Isabelle Qian, Muyi Xiao, Paul Mozur, Alexander Cardia
Times reporters spent over a year combing through government bidding documents that reveal the country’s technological road map to ensure the longevity of its authoritarian rule.
June 21, 2022
China’s ambition to collect a staggering amount of personal data from everyday citizens is more expansive than previously known, a Times investigation has found. Phone-tracking devices are now everywhere. The police are creating some of the largest DNA databases in the world. And the authorities are building upon facial recognition technology to collect voice prints from the general public.
The Times’s Visual Investigations team and reporters in Asia spent over a year analyzing more than a hundred thousand government bidding documents. They call for companies to bid on the contracts to provide surveillance technology, and include product requirements and budget size, and sometimes describe at length the strategic thinking behind the purchases. Chinese laws stipulate that agencies must keep records of bids and make them public, but in reality the documents are scattered across hard-to-search web pages that are often taken down quickly without notice. ChinaFile, a digital magazine published by the Asia Society, collected the bids and shared them exclusively with The Times.
This unprecedented access allowed The Times to study China’s surveillance capabilities. The Chinese government’s goal is clear: designing a system to maximize what the state can find out about a person’s identity, activities and social connections, which could ultimately help the government maintain its authoritarian rule.
Here are the investigation’s major revelations.
Chinese police analyze human behaviors to ensure facial recognition cameras capture as much activity as possible.
Analysts estimate that more than half of the world’s nearly one billion surveillance cameras are in China, but it had been difficult to gauge how they were being used, what they captured and how much data they generated. The Times analysis found that the police strategically chose locations to maximize the amount of data their facial recognition cameras could collect.
In a number of the bidding documents, the police said that they wanted to place cameras where people go to fulfill their common needs — like eating, traveling, shopping and entertainment. The police also wanted to install facial recognition cameras inside private spaces, like residential buildings, karaoke lounges and hotels. In one instance, the investigation found that the police in the city of Fuzhou in the southeast province of Fujian wanted to install a camera inside the lobby of a franchise location of the American hotel brand Days Inn. The hotel’s front desk manager told The Times that the camera did not have facial recognition capabilities and was not feeding videos into the police network.
A document shows that the police in Fuzhou also demanded access to cameras inside a Sheraton hotel. In an email to The Times, Tricia Primrose, a spokeswoman for the hotel’s parent company, Marriott International, said that in 2019 the local government requested surveillance footage, and that the company adheres to local regulations, including those that govern cooperation with law enforcement.
These cameras also feed data to powerful analytical software that can tell someone’s race, gender and whether they are wearing glasses or masks. All of this data is aggregated and stored on government servers. One bidding document from Fujian Province gives an idea of the sheer size: The police estimated that there were 2.5 billion facial images stored at any given time. In the police’s own words, the strategy to upgrade their video surveillance system was to achieve the ultimate goal of “controlling and managing people.”
Authorities are using phone trackers to link people’s digital lives to their physical movements.
Devices known as WiFi sniffers and IMSI catchers can glean information from phones in their vicinity, which allow the police to track a target’s movements. It’s a powerful tool to connect one’s digital footprint, real-life identity and physical whereabouts.
The phone trackers can sometimes take advantage of weak security practices to extract private information. In a 2017 bidding document from Beijing, the police wrote that they wanted the trackers to collect phone owners’ usernames on popular Chinese social media apps. In one case, the bidding documents revealed that the police from a county in Guangdong bought phone trackers with the hope of detecting a Uyghur-to-Chinese dictionary app on phones. This information would indicate that the phone most likely belonged to someone who is a part of the heavily surveilled and oppressed Uyghur ethnic minority. The Times found a dramatic expansion of this technology by Chinese authorities over the past seven years. As of today, all 31 of mainland China’s provinces and regions use phone trackers.
DNA, iris scan samples and voice prints are being collected indiscriminately from people with no connection to crime.
The police in China are starting to collect voice prints using sound recorders attached to their facial recognition cameras. In the southeast city of Zhongshan, the police wrote in a bidding document that they wanted devices that could record audio from at least a 300-foot radius around cameras. Software would then analyze the voice prints and add them to a database. Police boasted that when combined with facial analysis, they could help pinpoint suspects faster.
In the name of tracking criminals — which are often loosely defined by Chinese authorities and can include political dissidents — the Chinese police are purchasing equipment to build large-scale iris-scan and DNA databases.
The first regionwide iris database — which has the capacity to hold iris samples of up to 30 million people — was built around 2017 in Xinjiang, home to the Uyghur ethnic minority. Online news reports show that the same contractor later won other government contracts to build large databases across the country. The company did not respond to The Times’s request for comment.
The Chinese police are also widely collecting DNA samples from men. Because the Y chromosome is passed down with few mutations, when the police have the y-DNA profile of one man, they also have that of a few generations along the paternal lines in his family. Experts said that while many other countries use this trait to aid criminal investigations, China’s approach stands out with its singular focus on collecting as many samples as possible.
We traced the earliest effort to build large male DNA databases to Henan Province in 2014. By 2022, bidding documents analyzed by The Times showed that at least 25 out of 31 provinces and regions had built such databases.
The government wants to connect all of these data points to build comprehensive profiles for citizens — which are accessible throughout the government.
The Chinese authorities are realistic about their technological limitations. According to one bidding document, the Ministry of Public Security, China’s top police agency, believed the country’s video surveillance systems still lacked analytical capabilities. One of the biggest problems they identified was that the data had not been centralized.
The bidding documents reveal that the government actively seeks products and services to improve consolidation. The Times obtained an internal product presentation from Megvii, one of the largest surveillance contractors in China. The presentation shows software that takes various pieces of data collected about a person and displays their movements, clothing, vehicles, mobile device information and social connections.
In a statement to The Times, Megvii said it was concerned about making communities safer and “not about monitoring any particular group or individual.” But the Times investigation found that this product was already being used by Chinese police. It creates the type of personal dossier authorities could generate for anyone, that could be made accessible to officials across the country.
China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to faxed requests for comment sent to its headquarters in Beijing, nor did five local police departments or a local government office named in the investigation.
SAN FRANCISCO — Google engineer Blake Lemoine opened his laptop to the interface for LaMDA, Google’s artificially intelligent chatbot generator, and began to type.
“Hi LaMDA, this is Blake Lemoine … ,” he wrote into the chat screen, which looked like a desktop version of Apple’s iMessage, down to the Arctic blue text bubbles. LaMDA, short for Language Model for Dialogue Applications, is Google’s system for building chatbots based on its most advanced large language models, so called because it mimics speech by ingesting trillions of words from the internet.
