Focus on Social Science

Influence. Trends. Impact.

The Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) cover a range of topics that help shape many aspects of our lives, from the education of our children, to ensuring democracy, to human relationships and how to cope with community issues. However, natural and social sciences research areas have not always been part of an integrated, collective research approach to solving research challenges together. 

Since high-profile agreements such as the Paris Agreement, social scientists have increasingly been working with more traditional branches of sciences. It is recognized that the natural and social sciences must work together if we are going to solve some of the biggest problems of our age, challenges such as climate change, how to feed a growing population and how to handle the ever-increasing use of technology in business and society. 

What do the experts in the field say? Read interviews and the latest published research about how Humanities & Social Sciences research is shaping our lives, changing science and making a difference.

"Our role as a leading Humanities & Social Sciences publisher enables us to contribute a compelling body of research to help address global grand challenges and society’s most demanding questions." David Bull, Vice President, HSS Journals

The Human Sciences of Artificial Intelligence

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Dr Mariarosaria Taddeo

Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute & Deputy Director at the Digital Ethics Lab

Profile: Dr Mariarosaria Taddeo primary research areas are Digital Ethics, Ethics of AI, Philosophy of Information, and Philosophy of Technology, with a particular focus on Ethics of Cyber Conflicts and Cybersecurity. She is Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director at the Digital Ethics Lab – Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford and Faculty Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute. In addition, she is the Editor-in-chief of Minds & Machines (Springer), Editor-in-chief of Philosophical Studies Series (Springer), Executive editor of Philosophy & Technology (Springer).

Artificial Intelligence has made the leap from theoretical research to becoming a practical field of study linked to engineering, computer science and robotics with applications in scientific discovery that could help tackle critical global issues.  It has become more prominent in our everyday lives too, from chatbots on websites to the idea of Insight As A Service (IAAS) being offered by libraries, AI has become a buzzword.

We talked to Dr Mariarosaria Taddeo about the evolution of AI research and the influence philosophical study has on the development and governance of AI technologies.

There are various definitions of AI, how do you define AI?

Luciano Floridi defines AI as a growing resource of interactive autonomous and self-learning agency, which can be used to perform tasks that would otherwise require human intelligence to be executed successfully.  

I agree completely with this definition. There are two important elements to it. The first is that AI is a form of agency which can learn and act autonomously in the environment. The autonomous and self-learning parts are really crucial when we think about the ethical implications of AI. 

The second part concerns the nature of intelligence we are referring to when we talk about Artificial Intelligence. This has nothing to do with the feeling, emotions, intuitions and intentionality; these are characteristics of human intelligence.  AI is intelligent insofar it performs tasks that would require intelligence if a human were to perform them.  Artificial intelligence imitates or act as if it were intelligent, but there is no human-like intelligence to be assumed in reality when considering machines.

Why are we seeing a revival of AI research now?

Recent work in AI, machine learning and even some models of artificial neural networks, builds on research that was done in the late 50s, 60s and the 70s. The scientific community had the conceptual understanding back then but lacked the necessary the computational power and data to develop and train the models. Over the past decades, computer have become much more powerful. At the same time, in recent years, the amount of data needed to train AI has become available. We all know about the Big Data Revolution. These data are the ‘source’ that AI needs to learn and improve.

Computational power and Big Data are the developments that have reignited research in AI in the past few years.

What are the societal implications of AI?

AI is going to become a key element in how societies function.  We already see AI being used to perform tasks which can be tedious or dangerous. But that’s only a marginal part of the potential areas of deployment. More and more AI is used for job recruitment, medical diagnosis, to support education, to improve cyber defense and security of nationally critical infrastructures.  AI will be completely embedded in the reality in which we live. This has key implications for our societies, both at individual and group level.

First, AI is autonomous and can make decisions which can have an impact on individuals and groups of individuals. We need to make sure that we understand how these decisions are made, for example to ensure there are no biases in the process and that there is accountability when AI makes or suggest a decision.  If something goes wrong, who's going to be held responsible for the suggestions that AI gave us? We need to decide which decisions we want to delegate to AI. Is it fair, for example, to delegate the decision of granting parole in a criminal process to AI? Is it acceptable to delegate offensive actions on the battlefield to an AI system?

Second, the more we delegate tasks to AI the more likely it is that we give up expertise. We might want to rely on AI for medical diagnosis, because this makes the process more precise and efficient. However, we still need doctors to be able to perform diagnosis, to read a CT scan, for example, so we can still understand when AI makes a mistake or can take over when AI doesn't work.

Third, AI is a transformative technology for our societies. It will be distributed horizontally in household and every Institution, for as many services and tasks as you can imagine. When considering this scenario, we need to keep in mind that AI is not just a reactive technology, it is proactive and will collect data about us and our environment and digest this data to extrapolate information, but also to nudge us into making our own decisions. Imagine a scenario in which AI systems suggest which book to read, what food to eat, with whom we interact, where to go for holidays, and which job to apply for. This constant suggesting and nudging might be supportive of human flourishing but also risks hindering our self-determination. Crucially, AI will have a direct impact on the people we become. This also means, when AI becomes sufficiently pervasive, it could shape public opinion and what kind of societies we develop. It is important to ensure that we understand which is the best way (and whether) to trust AI systems. Trusting AI, as well as digital technologies, correctly will be key to developing governance of these technologies without hampering innovation1.

