and practice my skills in a less academic context. While I enjoy philosophy for its own sake, I would find it difficult to pursue something that would have no real world impact of some kind. A philosophy degree is essentially a degree in conceptual design (a bit like engineering for ideas!) and I really wanted to find out how I could use those skills to explore areas that are completely new to us and that make a big difference to people.
I think algorithms and AI in general will come to have such a large scope in making decisions for us or aiding us in those decisions. As such, it’s important that we know what we’re doing – not just on a technological level, but on a conceptual one too. So, I felt like the skills I’ve learned at Cambridge were very directly relevant to the internship.
What do you think made your application stand out for Schibsted?
Firstly, that I was doing a degree in philosophy. Schibsted is really a media and tech company, so there are very few people there with my background. I feel like I was uniquely positioned because I had such a strong basis in dealing with abstract concepts, applying them to concrete situations and finding examples to illustrate them. Secondly, it was the habits I had from Cambridge. When I arrived last year (I worked at Schibsted with AI and ethics last year as well), I knew nothing about it, and I read up on it very quickly. I had done a literature review on ethical risks in AI, and presented our findings to lots of internal teams by the time I left after four weeks on the job.
What projects have you worked on this summer?
Before I joined this year, Agnes Stenbom, whom I work with, developed a survey for assessing ethical considerations of AI. This is part of a larger, strategic project uncovering the assumed potential and pitfalls of new technologies at Schibsted. We wanted to identify what people in the company viewed as potential upsides and risks with AI, both at present and in future. At the moment, we are working on an external report to present findings from the survey – in light of a theoretical framework developed as a result of the literature reviews I did last year. It is really interesting to be exploring how we can marry theory and practice to create a strategy for using AI at Schibsted that is rooted in reality and practice, as well as theoretical concerns and future possibilities.
I get a lot of freedom to develop my own ideas relating to AI and ethics, and do research on things I am interested in
I also hope the report we write will be a starting point for a broader dialogue on AI ethics, because it is such an important and developing field. I think the steps we take today – as governments regulating technology and companies doing the kind of introspective reflection that Schibsted is doing at the moment – can have a real, lasting impact on how we use technology in future. AI ethics has been compared to medical ethics and regulation of biotechnology. Biotechnology is really important for how we lead our lives today, and the laws and regulations implemented in the ’70s, #80s and ’90s have been important for how we use that technology. I hope that this report and the work we do at Schibsted can be a step in the right direction for using AI responsibly in the future in a similar way. I am so thrilled to be part of that – especially at such an early stage of my career. I feel like it is really making a big difference.
What have you enjoyed the most and what, if anything, has been really challenging for you?
I am enjoying the freedom and trust that comes with this job. I get a lot of freedom to develop my own ideas relating to AI and ethics, and do research on things I am interested in. For example, at the time of writing I have worked on the report and re-written some things, but I also had time to look at a seminar done by the Oxford institute on AI and ethics online, and I am attending a workshop on media ethics later. The greatest challenge is probably being in a home office environment. I have been getting back pain from all the sitting recently, but it really is a matter of habit. Although it has been a challenge, I feel like it is something I am getting used to!
What, if any, adjustments were made for you or support given to you during the recruitment process and in the internship itself?
Because we did interviews over the phone, no adjustments really had to be made during the recruitment process. I felt having an interview as a recruitment tool was great for me as a disabled person, because I think it is much more inclusive than doing things like aptitude tests, where I find that my disability often puts me at a disadvantage. During the actual internship I was able to hire a reader to record documents I needed (the DRC was very helpful in putting out my advert), and I was able to get things like a taxi to and from the airport when I travelled.
Do you have any tips for students with disability who might feel worried about talking to an employer about their disability?
I think the main thing is to be open during the process and to your colleagues when you are there, and to remember that they hire you for a good reason. I also think it is important – at work and in general – to not do everything yourself. Independence is very important, but I think part of being independent is also economising on energy, and ask for things which can help you to work smarter, like a taxi over getting the train when you are in a new place, or hire human readers to record things over using text-to-speech.
At the same time, I won’t glorify it and say that it is easy to always be open about disability, because it hasn’t always for me. A lot of people with disabilities, and visual impairments especially, struggle to find work even when they are qualified. That is something I have been very concerned about and I still am. I had the good fortune of being introduced to a programmer at Schibsted who is blind while I was there last year, and that helped me a lot. He had specialised in universal design on web browsers. He said to pick something and become exceptionally skilled at it, and I think that’s very good advice!