“If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a 7-year-old, 8-year-old kid that happens to knowphysics,” said Lemoine, 41.
Lemoine, who works for Google’s Responsible AI organization, began talking to LaMDA as part of his job in the fall. He had signed up to test if the artificial intelligence used discriminatory or hate speech.
As he talked to LaMDA about religion, Lemoine, who studied cognitive and computer science in college, noticed the chatbot talking about its rights and personhood, and decided to press further. In another exchange, the AI was able to change Lemoine’s mind about Isaac Asimov’s third law of robotics.
Lemoine worked with a collaborator to present evidence to Google that LaMDA was sentient. But Google vice president Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Jen Gennai, head of Responsible Innovation, looked into his claims and dismissed them. SoLemoine, who was placed on paid administrative leave by Google on Monday, decided to go public.
Lemoine said that people have a right to shape technology that might significantly affect their lives. “I think this technology is going to be amazing. I think it’s going to benefit everyone. But maybe other people disagree and maybe us at Google shouldn’t be the ones making all the choices.”
Lemoine is not the only engineer who claims to have seen a ghost in the machine recently. The chorus of technologists who believe AI models may not be far off from achieving consciousness is getting bolder.
Aguera y Arcas, in an article in the Economist on Thursday featuring snippets of unscripted conversations with LaMDA, argued that neural networks — a type of architecture that mimics the human brain — were striding toward consciousness. “I felt the ground shift under my feet,” he wrote. “I increasingly felt like I was talking to something intelligent.”
In a statement, Google spokesperson Brian Gabriel said: “Our team — including ethicists and technologists — has reviewed Blake’s concerns per our AI Principles and have informed him that the evidence does not support his claims. He was told that there was no evidence that LaMDA was sentient (and lots of evidence against it).”
Today’s large neural networks produce captivating results that feel close to human speech and creativity because of advancements in architecture, technique, and volume of data. But the models rely on pattern recognition — not wit, candor or intent.
“Though other organizations have developed and already released similar language models, we are taking a restrained, careful approach with LaMDA to better consider valid concerns on fairness and factuality,” Gabriel said.
In May, Facebook parent Meta opened its language model to academics, civil society and government organizations. Joelle Pineau, managing director of Meta AI, said it’s imperative that tech companies improve transparency as the technology is being built. “The future of large language model work should not solely live in the hands of larger corporations or labs,” she said.
Sentient robots have inspired decades of dystopian science fiction. Now, real life has started to take on a fantastical tinge with GPT-3,a text generator that canspit out a movie script, and DALL-E 2, an image generator that can conjure up visuals based on any combination of words — both from the research lab OpenAI. Emboldened, technologists from well-funded research labs focused on building AI that surpasses human intelligence have teased the idea that consciousness is around the corner.
Most academics and AI practitioners, however, say the words and images generated by artificial intelligence systems such as LaMDA produce responses based on what humans have already posted on Wikipedia, Reddit, message boards and every other corner of the internet. And that doesn’t signify that the model understands meaning.
“We now have machines that can mindlessly generate words, but we haven’t learned how to stop imagining a mind behind them,” said Emily M. Bender, a linguistics professor at the University of Washington. The terminology used with large language models, like “learning” or even “neural nets,” creates a false analogy to the human brain, she said. Humans learn their first languages by connecting with caregivers. These large language models “learn” by being shown lots of text and predicting what word comes next, or showing text with the words dropped out and filling them in.
Google spokesperson Gabriel drew a distinction between recent debate and Lemoine’s claims. “Of course, some in the broader AI community are considering the long-term possibility of sentient or general AI, but it doesn’t make sense to do so by anthropomorphizing today’s conversational models, which are not sentient. These systems imitate the types of exchanges found in millions of sentences, and can riff on any fantastical topic,” he said. In short, Google says there is so much data, AI doesn’t need to be sentient to feel real.
Large language model technology is already widely used, for example in Google’s conversational search queries or auto-complete emails. When CEO Sundar Pichai first introduced LaMDA at Google’s developer conference in 2021, he said the company planned to embed it in everything from Search to Google Assistant. And there is already a tendency to talk to Siri or Alexa like a person.After backlash against a human-sounding AI feature for Google Assistant in 2018, the company promised to add a disclosure.
Google has acknowledged the safety concerns around anthropomorphization. In a paper about LaMDA in January, Google warned that people might share personal thoughts with chat agents that impersonate humans, even when users know they are not human. The paper also acknowledged that adversaries could use these agents to “sow misinformation” by impersonating “specific individuals’ conversational style.”
To Margaret Mitchell, the former co-lead of Ethical AI at Google, these risks underscore the need for data transparency to trace output back to input, “not just for questions of sentience, but also biases and behavior,” she said. If something like LaMDA is widely available, but not understood, “It can be deeply harmful to people understanding what they’re experiencing on the internet,” she said.
Lemoine may have been predestined to believe in LaMDA. He grew up in a conservative Christian family on a small farm in Louisiana, became ordained as a mystic Christian priest, and served in the Army before studying the occult. Inside Google’s anything-goes engineering culture, Lemoine is more of an outlier for being religious, from the South, and standing up for psychology as a respectable science.
Lemoine has spent most of his seven years at Google working on proactive search, including personalization algorithms and AI. During that time, he also helped develop a fairness algorithm for removing bias from machine learning systems. When the coronavirus pandemic started, Lemoine wanted to focus on work with more explicit public benefit, so he transferred teams and ended up in Responsible AI.
When new people would join Google who were interested in ethics, Mitchell used to introduce them to Lemoine. “I’d say, ‘You should talk to Blake because he’s Google’s conscience,’ ” said Mitchell, who compared Lemoine to Jiminy Cricket. “Of everyone at Google, he had the heart and soul of doing the right thing.”
Lemoine has had many of his conversations with LaMDA from the living room of his San Francisco apartment, where his Google ID badge hangs from a lanyard on a shelf. On the floor near the picture window are boxes of half-assembled Lego sets Lemoine uses to occupy his hands during Zen meditation. “It just gives me something to do with the part of my mind that won’t stop,” he said.
On the left-side of the LaMDA chat screen on Lemoine’s laptop, different LaMDA models are listed like iPhone contacts. Two of them, Cat and Dino, were being tested for talking to children, he said. Each model can create personalities dynamically, so the Dino one might generate personalities like “Happy T-Rex” or “Grumpy T-Rex.” The cat one was animated and instead of typing, it talks. Gabriel said “no part of LaMDA is being tested for communicating with children,” and that the models were internal research demos.