1 Taddeo, Mariarosaria. 2017. ‘Trusting Digital Technologies Correctly’. Minds and Machines, November.

How is AI and philosophy intertwined?

In the early days, we undertook research on what is known as Symbolic AI. So, there was a lot of work in philosophy of mind and cognitive science, which was strongly related to research on AI.  This remain an important area of research.

These days, philosophy is arguably even more crucial, because it sheds light on the conceptual changes that AI prompts. This is essential to identify the ethical and the governance problems that AI poses and how to solve them. 

Consider, for example, the need to understand in which way AI is autonomous? How do we assign the responsibilities for the actions performed by machines when machines are so complicated and distributed, as in AI systems?  Do we need new conceptual models for understanding moral responsibilities when it comes to AI? What are the values that shape the governance of this technology? These are theoretical questions, which require philosophical analyses, and whose answer will have a direct impact on the way we design, develop, and use AI in our societies.

Philosophical research has already had an impact on the governance of technologies. A good example would be articles published in the Springer Journal Minds and Machines, which have shaped the European Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI. The nature of AI is a fundamental topic of research which has and will continue to have an impact on the development of this technology.

Relevant articles:

Influence - Shaping our lives

Interview with David Bull, Vice President, HSS Journals

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“The importance of interdisciplinary research across HSS subjects and beyond is fundamental to meeting many of the global challenges we’re facing as a society today.”

What are some of the emerging areas of interest you’re seeing across HSS today?

“Humanities and Social Sciences research today is incredibly rich and fast-evolving. An important aspect of this evolution is a rise in inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary collaboration. More and more, we’re seeing the techniques, data and methodologies associated with one discipline adapted and used to further research or solve a problem connected with an entirely different field.  Where I think this becomes potent is in the research around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and society’s ‘grand challenges’.. For example, there’s significant overlap between many of the journals in our HSS portfolio and SDG 8 (of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals), which focuses on sustainable economic growth and work. 

“Our portfolio engages with a variety of the SDGs, with significant research being published in areas such as health, inequality, population and migration, and peace and justice.  

The implications of digital and technological advancement – such as how and where new technologies are applied - are also an important focus for our journals portfolio. To solve many of today’s global challenges and future quandaries we’re going to need clever engineering and continually advancing technologies, driven by broad research collaborations in science. But alongside that, we also need to think carefully about the economic, management and policy implications of these technologies, the psychology behind them, and their wide-ranging impact on humankind.” 

How has the portfolio developed in recent years?

Our HSS portfolio has grown significantly, even in the few years since we became Springer Nature. We have approximately 600 English language HSS journals and 50 German language titles, published across imprints: Springer, Palgrave Macmillan and some BMC (in Health). Our Springer and Palgrave imprints each draw on over 175 years of publishing history and tradition – but represent different approaches to the Humanities & Social Sciences. Springer has evolved from a mathematical and engineering tradition, while Macmillan has more humanistic roots. It’s been wonderful to see our staff, content and ideas come together since the merger, and the publishing significance of this for our HSS list is profound. 

What are the biggest influences on the HSS Journals collection and how important are new journals to your vision?

“We have the third largest global HSS journals portfolio, by title and article numbers. Our titles are run out of our offices in the Americas, in Europe and in Asia. It is important to continue to reinforce our commitment to the wider HSS disciplines, but also to reflect our core strengths, from for example, our leading and diverse Education program, to our strengths in Economics, our large Business portfolio, but also our Behavioral and Health Sciences program and our impressive Philosophy and Ethics list.
Launching new journals is hard work– it requires a developed idea (proposal), a sustainable research presence, a significant pipeline of new submissions and content, and attracting and building up new audiences. We already do a lot of this work to advance and develop our existing journals, and while we will continue to launch new journals, this will be selective as our priority for now is building on what we already have - which is a large body of trusted and influential work. 
This year, we’ve been reviewing our existing portfolio with fresh eyes and identifying which titles have the greatest potential for growth and impact. It’s important that our existing journals continue to adapt to changing research and publishing environments, and where valid new opportunities arise – we seize them. 
We also need to think carefully about how we resource journals as they expand to cover new areas, and ensure we have the right expertise in our editorial structures to best serve and engage the wider research community. Attracting new work and publishing special issues is already an important aspect of our editorial strategy. 

How important is Open Access to Springer Nature’s HSS Portfolio?

