"People might not make the connection between AI and human rights, but we should!"

Meet Afroditi Sakellaropoulou, MPhil student in Ethics of AI, Data and Algorithms

Aphroditi headshot
Aphroditi headshot

Afroditi Sakellaropoulou is an MPhil student from Greece, taking the within the Faculty of Philosophy. 

With a background in the legal system, she is keen to encourage interdisciplinary thinking about the relationship between current technologies and human rights. Initially worried that she would not fit into Cambridge due to her socio-economic background, she wants to use her student ambassador platform to share her experience of feeling at home as a 鶹Ӿpostgraduate student.

Can you briefly summarise your route to Wolfson? What did you do before starting your MPhil here?

My academic interests are similar to my personal life, in that they largely centre around people, society, and finding ways to deeply understand both. The central theme of my academic and professional work thus far has been legal research through different scopes, particularly human rights, and technology. I trained as a legal aid solicitor in London during the pandemic and whilst the work was incredibly rewarding, my true passion has always been grounded in research. 

In the beginning of 2022, life led me back to Athens where I found myself in a tech start-up working on national and transnational publicly funded research projects, as well as in-house legal research relating to safety, ethics, and certification for unmanned aerial vehicles, small scale robotics and machine learning systems. Around a year later, Cambridge announced they would be running this course for the first time; I applied on a whim and here I am! 

In some ways it feels like my life was narratively engineered to lead me here, just because so many things had to go right at the same time for it to be possible, so I am taking it as a good sign.

Can you describe your application experience? What encouraged you to apply for university in the UK? 

I am very fortunate to have been raised by a single father who always believed that I could accomplish anything. Whilst he never said the words, this was the way he acted. The question in my household was never, 'Can we do this?’ - it was, ‘how do we make it happen?’, and this has always been my worldview. 

At sixteen, I became interested in interdisciplinary research and this type of work was not offered in Greece, so I began looking elsewhere. I came across different courses in the UK and on a random afternoon, decided that I would apply. I figured out what I needed to get here, I worked hard, the stars aligned and then suddenly it was September 29th, and I was in Heathrow with all my savings converted into pounds and a massive suitcase. 

What encouraged you to apply to be a student ambassador for Wolfson? 

Believing you can get somewhere does not necessarily mean you believe you can belong there. My personal experiences in university have been overwhelmingly positive. Through becoming an ambassador, as both an undergraduate and a postgraduate student, I wanted to share that. Most crucially though, I hope to demystify this environment for people that, like me, might not fit the traditional profile of a university student. 

My family is of a different socioeconomic class and make-up than the majority of my peers, and the structures I was raised within are completely different to those in the UK. The consequences of these facts upon my experiences have not been immaterial, but they did not determine my life. 

If I had seen people to whom I could relate speak in an accessible and open way about their lived experiences before attending, I would have doubted myself less and probably made more informed choices. Hopefully if another ‘normal’ person is reading this, they can see that anyone can belong here!

Why did you apply for an MPhil in Ethics of AI, Data and Algorithms? What do you hope to get out of the course?

I applied for this course in particular because I am very interested in the interplay of law, morality, and technology. I think it is fairly obvious that the ethical implications of AI and algorithms have become increasingly salient, and for me this course acts as a nexus of my professional and academic interests. People might not immediately make the connection between AI and Human Rights, for example, but we ought to! 

Understanding how such systems can influence our perception of the socio-technical structures around us, whilst also having the potential to significantly impact their nature in both positive and negative ways, seems to be an imperative at this moment in time. It it will enable us to make better-informed choices regarding their integration. 

From a more practical perspective, the content and delivery of the material in the MPhil are largely interdisciplinary, and the most important aspects of the course are based upon independent research. It has been an amazing opportunity for me to delve deep into some new concepts, whilst also pursuing my personal research interests.

How have you found settling into 鶹Ӿlife so far?

The College has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, so it has been very easy for me to become comfortable in the space.

Being twenty-four, a postgraduate, and not living in College accommodation, the thought did occur to me that I might feel isolated before coming here. This has not been the case at all, which is a testament to how easy it is at 鶹Ӿto find people you ‘click’ with, connect to the environment, and feel at home!

I am living near Mill Road, which is great and has literally everything one might need nearby. I have personally found the energy in Cambridge to be super interesting because it is both historic and lively. Helpfully, the center of town is also very walk-able and with a bike there seems to be no distance greater than ten minutes. My classes, supervisor meetings, and the reading group I co-convene are all conveniently located within at most one block distance of each other, if not in the same building. The furthest I have to venture out is the west campus for a few times a week. 

It feels like I am constantly running into people I know, which really creates a sense of community. My two favourite places in Cambridge by far are the , as it is somehow both incredibly beautiful and super comfortable, and the which does not require explanation – just trust me that it is worth a visit! 

How have you found transitioning from working life to master’s study? 

This is extremely dependent on your course, but for me, the transition has been very smooth. In my opinion, entering any course after a few years of professional experience is one of the best things you can do. Understanding professional dynamics has really allowed me to bring down the mental barrier between myself and academic staff; being able to understand people’s positions and experience has enabled me to engage with my department both in and out of class in a stronger way. 

Academically, I also find that when people can bring their experience of different contexts into the ‘classroom’, they are able to make material and valuable contributions to discussions. 

What are your goals for the future? Do you have any idea where your MPhil might take you?

I am reluctant to share specifics, because my friends love to remind me of a school video wherein my ten-year-old self proudly declared she was going to be an English teacher and I am not sure how long this will live here. I would love to continue doing research in collaborative spaces, as this is what I am currently very happy doing - who knows what the future will bring beyond that!

Read more

This article is part of the 2023/4 Postgraduate Student Profile Series:

You can learn more about the funding available at Wolfson and how to apply to study for a postgraduate course at Cambridge University as a 鶹ӾCollege student on our website. 

You can also watch our to find out more about the social and academic environment at Wolfson. 

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