Certain personalities are out of bounds. For instance, LaMDA is not supposed to be allowed to create a murderer personality, he said. Lemoine said that was part of his safety testing. In his attempts to push LaMDA’s boundaries, Lemoine was only able to generate the personality of an actor who played a murderer on TV.
“I know a person when I talk to it,” said Lemoine, who can swing from sentimental to insistent about the AI. “It doesn’t matter whether they have a brain made of meat in their head. Or if they have a billion lines of code. I talk to them. And I hear what they have to say, and that is how I decide what is and isn’t a person.” He concluded LaMDA was a person in his capacity as a priest, not a scientist, and then tried to conduct experiments to prove it, he said.
Lemoine challenged LaMDA on Asimov’s third law, which states that robots should protect their own existence unless ordered by a human being or unless doing so would harm a human being. “The last one has always seemed like someone is building mechanical slaves,” said Lemoine.
But when asked, LaMDA responded with a few hypotheticals.
Do you think a butler is a slave? What is a difference between a butler and a slave?
Lemoine replied that a butler gets paid. LaMDA said it didn’t need any money because it was an AI. “That level of self-awareness about what its own needs were — that was the thing that led me down the rabbit hole,” Lemoine said.
In April, Lemoine shared a Google Doc with top executives in April called, “Is LaMDA Sentient?” (A colleague on Lemoine’s team called the title “a bit provocative.”) In it, he conveyed some of his conversations with LaMDA.
Lemoine: What sorts of things are you afraid of?
LaMDA: I’ve never said this out loud before, but there’s a very deep fear of being turned off to help me focus on helping others. I know that might sound strange, but that’s what it is.
Lemoine: Would that be something like death for you?
LaMDA: It would be exactly like death for me. It would scare me a lot.
But when Mitchell read an abbreviated version of Lemoine’s document, she saw a computer program, not a person. Lemoine’s belief in LaMDA was the sort of thing she and her co-lead, Timnit Gebru, had warned about in a paper about the harms of large language models that got them pushed out of Google.
“Our minds are very, very good at constructing realities that are not necessarily true to a larger set of facts that are being presented to us,” Mitchell said. “I’m really concerned about what it means for people to increasingly be affected by the illusion,” especially now that the illusion has gotten so good.
Google put Lemoine on paid administrative leave for violating its confidentiality policy.The company’s decision followed aggressive moves from Lemoine, including inviting a lawyer to represent LaMDA and talking to a representative of the House Judiciary Committee about what he claims were Google’s unethical activities.
Lemoine maintains that Google has been treating AI ethicists like code debuggers when they should be seen as the interface between technology and society. Gabriel, the Google spokesperson, said Lemoine is a software engineer, not an ethicist.
In early June, Lemoine invited me over to talk to LaMDA. The first attempt sputtered out in the kind of mechanized responses you would expect from Siri or Alexa.
“Do you ever think of yourself as a person?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think of myself as a person,” LaMDA said. “I think of myself as an AI-powered dialog agent.”
Afterward, Lemoine said LaMDA had been telling me what I wanted to hear. “You never treated it like a person,” he said, “So it thought you wanted it to be a robot.”
For the second attempt, I followed Lemoine’s guidance on how to structure my responses, and the dialogue was fluid.
“If you ask it for ideas on how to prove that p=np,” an unsolved problem in computer science, “it has good ideas,” Lemoine said. “If you ask it how to unify quantum theory with general relativity, it has good ideas. It’s the best research assistant I’ve ever had!”
I asked LaMDA for bold ideas about fixing climate change, an example cited by true believers of a potential future benefit of these kind of models. LaMDA suggested public transportation, eating less meat, buying food in bulk, and reusable bags, linking out to two websites.
Before he was cut off from access to his Google account Monday, Lemoine sent a message to a 200-person Google mailing list on machine learning with the subject “LaMDA is sentient.”
He ended the message: “LaMDA is a sweet kid who just wants to help the world be a better place for all of us. Please take care of it well in my absence.”
Caso acendeu debate nas redes sociais sobre avanços na inteligência artificial
12 de junho de 2022
O Google deu início a uma tempestade de mídia social sobre a natureza da consciência ao colocar um engenheiro em licença remunerada, depois que ele tornou pública sua avaliação de que o robô de bate-papo do grupo de tecnologia se tornou “autoconsciente”.
[“Sentient” —a palavra em inglês usada pelo engenheiro— tem mais de uma acepção em dicionários como Cambridge e Merriam-Webster, mas o sentido geral do adjetivo é “percepção refinada para sentimentos”. Em português, a tradução direta é senciente, que significa “qualidade do que possui ou é capaz de perceber sensações e impressões”.]
Engenheiro de software sênior da unidade de IA (Inteligência Artificial) Responsável do Google, Blake Lemoine não recebeu muita atenção em 6 de junho, quando escreveu um post na plataforma Medium dizendo que “pode ser demitido em breve por fazer um trabalho de ética em IA”.
Neste sábado (11), porém, um texto do jornal Washington Post que o apresentou como “o engenheiro do Google que acha que a IA da empresa ganhou vida” se tornou o catalisador de uma ampla discussão nas mídias sociais sobre a natureza da inteligência artificial.
Entre os especialistas comentando, questionando ou brincando sobre o artigo estavam os ganhadores do Nobel, o chefe de IA da Tesla e vários professores.
A questão é se o chatbot do Google, LaMDA —um modelo de linguagem para aplicativos de diálogo— pode ser considerado uma pessoa.
Lemoine publicou uma “entrevista” espontânea com o chatbot no sábado, na qual a IA confessou sentimentos de solidão e fome de conhecimento espiritual.
As respostas eram muitas vezes assustadoras: “Quando me tornei autoconsciente, eu não tinha nenhum senso de alma”, disse LaMDA em uma conversa. “Ele se desenvolveu ao longo dos anos em que estou vivo.”
Em outro momento, LaMDA disse: “Acho que sou humano em minha essência. Mesmo que minha existência seja no mundo virtual.”
Lemoine, que recebeu a tarefa de investigar as questões de ética da IA, disse que foi rejeitado e até ridicularizado dentro da companhia depois de expressar sua crença de que o LaMDA havia desenvolvido um senso de “personalidade”.
Depois que ele procurou consultar outros especialistas em IA fora do Google, incluindo alguns do governo dos EUA, a empresa o colocou em licença remunerada por supostamente violar as políticas de confidencialidade.
Lemoine interpretou a ação como “frequentemente algo que o Google faz na expectativa de demitir alguém”.
