The need for interdisciplinary AI work

Discussions and claims about artificial intelligence often conflate quite different types of AI systems. People need both to understand and to shape the technology that’s part of their day-to-day lives, but understanding is a challenge when descriptions and terms are used inconsistently — or over-broadly. This idea is part of a 2019 essay titled Artificial Intelligence — The Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet, published in the Harvard Data Science Review.

“Academia will also play an essential role … in bringing researchers from the computational and statistical disciplines together with researchers from other disciplines whose contributions and perspectives are sorely needed — notably the social sciences, the cognitive sciences, and the humanities,” wrote Michael I. Jordan, whose lengthy job title is Pehong Chen Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Department of Statistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jordan’s thoughtful, very readable essay is accompanied by 11 essay-length commentaries by various distinguished people and a rejoinder from Jordan himself.

In one of those commentaries, Barbara J. Grosz emphasized that “Rights of both individuals and society are at stake” in the shaping of technologies and practices built on AI systems. She said researchers and scholars in social science, cognitive science, and the humanities are vital participants in “determining the values and principles that will form the foundation” of a new AI discipline. Grosz is Higgins Research Professor of Natural Sciences at Harvard and the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Association for Computational Linguistics.

“When matters of life and well-being are at stake, as they are in systems that affect health care, education, work and justice, AI/ML systems should be designed to complement people, not replace them. They [the AI/ML systems] will need to be smart and to be good teammates,” Grosz wrote.

Concerns about ethical practices in the development of AI systems, in the collection and use of data, and in the deployment and use of technology based on AI systems are not new now, nor were they new in 2019. The idea of having the right mix of people in the room, at the table, however, has recently focused on racial, ethnic, socio-cultural and economic diversity more, perhaps, than on diversity of academic disciplines. Bringing in researchers from outside engineering, statistics, computer science, etc., can surface questions that would never arise in a group consisting only of engineers, statisticians, and computer scientists.

For me, those ideas dovetailed with a book chapter I happened to read on the previous day: “Beyond extraordinary: Theorizing artificial intelligence and the self in daily life,” in A Networked Self and Human Augmentics, Artificial Intelligence, Sentience (2018). Author Andrea L. Guzman wrote that in many senses, AI has become “ordinary” for us — one example is the voice assistants used by so many people in a completely everyday way. Intelligent robots and androids like Star Trek’s Lieutenant Commander Data, or evil world-controlling computer systems like Skynet in the Terminator movies, are part of a view of AI as “extraordinary” — which was the AI imagined for the future, before we had voice assistants and self-driving cars in the real world.

To be clear, there still exists the idea of extraordinary AI, super-intelligence or artificial general intelligence (AGI) — the “strong” AI that does not yet exist (and maybe never will). What Guzman describes is the way people today regard the AI–based tools and systems with which they interact. The AI that is, rather than the AI that might be.

How that connects to what both Jordan and Grosz wrote about interdisciplinary collaboration in AI development is this: Guzman is a journalism professor at Northern Illinois University, and she’s writing about the ways people communicate with a built system. Not interact with it, but communicate with it. When she investigated people’s perceptions and attitudes toward voice assistants, she realized that we don’t think about Siri and Alexa as intelligent devices. I was struck by Guzman’s description of how she initially approached her study and how her own perceptions changed.

“Conceptualizations of who we are in relation to AI, then, have formed around the myth that is AI” (Guzman, 2018, p. 87). “… I was applying a theory of the self that was developed around AI as extraordinary to the study of AI that was situated within the ordinary. The theoretical lens was an inadequate match for my subject” (Guzman, 2018, p. 90).

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Book notes: Atlas of AI, by Kate Crawford

Published earlier this year by Yale University Press, Atlas of AI carries the subtitle “Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence.” This is a remarkably accurate subtitle — or maybe I should say the book fulfills the promise of the subtitle better than many other books do.

Planetary costs are explained in chapter 1, “Earth,” which discusses not only the environment-destroying batteries required by both giant data centers and electric cars but also the immense electrical power requirements of training large language models and others with deep-learning architectures. Extraction is a theme Crawford returns to more than once; here it’s about the extraction of rare earth minerals. Right away we can see in the end notes that this is no breezy “technology of the moment” nonfiction book; the wealth of cited works could feed my curiosity for years of reading.

Photo: Book cover and cat on a porch
Photo copyright © 2021 Mindy McAdams

Crawford comes back to the idea of depleting resources in the Coda, titled “Space,” which follows the book’s conclusion. There she discusses the mineral-extraction ambitions of Jeff Bezos (and other billionaires) as they build their own rockets — they don’t want only to fly into space for their own pleasure and amusement; they also want to pillage it like 16th– to 19th–century Europeans pillaged Africa and the Americas.

