Technology | 16 May 2024

Technology Series: Jon Ellis and Emily Robertson


Jon Ellis is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UC Santa Cruz. Ellis’ research spans the topics of perception, interpretation, bias, and self-deception. He is currently writing a book about motivated reasoning, moral criticism, and the dynamics of social and political polarization. In 2015, Ellis founded the Center for Public Philosophy (CPP) which he continues to direct. CPP is a center at Cowell College, created in close collaboration with The Humanities Institute. It is driven by the conviction that philosophy can be a force for positive change in the world, by sharing widely the power and joy of philosophical reflection, dialogue, and wonder.

Emily Robertson is a PhD Candidate in philosophy. Her dissertation explores topics in ethics, metaphilosophy, and pedagogy, but she likes to dabble: philosophy of games, feminist philosophy, moral psychology, metaphysics. During her time at UCSC, Robertson has worked closely with the Center for Public Philosophy as a central member of the TEQ Deck team and as a coach, moderator, and judge for various Ethics Bowl programs and events with local high school students. She was a Graduate Pedagogy Fellow in 2022 and is slated to teach a Feminist Philosophy course this summer. She will be submitting her dissertation in June.

TEQ Deck: Technology. Ethics. Questions.


“Families across the country experienced devastating rifts this year due to diverging opinions about A.I. proxies—interactive, lifelike, virtual versions of real people, built using their extensive digital footprints. A woman in Iowa whose husband had passed away in January paid to have an A.I. proxy of him built. At the next holiday, she put him on a monitor in the dining room so he could ‘join’ the family for dinner. But when the woman’s daughter and grandsons arrived, they found it so deeply disturbing and wrong, that they ultimately left. The 7-year-old was especially confused.”


When you sit down with TEQ Deck: Technology. Ethics. Questions, this is one of the YEAR IN REVIEW cards you might confront. The TEQ Deck is a deck of cards, each one concerning an ethical issue raised by a recent, emerging, anticipated, or possible development in technology (in A.I., bio-engineering, astrobiology, blockchain, nanotechnology, virtual reality, big data, and so forth). The cards highlight some of the critical issues we are facing, or might face soon, and facilitate meaningful discussions around them in an engaging, playful modality.

The deck is a collaboration of the UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Public Philosophy* and Baskin School of Engineering. It is designed for use in many, varied contexts, with the intention of increasing awareness, deepening understanding, and promoting dialogue. Two specific uses are foremost in mind: First, we intend them to be used in the structured learning environments like classrooms (e.g., in high schools, colleges, and industries) and second, we envision the deck being used in recreational contexts, in games, with friends, family, or colleagues at the office. Each card has or will have an associated web page that introduces some of the central ethical issues at stake, and provides background and further resources. The deck and its digital home contain a broad assortment of possible uses for TEQ Deck, including pedagogically effective activities for individual class meetings as well as for larger course projects; and for recreational contexts, various structures of gameplay. Our design partner, Hiker, makes the deck and its scaffolding shine.

In testing TEQ Deck, we’ve led a wide variety of practice discussions in workshops and classrooms, with friends, and at public events using a “beta-version” prototype of it, usually with a group of 8 to 10 participants. We typically start by sharing 10 to 20 of the cards and having people register their four or five favorites. The process of considering and choosing cards engages people immediately. From there, discussion soars, even before further instruction.

When people experience games, projects or curricula that resonate with their inner thoughts and curiosity, there arises a powerful learning opportunity.

Why cards? One reason is that, while nearly everyone is deeply interested in ethical and philosophical issues, the word “philosophy,” and works of philosophy can be intimidating, even alienating. Cards are playful, tactile, inviting, and accessible. When people experience games, projects or curricula that resonate with their inner thoughts and curiosity, there arises a powerful learning opportunity—made even more so if the material is presented in a fun and digestible form. As both academics and teachers, we know first-hand that engagement, empowered learning, and a sense of belonging are key to success. Classroom activities that utilize the TEQ Deck have the power to meet the socio-emotional and intellectual needs of our students, and recreational conversation and games built around its questions have the capacity to inspire all people who see themselves as life-long learners.

From the ground up

To discover the topics, questions, and concerns that were most on peoples’ minds, we crowdsourced our concept. With the help of our supporting partners (below), we soon received hundreds of submissions from people in more than 20 different countries.

The breadth of ethical considerations, the variety of technological projects and innovations, and their global import make these questions a project not just for the TEQ Deck team, or for tech developers or students in engineering or philosophy, but a project for everybody. Ethicists and philosophers (very broadly construed) might help lead the way through these conversations, but we need perspectives from all fields, all regions, and all ages to begin to make sense of it all. In this regard, there has never been such a need for the democracy of ideas, as there are NO experts here to look to for answers. This is truly terra incognita.

And oh, how things have changed, just since we first solicited submissions four years ago. We have seen people’s concerns, interests, and assumptions transform in real time (ChatGPT wasn’t even a thing then!). In 2020, for instance, many people were especially concerned about privacy with respect to cameras and microphones: Was Alexa “taking in” everything we said in our homes and storing the data somewhere, with the possibility that it could be mined in the future? Now there’s more of a sense of resignation about that; that ship has sailed.

Other questions, however–about mind-reading, flying taxis, AI proxies and bots, and virtual reality, just to name just a few–have shifted from feeling far-fetched, even silly, to extremely relevant and pressing. The fictional YEAR IN REVIEW prompt at the top, for instance, felt very unrealistic to many. Today, in 2024, it represents a genuine possibility that some of us will face this coming holiday season. (A close precursor to this technology was used at the actor Ed Asner’s memorial.) 