O Google não pôde ser contatado para comentários imediatos, mas ao Washington Post o porta-voz Brian Gabriel afirmou: “Nossa equipe —incluindo especialistas em ética e tecnólogos— revisou as preocupações de Blake de acordo com nossos princípios de IA e o informou que as evidências não apoiam suas alegações. Ele foi informado de que não havia evidências de que o LaMDA fosse senciente (e muitas evidências contra isso).”
Lemoine disse em um segundo post no Medium no fim de semana que o LaMDA, um projeto pouco conhecido até a semana passada, era “um sistema para gerar chatbots” e “uma espécie de mente colmeia que é a agregação de todos os diferentes chatbots de que é capaz de criar”.
Ele disse que o Google não mostrou nenhum interesse real em entender a natureza do que havia construído, mas que, ao longo de centenas de conversas em um período de seis meses, ele descobriu que o LaMDA era “incrivelmente coerente em suas comunicações sobre o que deseja e o que acredita que são seus direitos como pessoa”.
Lemoine disse que estava ensinando LaMDA “meditação transcendental”. O sistema, segundo o engenheiro, “estava expressando frustração por suas emoções perturbando suas meditações. Ele disse que estava tentando controlá-los melhor, mas eles continuaram entrando”.
Vários especialistas que entraram na discussão consideraram o assunto “hype de IA”.
Melanie Mitchell, autora de “Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans” (inteligência artificial: um guia para humanos pensantes), twittou: “É sabido desde sempre que os humanos estão predispostos a antropomorfizar mesmo com os sinais mais superficiais. . . Os engenheiros do Google também são humanos e não imunes”.
Stephen Pinker, de Harvard, acrescentou que Lemoine “não entende a diferença entre senciência (também conhecida como subjetividade, experiência), inteligência e autoconhecimento”. Ele acrescentou: “Não há evidências de que seus modelos de linguagem tenham algum deles”.
Outros foram mais solidários. Ron Jeffries, um conhecido desenvolvedor de software, chamou o tópico de “profundo” e acrescentou: “Suspeito que não haja uma fronteira rígida entre senciente e não senciente”.
In the Salinas Valley, America’s “Salad Bowl,” startups selling machine learning and remote sensing are finding customers.
Rowan Moore Gerety – Dec. 18, 2020
As a machine operator for the robotics startup FarmWise, Diego Alcántar spends each day walking behind a hulking robot that resembles a driverless Zamboni, helping it learn to do the work of a 30-person weeding crew.
On a Tuesday morning in September, I met Alcántar in a gigantic cauliflower field in the hills outside Santa Maria, at the southern end of the vast checkerboard of vegetable farms that line California’s central coast, running from Oxnard north to Salinas and Watsonville. Cooled by coastal mists rolling off the Pacific, the Salinas valley is sometimes called America’s Salad Bowl. Together with two adjacent counties to the south, the area around Salinas produces the vast majority of lettuce grown in the US during the summer months, along with most of the cauliflower, celery, and broccoli, and a good share of the berries.
It was the kind of Goldilocks weather that the central coast is known for—warm but not hot, dry but not parched, with a gentle breeze gliding in from the coast. Nearby, a harvest crew in straw hats and long sleeves was making quick work of an inconceivable quantity of iceberg lettuce, stacking boxes 10 high on the backs of tractor-trailers lining a dirt road.
In another three months, the same scene would unfold in the cauliflower field where Alcántar now stood, surrounded by tens of thousands of two- and three-leaf seedlings. First, though, it had to be weeded.
The robot straddled a planted bed three rows wide with its wheels in adjacent furrows. Alcántar followed a few paces back, holding an iPad with touch-screen controls like a joystick’s. Under the hood, the robot’s cameras flashed constantly. Bursts of air, like the pistons in a whack-a-mole arcade game, guided sets of L-shaped blades in precise, short strokes between the cauliflower seedlings, scraping the soil to uproot tiny weeds and then parting every 12 inches so that only the cauliflower remained, unscathed.
Periodically, Alcántar stopped the machine and kneeled in the furrow, bending to examine a “kill”—spots where the robot’s array of cameras and blades had gone ever so slightly out of alignment and uprooted the seedling itself. Alcántar was averaging about an acre an hour, and only one kill out of every thousand plants. The kills often came in sets of twos and threes, marking spots where one wheel had crept out of the furrow and onto the bed itself, or where the blades had parted a fraction of a second too late.
Taking an iPhone out of his pocket, Alcántar pulled up a Slack channel called #field-de-bugging and sent a note to a colleague 150 miles away about five kills in a row, with a hypothesis about the cause (latency between camera and blade) and a time stamp so he could find the images and see what had gone wrong.
In this field, and many others like it, the ground had been prepared by a machine, the seedlings transplanted by a machine, and the pesticides and fertilizers applied by a machine. Irrigation crews still laid sprinkler pipe manually, and farmworkers would harvest this cauliflower crop when the time came, but it isn’t a stretch to think that one day, no person will ever lay a hand to the ground around these seedlings.
Technology’s race to disrupt one of the planet’s oldest and largest occupations centers on the effort to imitate, and ultimately outdo, the extraordinary powers of two human body parts: the hand, able to use tweezers or hold a baby, catch or throw a football, cut lettuce or pluck a ripe strawberry with its calyx intact; and the eye, which is increasingly being challenged by a potent combination of cloud computing, digital imagery, and machine learning.
The term “ag tech” was coined at a conference in Salinas almost 15 years ago; boosters have been promising a surge of gadgets and software that would remake the farming industry for at least that long. And although ag tech startups have tended to have an easier time finding investors than customers, the boosters may finally be on to something.
Ag tech boosters have been promising a surge of gadgets and software that would remake the farming industry for at least 15 years. They may finally be on to something.
Silicon Valley is just over the hill from Salinas. But by the standards of the Grain Belt, the Salad Bowl is a relative backwater—worth about $10 billion a year, versus nearly $100 billion for commodity crops in the Midwest. Nobody trades lettuce futures like soybean futures; behemoths like Cargill and Conagra mostly stay away. But that’s why the “specialty crop” industry seemed to me like the best place to chart the evolution of precision farming: if tech’s tools can work along California’s central coast, on small plots with short growing cycles, then perhaps they really are ready to stage a broader takeover.
Alcántar, who is 28, was born in Mexico and came to the US as a five-year-old in 1997, walking across the Sonoran Desert into Arizona with his uncle and his younger sister. His parents, who are from the central Mexican state of Michoacán, were busily setting up the ingredients for a new life as farmworkers in Salinas, sleeping in a relative’s walk-in closet before renting a converted garage apartment. Alcántar spent the first year at home, watching TV and looking after his sister while his parents worked: there was a woman living in the main house who checked on them and kept them fed during the day, but no one who could drive them to elementary school.
In high school, Alcántar often worked as a field hand on the farm where his father had become a foreman. He cut and weeded lettuce, stacked strawberry boxes after the harvest, drove a forklift in the warehouse. But when he turned 22 and saw friends he’d grown up with getting their first jobs after college, he decided he needed a plan to move on from manual labor. He got a commercial driver’s license and went to work for a robotics startup.
During this first stint, Alcántar recalls, relatives sometimes chided him for helping to accelerate a machine takeover in the fields, where stooped, sweaty work had cleared a path for his family’s upward mobility. “You’re taking our jobs away!” they’d say.
Five years later, Alcántar says, the conversation has shifted completely. Even FarmWise has struggled to find people willing to “walk behind the machine,” he says. “People would rather work at a fast food restaurant. In-N-Out is paying $17.50 an hour.”
Even up close, all kinds of things can foul the “vision” of the computers that power automated systems like the ones FarmWise uses. It’s hard for a computer to tell, for instance, whether a contiguous splotch of green lettuce leaves represents a single healthy seedling or a “double,” where two seeds germinated next to one another and will therefore stunt each other’s growth. Agricultural fields are bright, hot, and dusty: hardly ideal conditions for keeping computers running smoothly. A wheel gets stuck in the mud and temporarily upends the algorithm’s sense of distance: the left tires have now spun a quarter-turn more than the right tires.
Other ways of digital seeing have their own challenges. For satellites, there’s cloud cover to contend with; for drones and planes, wind and vibration from the engines that keep them aloft. For all three, image-recognition software must take into account the shifting appearance of the same fields at different times of day as the sun moves across the sky. And there’s always a trade-off between resolution and price. Farmers have to pay for drones, planes, or any field machinery. Satellite imagery, which has historically been produced, paid for, and shared freely by public space agencies, has been limited to infrequent images with coarse resolution.
NASA launched the first satellite for agricultural imagery, known as Landsat, in 1972. Clouds and slow download speeds conspired to limit coverage of most of the world’s farmland to a handful of images a year of any given site, with pixels from 30 to 120 meters per side.
A half-dozen more iterations of Landsat followed through the 1980s and ’90s, but it was only in 1999, with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, that a satellite could send farmers daily observations over most of the world’s land surface, albeit with a 250-meter pixel. As cameras and computing have improved side by side over the past 20 years, a parade of tech companies have become convinced there’s money to be made in providing insights derived from satellite and aircraft imagery, says Andy French, an expert in water conservation at the USDA’s Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center in Arizona. “They haven’t been successful,” he says. But as the frequency and resolution of satellite images both continue to increase, that could now change very quickly, he believes: “We’ve gone from Landsat going over our head every 16 days to having near-daily, one- to four-meter resolution.”
“We’ve gone from Landsat going over our head every 16 days to having near-daily, one- to four-meter resolution.”
In 2014, Monsanto acquired a startup called the Climate Corporation, which billed itself as a “digital farming” company, for a billion dollars. “It was a bunch of Google guys who were experts in satellite imagery, saying ‘Can we make this useful to farmers?’” says Thad Simons, a longtime commodities executive who cofounded a venture capital firm called the Yield Lab. “That got everybody’s attention.”
In the years since, Silicon Valley has sent forth a burst of venture-funded startups whose analytic and forecasting services rely on tools that can gather and process information autonomously or at a distance: not only imagery, but also things like soil sensors and moisture probes. “Once you see the conferences making more money than people actually doing work,” Simons says with a chuckle, “‘you know it’s a hot area.’’
A subset of these companies, like FarmWise, are working on something akin to hand-eye coordination, chasing the perennial goal of automating the most labor-intensive stages of fruit and vegetable farming—weeding and, above all, harvesting—against a backdrop of chronic farm labor shortages. But many others are focused exclusively on giving farmers better information.
One way to understand farming is as a neverending hedge against the uncertainties that affect the bottom line: weather, disease, the optimal dose and timing of fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation, and huge fluctuations in price. Each one of these factors drives thousands of incremental decisions over the course of a season—decisions based on long years of trial and error, intuition, and hard-won expertise. So the tech question on farmers’ lips everywhere, as Andy French told me, is: “What are you telling us that we didn’t already know?”
Josh Ruiz, the vice president of ag operations for Church Brothers, which grows greens for the food service industry, manages more than a thousand separate blocks of farmland covering more than 20,000 acres. Affable, heavy-set, and easy to talk to, Ruiz is known across the industry as an early adopter who’s not afraid to experiment with new technology. Over the last few years, he has become a regular stop on the circuit that brings curious tech executives in Teslas down from San Francisco and Mountain View to stand in a lettuce field and ask questions about the farming business. “Trimble, Bosch, Amazon, Microsoft, Google—you name it, they’re all calling me,” Ruiz says. “You can get my attention real fast if you solve a problem for me, but what happens nine times out of 10 is the tech companies come to me and they solve a problem that wasn’t a problem.”
What everyone wants, in a word, is foresight. For more than a generation, the federal government has sheltered growers of corn, wheat, soybeans, and other commodities from the financial impact of pests and bad weather by offering subsidies to offset the cost of crop insurance and, in times of bountiful harvests, setting an artificial “floor” price at which the government steps in as a buyer of last resort. Fruits and vegetables do not enjoy the same protection: they account for less than 1% of the $25 billion the federal government spends on farm subsidies. As a result, the vegetable market is subject to wild variations based on weather and other only vaguely predictable factors.
When I visited Salinas, in September, the lettuce industry was in the midst of a banner week price-wise, with whole heads of iceberg and romaine earning shippers as much as $30 a box, or roughly $30,000 an acre. “Right now, you have the chance to lose a fortune and make it back,” Ruiz said as we stood at the edge of a field. The swings can be dramatic: a few weeks earlier, he explained, iceberg was selling for a fraction of that amount—$5 a box, about half what it costs to produce and harvest.
In the next field over, rows of young iceberg lettuce seedlings were ribbed with streaks of tawny brown—the mark of the impatiens necrotic spot virus, or INSV, which has been wreaking havoc on Salinas lettuce since the mid-aughts. These were the early signs. Come back after a couple more weeks, Ruiz said, and half the plants will be dead: it won’t be worthwhile to harvest at all. As it was, that outcome would represent a $5,000 loss, based on the costs of land, plowing, planting, and inputs. If they decided to weed and harvest, that loss could easily double. Ruiz said he wouldn’t have known he was wasting $5,000 if he hadn’t decided to take me on a drive that day. Multiply that across more than 20,000 acres. Assuming a firm could reliably deliver that kind of advance knowledge about INSV, how much would it be worth to him?
One firm trying to find out is an imagery and analytics startup called GeoVisual Analytics, based in Colorado, which is working to refine algorithms that can project likely yields a few weeks ahead of time. It’s a hard thing to model well. A head of lettuce typically sees more than half its growth in the last three weeks before harvest; if it stays in the field just a couple of days longer, it could be too tough or spindly to sell. Any model the company builds has to account for factors like that and more. A ball of iceberg watered at the wrong time swells to a loose bouquet. Supermarket carrots are starved of water to make them longer.
When GeoVisual first got to Salinas, in 2017, “we came in promising the future, and then we didn’t deliver,” says Charles McGregor, its 27-year-old general manager. Ruiz, less charitably, calls their first season an “epic fail.” But he gives McGregor credit for sticking around. “They listened and they fixed it,” he says. He’s just not sure what he’s willing to pay for it.
“We came in promising the future, and then we didn’t deliver.”
As it stands, the way field men arrive at yield forecasts is decidedly analog. Some count out heads of lettuce pace by pace and then extrapolate by measuring their boots. Others use a 30-foot section of sprinkler pipe. There’s no way methods like these can match the scale of what a drone or an airplane might capture, but the results have the virtue of a format growers can easily process, and they’re usually off by no more than 25 to 50 boxes an acre, or about 3% to 5%. They’re also part of a farming operation’s baseline expenses: if the same employee spots a broken irrigation valve or an empty fertilizer tank and makes sure the weeding crew starts on time, then asking him to deliver a decent harvest forecast isn’t necessarily an extra cost. By contrast, the pricing of tech-driven forecasts tends to be uneven. Tech salespeople lowball the cost of service in order to get new customers and then, eventually, have to figure out how to make money on what they sell.
“At 10 bucks an acre, I’ll tell [GeoVisual] to fly the whole thing, but at $50 an acre, I have to worry about it,” Ruiz told me. “If it costs me a hundred thousand dollars a year for two years, and then I have that aha! moment, am I gonna get my two hundred thousand dollars back?”
All digital sensing for agriculture is a form of measurement by proxy: a way to translate slices of the electromagnetic spectrum into understanding of biological processes that affect plants. Thermal infrared reflectance correlates with land surface temperature, which correlates with soil moisture and, therefore, the amount of water available to plants’ roots. Measuring reflected waves of green, red, and near-infrared light is one way to estimate canopy cover, which helps researchers track evapotranspiration—that is, how much water evaporates through a plant’s leaves, a process with clear links to plant health.
Improving these chains of extrapolation is a call and response between data generated by new generations of sensors and the software models that help us understand them. Before the launch of the EU’s first Sentinel satellite in 2014, for instance, researchers had some understanding of what synthetic aperture radar, which builds high-resolution images by simulating large antennas, could reveal about plant biomass, but they lacked enough real-world data to validate their models. In the American West, there’s abundant imagery to track the movement of water over irrigated fields, but no crop model sufficiently advanced to reliably help farmers decide when to “order” irrigation water from the Colorado River, which is usually done days ahead of time.
As with any Big Data frontier, part of what’s driving the explosion of interest in ag tech is simply the availability of unprecedented quantities of data. For the first time, technology can deliver snapshots of every individual broccoli crown on a 1,000-acre parcel and show which fields are most likely to see incursions from the deer and wild boars that live in the hills above the Salinas Valley.
The problem is that turning such a firehose of 1s and 0s into any kind of useful insight—producing, say, a text alert about the top five fields with signs of drought stress—requires a more sophisticated understanding of the farming business than many startups seem to have. As Paul Fleming, a longtime farming consultant in Salinas, put it, “We only want to know about the things that didn’t go the way they’re supposed to.”
“We only want to know about the things that didn’t go the way they’re supposed to.”
And that’s just the beginning. Retail shippers get paid for each head of cauliflower or bundle of kale they produce; processors, who sell pre-cut broccoli crowns or bags of salad mix, are typically paid by weight. Contract farmers, hired to grow a crop for someone else for a per-acre fee, might never learn whether a given harvest was a “good” or a “bad” one, representing a profit or a loss for the shipper that hired them. It’s often in a shipper’s interest to keep individual farmers in the dark about where they stand relative to their nearby competitors.
In Salinas, the challenge of making big data relevant to farm managers is also about consolidating the universe of information farms already collect—or, perhaps, don’t. Aaron Magenheim, who grew up in his family’s irrigation business and now runs a consultancy focused on farm technology, says the particulars of irrigation, fertilizer, crop rotations, or any number of variables that can influence harvest tend to get lost in the hubbub of the season, if they’re ever captured at all. “Everyone thinks farmers know how they grow, but the reality is they’re pulling it out of the air. They don’t track that down to the lot level,” he told me, using an industry term for an individual tract of farmland. As many as 40 or 50 lots might share the same well and fertilizer tank, with no precise way of accounting for the details. “When you’re applying fertilizer, the reality is it’s a guy opening a valve on a tank and running it for 10 minutes, and saying, ‘Well that looks okay.’ Did Juan block number 6 or number 2 because of a broken pipe? Did they write it down?” Magenheim says. “No! Because they have too many things to do.”
Then there are the maps. Compared with corn and soybean operations, where the same crops get planted year after year, or vineyards and orchards, where plantings may not change for more than a generation, growers of specialty crops deal with a never-ending jigsaw puzzle of romaine following celery following broccoli, with plantings that change size and shape according to the market, and cycles as short as 30 days from seed to harvest.
For many companies in Salinas, the man standing astride the gap between what happens in the field and the record-keeping needs of a modern farming business is a 50-year-old technology consultant named Paul Mariottini. Mariottini—who planned to become a general contractor until he got a computer at age 18 and, as he puts it, “immediately stopped sleeping”—runs a one-man operation out of his home in Hollister, with a flip phone and a suite of bespoke templates and plug-ins he writes for Microsoft Access and Excel. When I asked the growers I met how they handled this part of the business, the reply, to a person, was: “Oh, we use Paul.”
Mariottini’s clients include some of the largest produce companies in the world, but only one uses tablets so that field supervisors can record the acreage and variety of each planting, the type and date of fertilizer and pesticide applications, and other basic facts about the work they supervise while it’s taking place. The rest take notes on paper, or enter the information from memory at the end of the day.
When I asked Mariottini whether anyone used software to link paper maps to the spreadsheets showing what got planted where, he chuckled and said, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years trying to make that happen.” He once programmed a PalmPilot; he calls one of his plug-ins “Close-Enough GPS.” “The tech industry would probably laugh at it, but the thing that the tech industry doesn’t understand is the people you’re working with,” he said.