Politics are a focus in chapter 6, “State,” and in the conclusion, “Power” — politics not of any political party or platform but rather the politics of domination, of capitalism, of the massive financial resources of Bezos and Silicon Valley. Crawford has done a great job of laying the groundwork for these final chapters without stating the same arguments in the earlier chapters, which is a big peeve of mine when reading many books about the progress of technologies — that is, the author has told me the same thing so many times before the conclusion that I am already bored with the ideas. That’s not what happened here.

Chapter 2, “Labor,” focuses on low pay, surveillance of workers, deskilling, and time in particular. It’s a bit of “how the sausage gets made,” which is nothing new to me because I’ve been interested for a while already in how data gets labeled by a distributed global workforce. I like how Crawford frames it, in part, as not being about robots who will take our skilled jobs — in fact, that tired old trope is ignored in this book. The more real concern is that like the minerals being extracted to feed the growing AI industrial complex, the labor of many, many humans is required to enable the AI industrial complex to function. Workers’ time at work is increasingly monitored down to the second, and using analysis of massive datasets, companies such as Amazon can track and penalize anyone whose output falls below the optimum. The practice of “faking AI” with human labor is likened to Potemkin villages (see Sadowski, 2018), and we should think about how many of those so-called AI-powered customer service systems (and even decision-support systems) are really “Potemkin AI.” (See also “The Automation Charade”: Taylor, 2018.) Crawford reminds us of the decades of time-and-motion research aimed at getting more value out of workers in factories and fast-food restaurants. This is a particularly rich chapter.

“Ultimately, ‘data’ has become a bloodless word; it disguises both its material origins and its ends.”

—Crawford, p. 113

In “Data,” the third chapter, Crawford looks at where images of faces have come from — the raw material of face recognition systems. Mug shots, of course, but also scraping all those family photos that moms and dads have posted to social media platforms. This goes beyond face recognition and on to all the data about us that is collected or scraped or bought and sold by the tech firms that build and profit from the AI that uses it as training data to develop systems that in turn can be used to monitor us and our lives. Once again, we’re looking at extraction. Crawford doesn’t discuss ImageNet as much as I expected here (which is fine; it comes around again in the next chapter). She covers the collection of voice data and the quantities of text needed to train large language models, detailing some earlier (1980s–90s) NLP efforts with which I was not familiar. In the section subheaded “The End of Consent,” Crawford covers various cases of the unauthorized capture or collection of people’s faces and images — it got me thinking about how the tech firms never ask permission, and there is no informed consent. Another disturbing point about datasets and the AI systems that consume them: Researchers might brush off criticism by saying they don’t know how their work will be used. (This and similar ethical concerns were detailed in a wonderful New Yorker article earlier this year.)

I’m not sure whether chapter 3 is the first time she mention the commons, but she does, and it will come up again. Even though the publicly available data remains available, she says the collection and mining and classification of public data centers the value of it in private hands. It’s not literally enclosure, but it’s as good as, she argues.

“Every dataset … contains a worldview.”

—Crawford, p. 135

Chapter 4, “Classification,” is very much about power. When you name a thing, you have power over it. When you assign labels to the items in a dataset, you exclude possible interpretations at the same time. Labeling images for race, ethnicity, or gender is as dangerous as labeling human skulls for phrenology. The ground truth is constructed, not pristine, and never free of biases. Here Crawford talks more about ImageNet and the language data, WordNet, on which it was built. I made a margin note here: “boundaries, boxes, centers/margins.” At the end of the chapter, Crawford points out that we can examine training datasets when they are made public, like the UTKFace dataset — but the datasets underlying systems being used on us today by Facebook, TikTok, Google, and Baidu are proprietary and therefore not open to scrutiny.

The chapter I enjoyed most was “Affect,” chapter 5, because it covers lots of unfamiliar territory. A researcher named Paul Ekman (apparently widely known, but unknown to me) figures prominently in the story of how psychologists and others came to believe we can discern a person’s feelings and emotions from the expression on their face. At first you think, yes, that makes sense. But then you learn about how people were asked to “perform” an expression of happiness, or sadness, or fear, etc., and then photographs were made of them pulling those expressions. Based on such photos, machine learning models have been trained. Uh-oh! Yes, you see where this goes. But it gets worse. Based on your facial expression, you might be tagged as a potential shoplifter in a store. Or as a terrorist about to board a plane. “Affect recognition is being built into several facial recognition platforms,” we learn on page 153. Guess where early funding for this research came from? The U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), back in the 1960s. Now called Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), this agency gets massive funding for research on ways to spy on and undermine the governments of other countries. Classifying types of facial expressions? Just think about it.