“Approximately  7% of our HSS journal portfolio is pure Open Access, and a large majority of our titles are hybrid. With its growing importance to researchers, it’s vital that as a publisher we respond to demand for OA publications. But developments such as Plan S also present fundamental challenges to the HSS community, as the current lack of available funding across much of our space, does not allow for the easy payment of APCs. 
That said, there are several areas in the HSS portfolio where we’ve been able to make good progress with Open Access. Today, we have almost 50 pure OA titles that are publishing valuable work. And within our hybrid environment, some of our journals are seeing reasonable uptake of the open access option. The hybrid model is very important for us, and we believe it represents the best way forward for HSS subjects. One of our broad-based OA journals is Palgrave Communications, which we have plans to grow. Its remit is large – the entire HSS domain!

What’s unique about the Springer Nature HSS portfolio?

“We use similar services and publish in similar ways to a number of our competitors, but one of our main differentiators is putting the author at the center of what we do by providing a best-in-class author service. There are aspects of this service that are unique – including SharedIt - which lets authors share a unique link of an article they’ve published with Springer Nature, enabling the recipient to access the full text of the paper online. The innovations we’re making with our new emerging Peer Review System, and indeed our review of the entire Submit to Accept Workflow, along with our title development planning are fundamental to our aspiration to be best in class. 

Of course equally important are our readers and the libraries providing content access to the research community. ‘HSS’ as a term encompasses an incredibly wide range of subject matter, disciplines and communities, and as one of the largest publishers of HSS content, our goal is to provide rich diversity within our collections. Our collection spans the entire breadth of HSS disciplines, so with increasing importance placed on inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research, we are very well placed to help academics and practitioners. 

Inside the ant lab: Mutants and social genes

Moral Machines: How culture changes values​

Research in intelligent technologies, robotics & AI

Resources to advance the next big discoveries

Intelligent Technologies & Robotics

Trends - Natural and Social Sciences working together

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Interview with Jenn Richler Ph.D., Senior Editor Nature Climate Change and Nature Energy, and Acting Head of the Social Sciences Centre of Excellence at Nature Research

“We will continue to see growth in our thematic journals that bring together researchers and practitioners from across the natural and social sciences”

Why are the social sciences so relevant today?

It is becoming increasingly clear that addressing pressing societal challenges like climate change, inequality, poverty, and global health will require integrating scientific and technological development with an understanding of human behavior and the dynamics of human societies. At the same time, many of the issues that dominate the news like racial and gender discrimination, immigration, voting behavior, and international relations are fundamentally social science topics. Understanding the complexity of our social systems and institutions, and the behavior and decisions of individuals operating within them, is vital for making progress toward a safe, inclusive, and just world.

How has the Nature Research portfolio developed in recent years?

When Nature Climate Change was launched in 2011, it was the first journal in the portfolio to include social sciences in its scope. The journal now boasts a strong body of papers in psychology, economics, sociology, and political science that sit alongside papers in the natural sciences and interdisciplinary studies. With the more recent launches of Nature Plants (2015), Nature Energy (2016) and Nature Sustainability (2018) we’ve expanded the family of thematic journals that follow this model. Like Nature Climate Change, these journals publish research on social, economic, and policy dimensions together with papers that describe biological and physical systems. By covering the full scope of relevant research around a topic, these journals build connections and broaden interest across the wider community.

The launch in 2017 of Nature Human Behaviour further reflects our commitment to the social sciences by providing an outlet for an even broader spread of research topics. Different social science disciplines have strong identities, and tend to operate through their own journals, societies and conferences. Nature Human Behaviour is a unique venue for work at the intersection of different social science disciplines that allows researchers to reach colleagues pursuing similar questions across the boundaries of distinct fields. 

How do you see the portfolio developing in the future?

The Nature Research portfolio plays an important role in providing multidisciplinary journals that serve many research communities, within the same pages, which ultimately supports research outputs that are richer and more impactful. To this end I think we will continue to see growth in our thematic journals that bring together researchers and practitioners from across the natural and social sciences around specific topics of broad societal relevance.

Impact - Making a difference

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Interview with Dr. Andreas Beierwaltes, Vice President Books, Social Sciences at Springer Nature

“Terror, migration, Brexit, Trump, climate change and much more…Social Science can have an enormous impact in these discourses”

How are social sciences making a difference in today's world?

We live in turbulent times: Terror, Migration, Brexit, Trump, Climate change and much more, which we cannot easily classify today. Social Sciences help to understand and categorize these phenomena - and to propose solutions for them. Social Sciences can have an enormous impact in these discourses - Social Sciences matters!

How has the Springer Nature portfolio developed in recent years?

Our program picks up these topics and provides basic knowledge for further research in these areas. In doing so, we approach each of these topics mentioned above and other issues of social challenges in quite different ways: scientifically, discursively, provocatively, but always in line with the standards of science and in highest quality.

How do you see the portfolio developing in the future?

We will continue to expand our program, e.g. by focusing on basic knowledge in the form of handbooks or Major Reference Works. Furthermore, we will certainly set thematic accents. It is important to us that the readers of the books from Palgrave and Springer can expect the highest quality of Social Sciences Research.

Universal decay of collective memory & attention

Witch: a tag that shapes social networks

Social Sciences eBook Collection

Contains a large and important selection of titles in fields such as population studies, gender and sexuality, migration, well-being and family studies