AI and Ethics in the New Year

There were some incredible advancements in AI research in 2018—from reinforcement learning to generative adversarial networks (GANs) to better natural-language understanding. But the year also saw several high-profile illustrations of the harm these systems can cause when they are deployed too hastily.

A Tesla crashed on Autopilot, killing the driver, and a self-driving Uber crashed, killing a pedestrian. Commercial face recognition systems performed terribly in audits on dark-skinned people, but tech giants continued to peddle them anyway, to customers including law enforcement.

In 2019, there was more talk of AI ethics than ever before. Dozens of organizations produced AI ethics guidelines; companies rushed to establish responsible AI teams and parade them in front of the media. It’s hard to attend an AI-related conference anymore without part of the programming being dedicated to an ethics-related message: How do we protect people’s privacy when AI needs so much data? How do we empower marginalized communities instead of exploiting them? How do we continue to trust media in the face of algorithmically created and distributed disinformation?

But that was little more than just talk. For all the lip service paid to these issues, many organizations’ AI ethics guidelines remain vague and hard to implement. Few companies can show tangible changes to the way AI products and services get evaluated and approved. Falling into a trap of ethics-washing, where genuine action gets replaced by superficial promises. In the most acute example, Google formed a nominal AI ethics board with no actual veto power over questionable projects, and with a couple of members whose inclusion provoked controversy. A backlash immediately led to its dissolution.

Meanwhile, the need for greater ethical responsibility has only grown more urgent. The same advancements made in GANs in 2018 have led to the proliferation of hyper-realistic deepfakes, which are now being used to target women and erode people’s belief in documentation and evidence.

But not all is dark and gloomy: 2019 was the year of the greatest grassroots pushback against harmful AI from community groups, policymakers, and tech employees themselves. Several cities—including San Francisco and Oakland, California, and Somerville, Massachusetts—banned public use of face recognition, and proposed federal legislation could soon ban it from US public housing as well. Employees of tech giants like Microsoft, Google, and Salesforce also grew increasingly vocal against their companies’ use of AI for tracking migrants and for drone surveillance.

I attended the NeurIPS conference, short for the Neural Information Processing Systems conference. In Vancouver Canada 2018. The community was coming under increasing scrutiny as the upset of the 2016 US presidential election drove people to question the influence of algorithms in society.

So when I arrived in 2018, a diversity and inclusion committee had been appointed, and the long-standing abbreviation NIPS had been updated. Still, this year’s proceedings feel different from the last. The parties are smaller, the talks are more socially minded, and the conversations happening in between seem more aware of the ethical challenges that the field needs to address.

As the role of AI has expanded dramatically, along with the more troubling aspects of its impact, the community, it seems, has finally begun to reflect on its power and the responsibilities that come with it. As one attendee put it to me: “It feels like this community is growing up.”

Going forward, Grand Rapids Technology Source is adding to it’s AI mission statement. “Why?” and “Just because we can, Should WE?”

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