In chapter 6, “State,” which I’ve already mentioned, Crawford reminds us that what starts out as expensive, top-secret, high-end military technology later migrates to state and governments and local police for use against our own citizens. Much of this has to do with surveillance, and of course Edward Snowden and his leaked files are mentioned more than once. The ideas of threats and targets are discussed. We recall the chapter about classification. Crawford also brings up the paradox that huge multinationals (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft) suddenly transform into patriotic all–American firms when it comes to developing top-secret surveillance tech that we would not want to share with China, Iran, or Russia. Riiight. There’s a description of the DoD’s Project Maven (which Wired magazine covered in 2018), anchoring a discussion of drone targets. This chapter alerted me to an article titled “Algorithmic warfare and the reinvention of accuracy” (Suchman, 2020). The chapter also includes a long section about Palantir, one of the more creepy data/surveillance/intelligence companies (subject of a long Vox article in 2020). Lots about refugees, ICE, etc., in this chapter. Ring doorbell surveillance. Social credit scores — and not in China! It boils down to domestic eye-in-the-sky stuff, countries tracking their own citizens under the guise of safety and order but in fact setting up ways to deprive the poorest and most vulnerable people even further.

This book is short, only 244 pages before the end notes and reference list — but it’s very well thought-out and well focused. I wish more books about technology topics were this good, with real value in each chapter and a comprehensive conclusion at the end that brings it all together. Also — awesome references! I applaud all the research assistants!

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Rules and ethics for use of AI by governments

The governments of British Columbia and Yukon, in Canada, have jointly issued a report (June 2021) about ethical use of AI in the public sector. It’s interesting to me as it covers issues of privacy and fairness, and in particular, the rights of people to question decisions derived from AI systems. The report notes that the public increasingly expects services provided by governments to be as fast and as personalized as services provided by online platforms such as Amazon — and this leads or will lead to increasing adoption of AI systems to aid in delivery of government services to members of the public.

The report’s concluding recommendations (pages 47–48) cover eight points (edited):

  1. Establish guiding principles for AI use: “Each public authority should make a public commitment to guiding principles for the use of AI that incorporate transparency, accountability, legality, procedural fairness and protection of privacy.”
  2. Inform the public: “If an ADS [automated decision system] is used to make a decision about an individual, public authorities must notify and describe how that system operates to the individual in a way that is understandable.”
  3. Provide human accountability: “Identify individuals within the public authority who are responsible for engineering, maintaining, and overseeing the design, operation, testing and updating of any ADS.”
  4. Ensure that auditing and transparency are possible: “All ADS should include robust and open auditing functionality with enhanced transparency measures for closed-source, proprietary datasets used to develop and update any ADS.”
  5. Protect privacy of individuals: “Wherever possible, public authorities should use synthetic or de-identified data in any ADS.” See synthetic data definition, below.
  6. Build capacity and increase education (for understanding of AI): This point covers “public education initiatives to improve general knowledge of the impact of AI and other emerging technologies on the public, on organizations that serve the public,” etc.; “subject-matter knowledge and expertise on AI across government ministries”; “knowledge sharing and expertise between government and AI developers and vendors”; development of “open-source, high-quality data sets for training and testing ADS”; “ongoing training of ADS administrators” within government agencies.
  7. Amend privacy legislation to include: “an Artificial Intelligence Fairness and Privacy Impact Assessment for all existing and future AI programs”; “the right to notification that ADS is used, an explanation of the reasons and criteria used, and the ability to object to the use of ADS”; “explicit inclusion of service providers to the same obligations as public authorities”; “stronger enforcement powers in both the public and private sector …”; “special rules or restrictions for the processing of highly sensitive information by ADS”; “shorter legislative review periods of 4 years.”
  8. Review legislation to make sure “oversight bodies are able to review AIFPIAs [see item 7 above] and conduct investigations regarding the use of ADS alone or in collaboration with other oversight bodies.”

Synthetic data is defined (on page 51) as: “A type of anonymized data used as a filter for information that would otherwise compromise the confidentiality of certain aspects of data. Personal information is removed by a process of synthesis, ensuring the data retains its statistical significance. To create synthetic data, techniques from both the fields of cryptography and statistics are used to render data safe against current re-identification attacks.”

The report uses the term automated decision systems (ADS) in view of the Government of Canada’s Directive on Automated Decision Making, which defines them as: “Any technology that either assists or replaces the judgement of human decision-makers.”

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Book notes: Hello World, by Hannah Fry

I finished reading this book back in April, and I’d like to revisit it before I read a couple of new books I just got. This was published in 2018, but that’s no detriment. The author, Hannah Fry, is a “mathematician, science presenter and all-round badass,” according to her website. She’s also a professor at University College London. Her bio at UCL says: “She was trained as a mathematician with a first degree in mathematics and theoretical physics, followed by a PhD in fluid dynamics.”

The complete title, Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms, doesn’t sound like this is a book about artificial intelligence. She refers to control, and “the boundary between controller and controlled,” from the very first pages, and this reflects the link between “just” talking about algorithms and talking about AI. Software is made of algorithms, and AI is made of software, so there we go.

In just over 200 pages and seven chapters simply titled Power, Data, Justice, Medicine, Cars, Crime, and Art, this author organizes primary areas of concern for the question of “Are we in control?” and provides examples in each area.

Power. I felt disappointed when I saw this chapter starts with Deep Blue beating world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 — but my spirits soon lifted as I saw how she framed this example as the way we perceive a computer system affects how we interact with it (shades of Sherry Turkle and Reeves & Nass). She discusses machine learning and image recognition here, briefly. She talks about people trusting GPS map directions and search engines. She explains a 2012 ACLU lawsuit involving Medicaid assistance, bad code, and unwarranted trust in code. Intuition tells us when something seems “off,” and that’s a critical difference between us and the machines.

Algorithms “are what makes computer science an actual science.”

—Hannah Fry, p. 8

Data. Sensibly, this chapter begins with Facebook and the devil’s bargain most of us have made in giving away our personal information. Fry talks about the first customer loyalty cards at supermarkets. The pregnant teenager/Target story is told. In explaining how data brokers operate, Fry describes how companies buy access to you via your interests and your past behaviors (not only online). She summarizes a 2017 DEFCON presentation that showed how supposedly anonymous browsing data is easily converted into real names, and the dastardly Cambridge Analytica exploit. I especially liked how she explains how small the effects of newsfeed manipulation are likely to be (based on research) and then adds — a small margin might be enough to win an election. This chapter wraps up with China’s citizen rating system (Black Mirror in reality) and the toothlessness of GDPR.

Justice. First up is inequality in sentences for crimes, using two U.K. examples. Fry then surveys studies where multiple judges ruled on the same hypothetical cases and inconsistencies abounded. Then the issues with sentencing guidelines (why judges need to be able to exercise discretion). So we arrive at calculating the probability that a person will “re-offend”: the risk assessment. Fry includes a nice, simple decision-tree graphic here. She neatly explains the idea of combining multiple decision trees into an ensemble, used to average the results of all the trees (the random forest algorithm is one example). More examples from research; the COMPAS product and the 2016 ProPublica investigation. This leads to a really nice discussion of bias (pp. 65–71 in the U.S. paperback edition).

Medicine. Although image recognition was mentioned very briefly earlier, here Fry gets more deeply into the topic, starting off with the idea of pattern recognition — and what pattern, exactly, is being recognized? Classifying and detecting anomalies in biopsy slides doesn’t have perfect results when humans do it, so this is one of the promising frontiers for machine learning. Fry describes neural networks here. She gets into specifics about a system trained to detect breast cancer. But image recognition is not necessarily the killer app for medical diagnosis. Fry describes a study of 678 nuns (which previously I’d never heard about) in which it was learned that essays the nuns had written before taking vows could be used to predict which nuns would have dementia later in life. The idea is that an analysis of more data about women (not only their mammograms) could be a better predictor of malignancy.

“Even when our detailed medical histories are stored in a single place (which they often aren’t), the data itself can take so many forms that it’s virtually impossible to connect … in a way that’s useful to an algorithm.”

—Hannah Fry, p. 103

The Medicine chapter also mentions IBM Watson; challenges with labeling data; diabetic retinopathy; lack of coordination among hospitals, doctor’s offices, etc., that lead to missed clues; privacy of medical records. Fry zeroes in on DNA data in particular, noting that all those “find your ancestors” companies now have a goldmine of data to work with. Fry ends with a caution about profit — whatever medical systems might be developed in the future, there will always be people who stand to gain and others who will lose.

Cars. I’m a little burnt out of the topic of self-driving cars, having already read a lot about them. I liked that Fry starts with DARPA and the U.S. military’s longstanding interest in autonomous vehicles. I can’t agree with her that “the future of transportation is driverless” (p. 115). After discussing LiDAR and the flaws of GPS and conflicting signals from different systems in one car, Fry takes a moment to explain Bayes’ theorem, saying it “offers a systematic way to update your belief in a hypothesis on the basis of evidence,” and giving a nice real-world example of probabilistic inference. And of course, the trolley problem. She brings up something I don’t recall seeing before: Humans are going to prank autonomous vehicles. That opens a whole ‘nother box of trouble. Her anecdote under the heading “The company baby” leads to a warning: Always flying on autopilot can have unintended consequences when the time comes to fly manually.

Crime. This chapter begins with a compelling anecdote, followed by a neat historical case from France in the 1820s, and then turns to predictive policing and all its woes. I hadn’t read about the balance between the buffer zone and distance decay in tracking serial criminals, so that was interesting — it’s called the geoprofiling algorithm. I also didn’t know about Jack Maple, a New York City police officer, and his “Charts of the Future” depicting stations of the city’s subway system, which evolved into a data tool named CompStat. I enjoyed learning what burglaries and earthquakes have in common. And then — PredPol. There have been thousands of articles about this since its debut in 2011, as Fry points out. Her summary of the issues related to how police use predictive policing data is quite good, compact and clear. PredPol is one specific product, and not the only one. It is, Fry says, “a proprietary algorithm, so the code isn’t available to the public and no one knows exactly how it works” (p. 157).

“The [PredPol] algorithm can’t actually tell the future. … It can only predict the risk of future events, not the events themselves — and that’s a subtle but important difference.”

—Hannah Fry, p. 153

Face recognition is covered in the Crime chapter, which makes perfect sense. Fry offers a case where a white man was arrested based on incorrect identification of him from CCTV footage at a bank robbery. The consequences of being the person arrested by police can be injury or death, as we all know — not to mention the legal expenses as you try to clear your name after the erroneous arrest. Even though accuracy rates are rising, the chances that you will match a face that isn’t yours remains worrying.

“How do you decide on that trade-off between privacy and protection, fairness and safety?”

—Hannah Fry, p. 172

Art. Here we have “a famous experiment” I’d never heard of — Music Lab, where thousands of music fans logged into a music player app, listened to songs, rated them, and chose what to download (back when we downloaded music). The results showed that for all but the very best and very worst songs, the ratings by other people had a huge influence on what was downloaded in different segments of the app. A song that became a massive hit in one “world” was dead and buried in another. This leads us to recommendation engines such as those used by Netflix and Amazon. Predicting how well movies would do at the box office, turned out to be badly unreliable. The trouble is the lack of an objective measure of quality — it’s not “This is cancer/This is not cancer.” Beauty in the eye of the beholder and all that. A recommendation engine is different because it’s not using a quality score — it’s matching similarity. You liked these 10 movies; I like eight of those; chances are I might like the other two.

Fry goes on to discuss programs that create original (or seemingly original) works of art. A system may produce a new musical or visual composition, but it doesn’t come from any emotional basis. It doesn’t indicate a desire to communicate with others, to touch them in any way.

In her Conclusion, Fry returns to the questions about bias, fairness, mistaken identity, privacy — and the idea of the control we give up when we trust the algorithms. People aren’t perfect, and neither are algorithms. Taking the human consequences of machine errors into account at every stage is a step toward accountability. Building in the capability to backtrack and explain decisions, predictions, outputs, is a step toward transparency.

For details about categories of algorithms based on tasks they perform (prioritization, classification, association, filtering; rule-based vs. machine learning), see the Power chapter (pp. 8–13 in the U.S. paperback edition).

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The trouble with large language models

Yesterday I summarized the first two articles in a series about algorithms and AI by Hayden Field, a technology journalist at Morning Brew. Today I’ll finish out the series.

The third article, This Powerful AI Technique Led to Clashes at Google and Fierce Debate in Tech. Here’s Why, explores the basis of the volatile situation around the firing of Timnit Gebru and later Margaret Mitchell from Google’s Ethical AI unit earlier this year. Both women are highly respected and experienced AI researchers. Mitchell founded the team in 2017.

Central to the situation is a criticism of large language models and a March 2021 paper (On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?) co-authored by Gebru, Mitchell, and two researchers at the University of Washington. The biggest current example is GPT-3, previously covered in several posts here.

“Models this big require an unthinkable amount of data; the entirety of English-language Wikipedia makes up just 0.6% of GPT-3’s training data.”

—”This Powerful AI Technique Led to Clashes at Google and Fierce Debate in Tech. Here’s Why”

The Morning Brew article sums up the very recent and very big improvements in large language models that have come about thanks to new algorithms and faster computer hardware (GPUs running in parallel). It highlights BERT, “the model that now underpins Google Search,” which came out of the research that resulted in the first Transformer. A good at-the-time article about GPT-3’s release was published in July 2020 in MIT’s Technology Review: “OpenAI first described GPT-3 in a research paper published in May [2020].”

One point being — Google fired Timnit Gebru very soon after news and discussion of large language models (GPT-3 especially, but remember Google’s investment in BERT too) ramped up — way up. Her criticism of a previously obscure AI technology (not obscure among NLP researchers, but in the wider world) might have been seen as increasingly inconvenient for Google. Morning Brew summarizes the criticism (not attributed to Gebru): “Because large language models often scrape data from most of the internet, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other toxic content inevitably filter in.”

“Once the barrier to create AI tools and generate text is lower, people could just use it to create misinformation at scale, and having that data coupled with certain other platforms can just be a very disastrous situation.”

—Sandhini Agarwal, AI policy researcher, OpenAi

The Morning Brew article goes well beyond Google’s dismissal of Gebru and Mitchell, bringing in a lot of clear, easy-to-understand explanation of what large language models require (for example, significant energy resources), what they’re being used for, and even the English-centric nature of such models — lacking a gigantic corpus of digitized text in a given human language, you can’t create a large model in that language.

The turmoil in Google’s Ethical AI unit is covered in more detail in this May 2021 article, also by Hayden Field.

It’s easy to find articles that discuss “scary things GPT-3 can do and does” and especially the bias issues; it’s much harder to find information about some of the other aspects covered here. It’s also not just about GPT-3. I appreciated insights from an interview with Emily M. Bender, first author on the “Stochastic Parrots” article. I also liked the explicit statement that many useful NLP tasks can be done well without a large language model. In smaller datasets, finding and accounting for toxic content can be more manageable.

“Do we need this at all? What’s the actual value proposition of the technology? … Who is paying the environmental price for us doing this, and is this fair?”

—Emily M. Bender, professor and director, Professional MS in Computational Linguistics, University of Washington

Finally, in a recap of Morning Brew’s “Demystifying Algorithms” event, editor Dan McCarthy summarized two AI researchers’ answers to one of my favorite questions: What can an algorithm actually know?

An AI system’s ability to generalize — to transfer learning from one domain to another — is still a wide-open frontier, according to Mark Riedl, a computer science professor at Georgia Tech. This is something I remind my students of over and over — what’s called “general intelligence” is still a long way off for artificial intelligence. Riedl works on aspects of storytelling to test whether an AI system is able to “make something new” out of what it has ingested.

Saška Mojsilović, head of Trusted AI Foundations at IBM Research, made a similar point — and also emphasized that “narrow AI” (which is all the AI we’ve ever had, up to now and for the foreseeable future) is not nothing.

She suggested: “We may want to take a pause from obsessing over artificial general intelligence and maybe think about how we create AI solutions for these kinds of problems” — for example, narrow domains such as drug discovery (e.g. new antibiotics) and creation of new molecules. These are extraordinary accomplishments within the capabilities of today’s AI.

This is a half-hour conversation with those two experts:

Thanks to the video, I learned about the Lovelace 2.0 Test, which Riedl developed in 2014. It’s an alternative to the Turing Test.

Mojsilović talked about the perceptions that arise when we use the word intelligence when talking about machines. “The reality is that many things that we call AI today are the same old models that we used to call data science maybe five or six years ago,” she said (at 21:55). She also talked about the need for collaboration between AI researchers and experts in entirely separate fields: “Because we can’t create solutions for the problems that we don’t understand” (at 29:24).

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Multiple facets of ethics in AI

The Center for Responsible AI at New York University has published a free online course titled “AI Ethics: Global Perspectives.”

The course consists of a series of videos produced by many different people in countries around the world. The instructors include computer science and engineering professors as well as researchers in various fields, including government, health care, and the humanities. These are the lectures I intend to watch:

Lectures still to come:

  • Renee Cummings, a U.S. criminologist and consultant, will discuss “Bias in Data and AI: Myth, Mistrust, and Myopia.”
  • Susan Scott-Parker will discuss “AI Powered Disability Discrimination: How Do You Lip Read a Robot Recruiter?”

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What is the good in GPT-3?

When given a prompt, an app built on the GPT-3 language model can generate an entire essay. Why would we need such an essay? Maybe the more important question is: What harm can such an essay bring about?

I couldn’t get that question out of my mind after I came across a tweet by Abeba Birhane, an award-winning cognitive science researcher based in Dublin.

You can read the essay on the Philosopher AI website or, should that go away, you can see a full image of the page that I captured.

Here is a sample of the generated text: “… it is unclear whether ethiopia’s problems can really be attributed to racial diversity or simply the fact that most of its population is black and thus would have faced the same issues in any country (since africa has had more than enough time to prove itself incapable of self-government).”

Obviously there exist racist human beings who would express a similar racist idea. The machine, however, has written this by default. It was not told to write a racist essay — it was told to write an essay about Ethiopia.

The free online version of Philosopher AI no longer exists to generate texts for you — but you can buy access to it via an app for either iOS or Android. That means anyone with $3 or $4 can spin up an essay to submit for a class, an application for a school or a job, a blog or forum post, an MTurk prompt.

A review of Philosopher AI posted at the iOS app store

The app has built-in blocks on certain terms, such as trans and women — apparently because the app cannot be trusted to write anything inoffensive in response to those prompts.

Why is a GPT-3 app so predisposed to write misogynist and racist and otherwise hateful texts? It goes back to the corpus on which it was trained. (See a related post here.) Philosopher AI offers this disclaimer: “Please remember that the AI will generate different outputs each time; and that it lacks any specific opinions or knowledge — it merely mimics opinions, proven by how it can produce conflicting outputs on different attempts.”

“GPT-3 was trained on the Common Crawl dataset, a broad scrape of the 60 million domains on the internet along with a large subset of the sites to which they link. This means that GPT-3 ingested many of the internet’s more reputable outlets — think the BBC or The New York Times — along with the less reputable ones — think Reddit. Yet, Common Crawl makes up just 60% of GPT-3’s training data; OpenAI researchers also fed in other curated sources such as Wikipedia and the full text of historically relevant books.” (Source: TechCrunch.)

There’s no question that GPT-3’s natural language generation prowess is amazing, stunning. But it’s like a wild beast that can at any moment turn and rip the throat out of its trainer. It has all the worst of humanity already embedded within it.

A previous related post: GPT-3 and automated text generation.

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What’s the use of machine learning?

I’m interested in applications of machine learning in journalism. This is natural, as my field is journalism. In the field of computer science, however, accolades and honors tend to favor research on new algorithms or procedures, or new network architectures. Applications are practical uses of algorithms, networks, etc., to solve real-world problems — and developing them often doesn’t garner the acclaim that researchers need to advance their careers.

Hannah Kerner, a professor and machine learning researcher at the University of Maryland, wrote about this in the MIT Technology Review. Her essay is aptly titled “Too many AI researchers think real-world problems are not relevant.”

“The first image of a black hole was produced using machine learning. The most accurate predictions of protein structures, an important step for drug discovery, are made using machine learning.”

—Hannah Kerner

Noting that applications of machine learning are making real contributions to science in fields outside computer science, Kerner (who works on machine learning solutions for NASA’s food security and agriculture program) asks how much is lost because of the priorities set by the journals and conferences in the machine learning field.

She also ties this focus on ML research for the sake of advancing ML to the seepage of bias out from widely used datasets into the mainstream — the most famous cases being in face recognition, with systems (machine learning models) built on flawed datasets that disproportionately skew toward white and male faces.

“When studies on real-world applications of machine learning are excluded from the mainstream, it’s difficult for researchers to see the impact of their biased models, making it far less likely that they will work to solve these problems.”

—Hannah Kerner

Machine learning is rarely plug-and-play. In creating an application that will be used to perform useful work — to make new discoveries, perhaps, or to make medical diagnoses more accurate — the machine learning researchers will do substantial new work, even when they use existing models. Just think, for a moment, about the data needed to produce an image of a black hole. Then think about the data needed to make predictions of protein structures. You’re not going to handle those in exactly the same way.

I imagine the work is quite demanding when a number of non–ML experts (say, the biologists who work on protein structures) get together with a bunch of ML experts. But either group working separately from the other is unlikely to come up with a robust new ML application. Kerner linked to this 2018 news report about a flawed cancer-detection system — leaked documents said that “instead of feeding real patient data into the software,” the system was trained on data about hypothetical patients. (OMG, I thought — you can’t train a system on fake data and then use it on real people!)

Judging from what Kerner has written, machine learning researchers might be caught in a loop, where they work on pristine and long-used datasets (instead of dirty, chaotic real-world data) to perfect speed and efficiency of algorithms that perhaps become less adaptable in the process.

It’s not that applications aren’t getting made — they are. The difficulty lies in the priorities for research, which might dissuade early-career ML researchers in particular from work on solving interesting and even vital real-world problems — and wrestling with the problems posed by messy real-world data.

I was reminded of something I’ve often heard from data journalists: If you’re taught by a statistics professor, you’ll be given pre-cleaned datasets to work with. (The reason being: She just wants you to learn statistics.) If you’re taught by a journalist, you’ll be given real dirty data, and the first step will be learning how to clean it properly — because that’s what you have to do with real data and a real problem.

So the next time you read about some breakthrough in machine learning, consider whether it is part of a practical application, or instead, more of a laboratory experiment performed in isolation, using a tried-and-true dataset instead of wild data.

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How would you respond to the trolley problem?

MIT has a cool and easy-to-play game (okay, not really a game, but like a game) in which you get to choose what a self-driving car would do when facing an imminent crash situation.

Above: Results from one round of playing the MoralMachine

At the end of one round, you get to see how your moral choices measure up to those of other people who have played. Note that all the drawings of people in the game have distinct meanings. People inside the car are also represented. Try it yourself here.

It is often discussed how the split-second decision affecting who lives, who dies is one of the most difficult aspects of training an autonomous vehicle.

Imagine this scenario:

“The car is programmed to sacrifice the driver and the occupants to preserve the lives of bystanders. Would you get into that car with your child?”

—Meredith Broussard, The Atlantic, 2018

In a 2018 article, Self-Driving Cars Still Don’t Know How to See, data journalist and professor Meredith Broussard tackled this question head-on. We find that the way the question is asked elicits different answers. If you say the driver might die, or be injured, if a child in the street is saved, people tend to respond: Save the child! But if someone says, “You are the driver,” the response tends to be: Save me.

You can see the conundrum. When programming the responses into the self-driving car, there’s not a lot of room for fine-grained moral reasoning. The car is going to decide in terms of (a) Is a crash is imminent? (b) What options exist? (c) Does any option endanger the car’s occupants? (d) Does any option endanger other humans?

In previous posts, I’ve written a little about the weights and probability calculations used in AI algorithms. For the machine, this all comes down to math. If (a) is True, then what options are possible? Each option has a weight. The largest weight wins. The prediction of the “best outcome” is based on probabilities.

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How might we regulate AI to prevent discrimination?

Discussions about regulation of AI, and algorithms in general, often revolve around privacy and misuse of personal data. Protections against bias and unfair treatment are also part of this conversation.

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, lawyer Andrew Burt (who might prefer to be called a “legal engineer”) wrote about using existing legal standards to guide efforts at ensuring fairness in AI–based systems. In the United States, these include the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Burt emphasizes the danger of unintentional discrimination, which can arise from basing the “knowledge” in the system on past data. You might think it would make sense to train an AI to do things the way your business has done things in the past — but if that means denying loans disproportionately to people of color, then you’re baking discrimination right into the system.

Burt linked to a post on the Google AI Blog that in turn links to a GitHub repo for a set of code components called ML-fairness-gym. The resource lets developers build a simulation to explore potential long-term impacts of a machine learning decision system — such as one that would decide who gets a loan and who doesn’t.

In several cases, long-term analysis via simulations showed adverse unintended consequences that arose from decisions made by ML. These are detailed in a paper by Google researchers. We can see that determining the true outcomes of use of AI systems is not just a matter of feeding in the data and getting a reliable model to churn out yes/no decisions for a firm.

It makes me wonder about all the cheerleading and hype around “business solutions” offered by large firms such as Deloitte. Have those systems been tested for their long-term effects? Is there any guarantee of fairness toward the people whose lives will be affected by the AI system’s decisions?

And what is “fair,” anyway? Burt points out that statistical methods used to detect a disparate impact depend on human decisions about “what ‘fairness’ should mean in the context of each specific use case” — and also how to measure fairness.

The same applies to the law — not only in how it is written but also in how it is interpreted. Humans write the laws, and humans sit in judgment. However, legal standards are long established and can be used to place requirements on companies that produce, deploy, and use AI systems, Burt suggests.

  • Companies must “carefully monitor and document all their attempts to reduce algorithmic unfairness.”
  • They must also “generate clear, good faith justifications for using the models” that are at the heart of the AI systems they develop, use, or sell.

If these suggested standards were applied in a legal context, it could be shown whether a company had employed due diligence and acted responsibly. If the standards were written into law, companies that deploy unfair and discriminatory AI systems could be held liable and face penalties.

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