The accelerating speed of technological change is of both philosophical and pedagogical significance. We know that more and more questions are right around the corner. We don’t know what they are, though. What can we do now, to prepare for ethical issues we do not yet know? That is a new topic in the field known as “meta-ethics,” which investigates ethical theory and inquiry itself. The development of the TEQ Deck allows us to do a bit of qualitative meta-ethical analysis about what might be coming our way, and what we might need to prepare for, moving forward.

Cross-cutting dimensions

One of the most interesting, and ultimately fruitful, things that came to the fore as we gathered questions were the different kinds of questions, their different levels of abstraction, and the dimensions on which they connected and diverged.  Some questions in the deck are explicitly about tradeoffs (the well-being of future generations vs. the suffering of those alive today, for instance). Some are about particular ethical values (privacy, equality, autonomy). Others are meta-questions concerning ethics itself (What are we asking when we ask about the “ethics” of something? Or the question above, left). Some are about developers and companies (What would a Hippocratic Oath look like for the tech industry?). Others are about science, art, and society (right).

Some are socially concerned (What are the moral implications of the industry’s appropriation or interpretation of the “Seventh Generation Principle”?) or about the connected importance of language (How do we negotiate the historical connotations of words like ‘settlements,’ ‘colonies,’ and ‘frontier,’ as used in fields of space exploration?) Others afford the opportunity to facilitate discussions on contentious issues (about artificial wombs, for instance; below left). 

Having a vista on the cross-cutting dimensions is of utmost importance, not only for students and the community, but for scientists and scholars. In recent years, there’s been an explosion of research institutes and think-tanks established, at universities, in government, and beyond, to address ethical issues in connection to particular forms of technology. This is a top-down approach to ethics and technology. In contrast, TEQ Deck is built from the ground up, generated from the concerns and perspectives of individuals and communities.

Specialists working at the top in many cases have a relatively narrow focus and background. As such, they sometimes lack familiarity with, first, the far-reaching spread of ethical questions around technologies, and second, the connections among them and the levels of abstraction at which they must be considered. A well-crafted, multi-coded deck of cards can provide at least an initial exposure to these high-order matters all in one shot, by way of a tactile, playful package. It can serve a similar purpose in curricular initiatives focused on ethics and technology (such as UC Santa Cruz’s Humanizing Technology certificate program for engineering students, and Crown College’s CAVEAT). The cards thus constitute a technology itself, facilitating inquiry and understanding about technology and ethics.

Ambassadors beyond the classroom

We envision students graduating as eager ambassadors of philosophy, dialogue, questioning, and collaboration.

We see promise in our students doing precisely what we have done when testing the deck: being facilitators of discussions with students across campus, and with the larger community (alumni, industry, etc.). Their primary role in these activities is to attend to the meta-aspects of the discussion: to prompt participants to think about the kind of question it is, or what facts and theoretical assumptions might be needed to answer it, or how it might relate to ethical challenges humanity has faced in the past. Most of all, the aim is to gently call attention to the activity of inquiry and dialogue itself, and some of the pitfalls that can lead to alienation and misunderstanding. We envision students graduating as eager ambassadors of philosophy, dialogue, questioning, and collaboration, empowered with the ability to inspire discussions, nurture people’s abilities to think and talk, and impart the tools and ideas for doing so in inclusive, thoughtful, and productive ways.

The TEQ Deck will never be finished; we see it as a living organism, with new questions always coming in, and outdated ones discarded. This too makes for unique curricular possibilities:

Imagine you and your peers have just been hired for a position on the TEQ Deck team. Your goal over the next four weeks is to develop a new card for the deck and a rich set of supporting materials for its web page…. The one or two strongest projects, as judged by the class, will be sent to the TEQ Deck team for consideration to be included in the deck.

UC Santa Cruz is the ideal home for this project. Our university is ahead of the curve in community-engaged knowledge creation, digital humanities, and experiential learning. And physically, we sit between the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, where world-class scientists are doing cutting-edge research on species and conservation, and Silicon Valley, where developers and entrepreneurs are designing flying taxis, new currencies, AI in service of business, medicine, education, and on, and on. At UCSC’s Silicon Valley satellite campus in April, the Center for Public Philosophy hosted its first Tech Ethics Bowl. The event ended with a final round where every high school randomly drew a card from the TEQ Deck and presented “cold.”

We are grateful to our many supporting participants at UCSC who have helped us to solicit a wide array of perspectives, interests, and questions from around the globe:

Astrobiology Initiative
Cowell College
Crown College
Data Science D3 Research Center
Department of Philosophy
Earth Futures Institute
Genomics Institute
The Humanities Institute
Humanizing Technology
Porter College
Teaching & Learning Center

And to participating organizations beyond UCSC:

Foresight Institute
Future of Life Institute
Marc Sanders Foundation
Taraaz: Technology & Human Rights

We are especially grateful to the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement for a generous grant to help get this project off the ground.

To contribute an idea for a card, or volunteer to participate in a student-led discussion using TEQ Deck, or to learn more, visit TEQ Deck: Technology. Ethics. Questions.


* The Center for Public Philosophy is a center at Cowell College. Created in 2015, in close collaboration with The Humanities Institute, it is driven by the conviction that philosophy can be a force for positive change in the world, by sharing widely the power and joy of philosophical reflection, dialogue, and wonder.

Banner Image: The TEQ Deck box; the artwork in TEQ Deck is generated by A.I., via Midjourney. 

The Humanities Institute’s 2024 Technology Series features contributions from a range of faculty and emeriti engaged in humanities scholarship at UC Santa Cruz. The statements, views, and data contained in these pieces belong to the individual contributors and draw on their academic expertise and insight. This series showcases the ways in which scholars from diverse disciplinary perspectives contend with the issues connected with our annual theme. Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest piece in the series every week!