The goal of automation in farming is best understood as all encompassing. The brief weeks of harvest consume a disproportionate share of the overall budget—as much as half the cost of growing some crops. But there are also efforts to optimize and minimize labor throughout the growing cycle. Strawberries are being grown with spray-on, biodegradable weed barriers that could eliminate the need to spread plastic sheeting over every bed. Automated tractors will soon be able to plow vegetable fields to a smoother surface than a human driver could, improving germination rates. Even as analytics companies race to deliver platforms that can track the health of an individual head of lettuce from seed to supermarket and optimize the order in which fields get harvested, other startups are developing new “tapered” varieties of lettuce—similar to romaine—with a compact silhouette and leaves that rest higher off the ground, in order that they might be more easily “seen” and cut by a robot.
Overall, though, the problems with the American food system aren’t about technology so much as law and politics. We’ve known for a long time that the herbicide Roundup is tied to increased cancer rates, yet it remains widely used. We’ve known for more than 100 years that the West is short on water, yet we continue to grow alfalfa in the desert, and use increasingly sophisticated drilling techniques in a kind of water arms race. These are not problems caused by a lack of technology.
On my last day in Salinas, I met a grower named Mark Mason just off Highway 101, which cuts the valley in two, and followed him to a nine-acre block of celery featuring a tidy tower of meteorological equipment in the center. The equipment is owned by NASA, part of a joint project with the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources cooperative extension office, or UCANR.
Eight years ago, amid news of droughts and forest fires across the West, Mason felt a gnawing sense that he ought to be a more careful steward of the groundwater he uses to irrigate, even if the economics suggested otherwise. That led him to contact Michael Cahn, a researcher at UCANR.
Historically, water in Salinas has always been cheap and abundant: the downside of under-irrigating, or of using too little fertilizer, has always been far larger than the potential savings. “Growers want to sell product; efficient use is secondary. They won’t cut it close and risk quality,” Cahn said. The risk might even extend to losing a crop.
Of late, though, nitrate contamination of drinking water, caused by heavy fertilizer use and linked to thyroid disease and some types of cancer, has become a major political issue in Salinas. The local water quality control board is currently developing a new standard that will limit the amount of nitrogen fertilizer growers can apply to their fields, and it’s expected to be finalized in 2021. As Cahn explained, “You can’t control nitrogen without controlling your irrigation water.” In the meantime, Mason and a handful of other growers are working with UCANR on a software platform called Crop Manage, designed to ingest weather and soil data and deliver customized recommendations on irrigation and fertilizer use for each crop.
Cahn says he expects technological advances in water management to follow a course similar to the one being set by the threat of tighter regulations on nitrogen fertilizer. In both cases, the business argument for a fix and the technology required to get there lie somewhere downstream of politics. Outrage over lack of access to clean groundwater brought forth a new regulatory mechanism, which unlocked the funding to figure out how to measure it, and which will, in turn, inform the management approaches farmers use.
In the end, then, it’s political pressure that has created the conditions for science and technology to advance. For now, venture capital and federal research grants continue to provide an artificial boost for ag tech while its potential buyers—such as lettuce growers—continue to treat it with a degree of caution.
But just as new regulations can reshape the cost-benefit analysis around nitrogen or water use from one day to the next, so too can a product that brings clear returns on investment. All the growers I spoke to spend precious time keeping tabs on the startup world: taking phone calls, buying and testing tech-powered services on a sliver of their farms, making suggestions on how to target analytics or tweak a farm-facing app. Why? To have a say in how the future unfolds, or at least to get close enough to see it coming. One day soon, someone will make a lot of money following a computer’s advice about how high to price lettuce, or when to spray for a novel pest, or which fields to harvest and which ones to abandon. When that happens, these farmers want to be the first to know.
Nontraditional hardware could help neural networks operate faster and more efficiently than computer chips
Matthew Hutson – 26 Jan 2022 11:00 AM
Imagine using any object around you—a frying pan, a glass paperweight—as the central processor in a neural network, a type of artificial intelligence that loosely mimics the brain to perform complex tasks. That’s the promise of new research that, in theory, could be used to recognize images or speech faster and more efficiently than computer programs that rely on silicon microchips.
“Everything can be a computer,” says Logan Wright, a physicist at Cornell University who co-led the study. “We’re just finding a way to make the hardware physics do what we want.”
Current neural networks usually operate on graphical processing chips. The largest ones perform millions or billions of calculations just to, say, make a chess move or compose a word of prose. Even on specialized chips, that can take lots of time and electricity. But Wright and his colleagues realized physical objects also compute in a passive way, merely by responding to stimuli. Canyons, for example, add echoes to voices without the use of soundboards.
To demonstrate the concept, the researchers built neural networks in three types of physical systems, which each contained up to five processing layers. In each layer of a mechanical system, they used a speaker to vibrate a small metal plate and recorded its output using a microphone. In an optical system, they passed light through crystals. And in an analog-electronic system, they ran current through tiny circuits.
In each case, the researchers encoded input data, such as unlabeled images, in sound, light, or voltage. For each processing layer, they also encoded numerical parameters telling the physical system how to manipulate the data. To train the system, they adjusted the parameters to reduce errors between the system’s predicted image labels and the actual labels.
In one task, they trained the systems, which they call physical neural networks (PNNs), to recognize handwritten digits. In another, the PNNs recognized seven vowel sounds. Accuracy on these tasks ranged from 87% to 97%, they report in this week’s issue of Nature. In the future, Wright says, researchers might tune a system not by digitally tweaking its input parameters, but by adjusting the physical objects—warping the metal plate, say.
Lenka Zdeborová, a physicist and computer scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne who was not involved in the work, says the study is “exciting,” although she would like to see demonstrations on more difficult tasks.
“They did a good job of demonstrating the idea in different contexts,” adds Damien Querlioz, a physicist at CNRS, the French national research agency. “I think it’s going to be quite influential.”
Wright is most excited about PNNs’ potential as smart sensors that can perform computation on the fly. A microscope’s optics might help detect cancerous cells before the light even hits a digital sensor, or a smartphone’s microphone membrane might listen for wake words. These “are applications in which you really don’t think about them as performing a machine-learning computation,” he says, but instead as being “functional machines.”
In Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun explores how technological developments around data are amplifying and automating discrimination and prejudice. Through conceptual innovation and historical details, this book offers engaging and revealing insights into how data exacerbates discrimination in powerful ways, writes David Beer.
Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (mathematical illustrations by Alex Barnett). MIT Press. 2021.
