‘Philosophy as a discipline has real-world importance’

Posted on April 05, 2024

Professor Emma Ruttkamp-Bloem, Head of the Department of Philosophy in the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Faculty of Humanities, embodies the ethos of UP – academic excellence interconnected with community engagement that has the power to transform. Her work in the global sphere is proof of how intellectual thinking can benefit humanity.

She has been appointed as Chair of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO’s) World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). She is one of 18 leading scholars from around the world who has sat on this advisory body since 2020. Now, Prof Ruttkamp-Bloem will head it until the end of 2027. For the next two years, the commission, which reports to UNESCO’s director-general, will be looking at the ethics of quantum computing, astro-biological research and human expansion into outer space.

But that commission is not her only high-profile international position. Prof Ruttkamp-Bloem is also a member of the UN’s Secretary-General’s AI [artificial intelligence] Advisory Body, which was formed in October 2023. She was one of 39 selected from more than 1 800 global candidates, and her application was endorsed by South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor. The body launched its first interim report, ‘Governing AI for Humanity’, in December.

Prof Ruttkamp-Bloem also led the UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group that prepared the Recommendation on the Ethics of AI, endorsed by 193 member states in 2021.

“It is the first global instrument on the ethics of artificial intelligence in the world,” she says.

As a philosopher, Prof Ruttkamp-Bloem is able to pinpoint and assess the value that these positions bring to UP. 

“Universities have a social contract with society, which means we have to ensure that society benefits from the research we do, and that we are responsible in the research we do,” she says. “AI is one of the most powerful technologies the world has ever seen, and it’s changing the world second by second. It is also changing what it means to be human, and changing all aspects of human life. It is important for the University to show its students and its community that it is at the cutting edge of this kind of technology and ethics. So this is very good for the University of Pretoria and South Africa.”

On a personal level, she says her membership on the AI advisory body “is significant in terms of policymaking as an academic, but it comes with a lot of responsibility. And it comes with a lot of additional hours of work”.

Grateful for UP’s support of her endeavours, Prof Ruttkamp-Bloem continues to carry out her duties as department head. She also supervises postgraduate students, teaches, serves on committees about transdisciplinary research and a university AI policy, and is a member of UP’s highest academic decision-making body, the Senate.

Additional commitments include leading the AI ethics group at the South African Centre for AI Research, and being a full member of the International Academy for the Philosophy of Science and of the Global Academic Network at the Centre for AI and Digital Policy in Washington, DC. 

Prof Ruttkamp-Bloem has been involved in projects relating to AI ethics with the African Union Development Agency, and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. Her participation in various international AI ethics advisory boards includes the Global Commission on Responsible AI in the Military Domain. She is also an associate editor of the Journal of Science and Engineering Ethics and is a sought-after consultant in the private sector on the ethics of emerging technologies.

Given all that, it is unsurprising that she starts her day at 4am. “My day still has 24 hours,” she says. “It’s not easy to juggle everything.”

One motivating factor is that the impact of her work proves that philosophy, first associated with African sages and the ancient Greeks and Asian philosophers in the 6th century BC, is as a relevant as ever and needs to be taken seriously.

“One of the main reasons I'm doing all of this is to show that philosophy as a discipline has real-world importance,” she says. “It’s important that people who study philosophy understand that they are still the gatekeepers of humanity. They are the people who should be looking out for society and ringing the alarm bells in the way that the sage philosophers used to do. That role has not gone away.

“But it takes a lot of work because you also need to understand the discipline you are philosophising about. So in my years as a philosopher of science, I had to study physics. As a logician, I had to study mathematics. As an AI ethicist, I have to understand how machine learning works. You have to know what it is you're talking about. You also have the responsibility of thinking about the impact on society of what you say. Without philosophers, society is lost. I’m trying to live what I preach to students. Philosophy is not an easy discipline. It takes dedication and hard work. But in the end, the aim is to better humanity. And that role is alive and well.“

She first became interested in philosophy while reading books on the subject in her grandfather’s study. When she graduated with an honours degree in philosophy, after part-time study, the headmaster at the school where she was teaching maths did not allow her leave to attend her graduation, because philosophy is not a teaching subject. She recalls him saying, “What nonsense is this?”

Although she looks back on her years as a math teacher as “my happy years” and is grateful for her teaching background, she loves academia more.

“It’s my personality. I like the freedom, the independence, but I also like the rigour. And of course, the teaching. There is a certain kind of something about teaching. It’s special.”

When not hard at work at UP and flitting around the globe – such as attending the UNESCO Global Forum on the Ethics of AI in Slovenia or COMEST’s annual conference at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris every September – Prof Ruttkamp-Bloem relaxes by going for walks with her husband and dogs, spending time with her children and other family members, and listening to reggae, particularly Jimmy Cliff.

“I am a very simple person,” she says.

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences