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I’m Not Afraid of AI Overlords— I’m Afraid of Whoever’s Training Them To Think That Way

by Damien P. Williams

I want to let you in on a secret: According to Silicon Valley’s AI’s, I’m not human.

Well, maybe they think I’m human, but they don’t think I’m me. Or, if they think I’m me and that I’m human, they think I don’t deserve expensive medical care. Or that I pose a higher risk of criminal recidivism. Or that my fidgeting behaviours or culturally-perpetuated shame about my living situation or my race mean I’m more likely to be cheating on a test. Or that I want to see morally repugnant posts that my friends have commented on to call morally repugnant. Or that I shouldn’t be given a home loan or a job interview or the benefits I need to stay alive.

Now, to be clear, “AI” is a misnomer, for several reasons, but we don’t have time, here, to really dig into all the thorny discussion of values and beliefs about what it means to think, or to be a pow3rmind— especially because we need to take our time talking about why values and beliefs matter to conversations about “AI,” at all. So instead of “AI,” let’s talk specifically about algorithms, and machine learning.

Machine Learning (ML) is the name for a set of techniques for systematically reinforcing patterns, expectations, and desired outcomes in various computer systems. These techniques allow those systems to make sought after predictions based on the datasets they’re trained on. ML systems learn the patterns in these datasets and then extrapolate them to model a range of statistical likelihoods of future outcomes.

Algorithms are sets of instructions which, when run, perform functions such as searching, matching, sorting, and feeding the outputs of any of those processes back in on themselves, so that a system can learn from and refine itself. This feedback loop is what allows algorithmic machine learning systems to provide carefully curated search responses or newsfeed arrangements or facial recognition results to consumers like me and you and your friends and family and the police and the military. And while there are many different types of algorithms which can be used for the above purposes, they all remain sets of encoded instructions to perform a function.

And so, in these systems’ defense, it’s no surprise that they think the way they do: That’s exactly how we’ve told them to think.

[Image of Michael Emerson as Harold Finch, in season 2, episode 1 of the show Person of Interest, “The Contingency.” His face is framed by a box of dashed yellow lines, the words “Admin” to the top right, and “Day 1” in the lower right corner.]

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Below are the slides, audio, and transcripts for my talk ‘”Any Sufficiently Advanced Neglect is Indistinguishable from Malice”: Assumptions and Bias in Algorithmic Systems,’ given at the 21st Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology, back in May 2019.

(Cite as: Williams, Damien P. ‘”Any Sufficiently Advanced Neglect is Indistinguishable from Malice”: Assumptions and Bias in Algorithmic Systems;’ talk given at the 21st Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology; May 2019)

Now, I’ve got a chapter coming out about this, soon, which I can provide as a preprint draft if you ask, and can be cited as “Constructing Situated and Social Knowledge: Ethical, Sociological, and Phenomenological Factors in Technological Design,” appearing in Philosophy And Engineering: Reimagining Technology And Social Progress. Guru Madhavan, Zachary Pirtle, and David Tomblin, eds. Forthcoming from Springer, 2019. But I wanted to get the words I said in this talk up onto some platforms where people can read them, as soon as possible, for a  couple of reasons.

First, the Current Occupants of the Oval Office have very recently taken the policy position that algorithms can’t be racist, something which they’ve done in direct response to things like Google’s Hate Speech-Detecting AI being biased against black people, and Amazon claiming that its facial recognition can identify fear, without ever accounting for, i dunno, cultural and individual differences in fear expression?

[Free vector image of a white, female-presenting person, from head to torso, with biometric facial recognition patterns on her face; incidentally, go try finding images—even illustrations—of a non-white person in a facial recognition context.]

All these things taken together are what made me finally go ahead and get the transcript of that talk done, and posted, because these are events and policy decisions about which I a) have been speaking and writing for years, and b) have specific inputs and recommendations about, and which are, c) frankly wrongheaded, and outright hateful.

And I want to spend time on it because I think what doesn’t get through in many of our discussions is that it’s not just about how Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, or Algorithmic instances get trained, but the processes for how and the cultural environments in which HUMANS are increasingly taught/shown/environmentally encouraged/socialized to think is the “right way” to build and train said systems.

That includes classes and instruction, it includes the institutional culture of the companies, it includes the policy landscape in which decisions about funding and get made, because that drives how people have to talk and write and think about the work they’re doing, and that constrains what they will even attempt to do or even understand.

All of this is cumulative, accreting into institutional epistemologies of algorithm creation. It is a structural and institutional problem.

So here are the Slides:

The Audio:

[Direct Link to Mp3]

And the Transcript is here below the cut:

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We do a lot of work and have a lot of conversations around here with people working on the social implications of technology, but some folx sometimes still don’t quite get what I mean when I say that our values get embedded in our technological systems, and that the values of most internet companies, right now, are capitalist brand engagement and marketing. To that end, I want to take a minute to talk to you about something that happened, this week and just a heads-up, this conversation is going to mention sexual assault and the sexual predatory behaviour of men toward young girls.
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I spoke with Klint Finley over at WIRED about Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft’s new joint ethics and oversight venture, which they’ve dubbed the “Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society.” They held a joint press briefing, today, in which Yann LeCun, Facebook’s director of AI, and Mustafa Suleyman, the head of applied AI at DeepMind discussed what it was that this new group would be doing out in the world. From the Article:

Creating a dialogue beyond the rather small world of AI researchers, LeCun says, will be crucial. We’ve already seen a chat bot spout racist phrases it learned on Twitter, an AI beauty contest decide that black people are less attractive than white people and a system that rates the risk of someone committing a crime that appears to be biased against black people. If a more diverse set of eyes are looking at AI before it reaches the public, the thinking goes, these kinds of thing can be avoided.

The rub is that, even if this group can agree on a set of ethical principles–something that will be hard to do in a large group with many stakeholders—it won’t really have a way to ensure those ideals are put into practice. Although one of the organization’s tenets is “Opposing development and use of AI technologies that would violate international conventions or human rights,” Mustafa Suleyman, the head of applied AI at DeepMind, says that enforcement is not the objective of the organization.

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked to Klint about the intricate interplay of machine intelligence, ethics, and algorithmic bias; we discussed it earlier just this year, for WIRED’s AI Issue. It’s interesting to see the amount of attention this topic’s drawn in just a few short months, and while I’m trepidatious about the potential implementations, as I note in the piece, I’m really fairly glad that more people are more and more willing to have this discussion, at all.

To see my comments and read the rest of the article, click through, here: “Tech Giants Team Up to Keep AI From Getting Out of Hand”