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Identity by Algorithm: Ethical impacts of being recategorised by health AI

Does it matter to you how you describe yourself and what kinds of tools you have at your disposal to do so? Does it matter what groups you think of yourself as belonging to? What about the kinds of groups others assign you to?


Ever increasing quantities of data about our health and wellbeing are being collected. These data are generated not only in healthcare, research, and public health surveillance, but also by our personal and wearable devices, and through our interactions with social media. To make these data useful, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are often used to process them and to create profiles of ‘types’ of people. AI is used to categorise us on the basis of, amongst other factors, our genomes, biomarkers, traits, susceptibilities, and behaviours.

One consequence of this is the emergence of novel or reconfigured, AI-generated ways of grouping us with some people and distinguishing us from others. This research project interrogates the ethical significance of these new algorithm-driven (re)categorisations. How might these impact upon our understandings of who we are, as individuals and as members of populations? How might this change our relationships and responsibilities to each other, our identities, our shared values, and how our lives go? And what fresh challenges do each of these pose for the ethical governance of data analytics in health-related contexts? This project applies the critical lens of identity to discussions of AI ethics in the context of big health data. It brings together diverse debates about health technologies, identity, social ontologies human flourishing, and social justice.

The first phase of this project asks whether (re)categorisations of people by AI in health-related contexts could create new ‘human kinds’ that differ in interesting and ethically significant ways from those evolved through long-standing cultural norms and healthcare practices.

About the researcher

This is an interdisciplinary project led by bioethicist, Dr Emily Postan, as part of a five year Chancellor’s Fellowship (2021-2026) at Edinburgh Law School. Emily’s research principally focuses on the ethical implications of ways that healthcare, health technologies and health data affect our identities and relationships to others. Her wider research includes work in neuroethics, genomic and reproductive ethics, and regulation of health research. She is a Deputy Director of the J Kenyon Mason Institute for Medicine Life Sciences and the Law at the University of Edinburgh and a convenor of the Northern Bioethics Network.

Emily’s open access monograph, Embodied Narratives: Protecting Identity Interests through Ethical Governance of Bioinformation is published by Cambridge University Press in July 2022.

View Dr Emily Postan's research profile

Emily will be presenting her paper 'Categorised by algorithm: how health AI disrupts our identities and relationships' at the 16th World Congress of Bioethics in Basel, Switzerland in July 2022.

About the book

Increasing quantities of information about our health, bodies and biological relationships are being generated by health technologies, research, and surveillance. This escalation presents challenges to us all when it comes to deciding how to manage this information and what should be disclosed to the very people it describes. This book establishes the ethical imperative to take seriously the potential impacts on our identities of encountering bioinformation about ourselves. Emily Postan argues that identity-interests in accessing personal bioinformation are currently under-protected in law, and often linked to problematic bio-essentialist assumptions. Drawing on a picture of identity constructed through embodied self-narratives, and examples of people’s encounters with diverse kinds of information, Postan addresses these gaps. This book provides a robust account of the source, scope, and ethical significance of our identity-related interests in accessing – and not accessing – bioinformation about ourselves, and the need for disclosure practices to respond appropriately.

Embodied Narratives will be available as an open access e-book from CUP.

This book was written with support of Wellcome project 'Confronting the Liminal Spaces of Health Research Regulation' (WT103360MA, P.I. Professor Graeme Laurie) based on research conducted with support of an AHRC doctoral studentship award.

Embodied Narratives: Protecting Identity Interests through Ethical Governance of Bioinformation is published by Cambridge University Press in July 2022.