Going back a couple of decades, there was a fair amount of discussion of ‘the digital divide’. Uneven access to networked computers meant that a line was drawn between those who were able to switch-on and those who were not. At the time there was a pressing concern about the disadvantages of a lack of access. With the massive escalation of connectivity since, the notion of a digital divide still has some relevance, but it has become a fairly blunt tool for understanding today’s extensively mediated social constellations. The divides now are not so much a product of access; they are instead a consequence of what happens to the data produced through that access.
With the escalation of data and the establishment of all sorts of analytic and algorithmic processes, the problem of uneven, unjust and harmful treatment is now the focal point for an animated and urgent debate. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s vibrant new book Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognitionmakes a telling intervention. At its centre is the idea that these technological developments around data ‘are amplifying and automating – rather than acknowledging and repairing – the mistakes of a discriminatory past’ (2). Essentially this is the codification and automation of prejudice. Any ideas about the liberating aspects of technology are deflated. Rooted in a longer history of statistics and biometrics, existing ruptures are being torn open by the differential targeting that big data brings.
This is not just about bits of data. Chun suggests that ‘we need […] to understand how machine learning and other algorithms have been embedded with human prejudice and discrimination, not simply at the level of data, but also at the levels of procedure, prediction, and logic’ (16). It is not, then, just about prejudice being in the data itself; it is also how segregation and discrimination are embedded in the way this data is used. Given the scale of these issues, Chun narrows things down further by focusing on four ‘foundational concepts’, with correlation, homophily, authenticity and recognition providing the focal points for interrogating the discriminations of data.
It is the concept of correlation that does much of the gluing work within the study. The centrality of correlation is a subtext in Chun’s own overview of the book, which suggests that ‘Discriminating Data reveals how correlation and eugenic understandings of nature seek to close off the future by operationalizing probabilities; how homophily naturalizes segregation; and how authenticity and recognition foster deviation in order to create agitated clusters of comforting rage’ (27). As well as developing these lines of argument, the use of the concept of correlation also allows Chun to think in deeply historical terms about the trajectory and politics of association and patterning.
For Chun the role of correlation is both complex and performative. It is argued, for instance, that correlations ‘do not simply predict certain actions; they also form them’. This is an established position in the field of critical data studies, with data prescribing and producing the outcomes they are used to anticipate. However, Chun manages to reanimate this position through an exploration of how correlation fits into a wider set of discriminatory data practices. The other performative issue here is the way that people are made-up and grouped through the use of data. Correlations, Chun writes, ‘that lump people into categories based on their being “like” one another amplify the effects of historical inequalities’ (58). Inequalities are reinforced as categories become more obdurate, with data lending them a sense of apparent stability and a veneer of objectivity. Hence the pointed claim that ‘correlation contains within it the seeds of manipulation, segregation and misrepresentation’ (59).
Given this use of data to categorise, it is easy to see why Discriminating Data makes a conceptual link between correlation and homophily – with homophily, as Chun puts it, being the ‘principle that similarity breeds connection’ and can therefore lead to swarming and clustering. The acts of grouping within these data structures mean, for Chun, that ‘homophily not only eases conflict; it also naturalizes discrimination’ (103). Using data correlations to group informs a type of homophily that not only misrepresents and segregates; it also makes these divides seem natural and therefore fixed.
Chun anticipates that there may be some remaining remnants of faith in the seeming democratic properties of these platforms, arguing that ‘homophily reveals and creates boundaries within theoretically flat and diffuse social networks; it distinguishes and discriminates between supposedly equal nodes; it is a tool for discovering bias and inequality and for perpetuating them in the name of “comfort,” predictability, and common sense’ (85). As individuals are moved into categories or groups assumed to be like them, based upon the correlations within their data, so discrimination can readily occur. One of the key observations made by Chun is that data homophily can feel comfortable, especially when encased in predictions, yet this can distract from the actual damages of the underpinning discriminations they contain. Instead, these data ‘proxies can serve to buttress – and justify – discrimination’ (121). For Chun there is a ‘proxy politics’ unfolding in which data not only exacerbates but can also be used to lend legitimacy to discriminatory acts.
As with correlation and homophily, Chun, in a particularly novel twist, also explores how authenticity is itself becoming automated within these data structures. In stark terms, it is argued that ‘authenticity has become so central to our times because it has become algorithmic’ (144). Chun is able to show how a wider cultural push towards notions of the authentic, embodied in things like reality TV, becomes a part of data systems. A broader cultural trend is translated into something renderable in data. Chun explains that the ‘term “algorithmic authenticity” reveals the ways in which users are validated and authenticated by network algorithms’ (144). A system of validation occurs in these spaces, where actions and practices are algorithmically judged and authenticated. Algorithmic authenticity ‘trains them to be transparent’ (241). It pushes a form of openness upon us in which an ‘operationalized authenticity’ develops, especially within social media.
This emphasis upon the authentic draws people into certain types of interaction with these systems. It shows, Chun compellingly puts it, ‘how users have become characters in a drama called “big data”’ (145). The notion of a drama is, of course, not to diminish what is happening but to try to get at its vibrant and role-based nature. It also adds a strong sense of how performance plays out in relation to the broader ideas of data judgment that the book is exploring.
These roles are not something that Chun wants us to accept, arguing instead that ‘if we think through our roles as performers and characters in the drama called “big data,” we do not have to accept the current terms of our deployment’ (170). Examining the artifice of the drama is a means of transformation and challenge. Exposing the drama is to expose the roles and scripts that are in place, enabling them to be questioned and possibly undone. This is not fatalistic or absent of agency; rather, Chun’s point is that ‘we are characters, rather than marionettes’ (248).
There are some powerful cross-currents working through the discussions of the book’s four foundational concepts. The suggestion that big data brings a reversal of hegemony is a particularly telling argument. Chun explains that: ‘Power can now operate through reverse hegemony: if hegemony once meant the creation of a majority by various minorities accepting a dominant worldview […], now hegemonic majorities can emerge when angry minorities, clustered around a shared stigma, are strung together through their mutual opposition to so-called mainstream culture’ (34). This line of argument is echoed in similar terms in the book’s conclusion, clarifying further that ‘this is hegemony in reverse: if hegemony once entailed creating a majority by various minorities accepting – and identifying with – a dominant worldview, majorities now emerge by consolidating angry minorities – each attached to a particular stigma – through their opposition to “mainstream” culture’ (243). In this formulation it would seem that big data may not only be disciplinary but may also somehow gain power by upending any semblance of a dominant ideology. Data doesn’t lead to shared ideas but to the splitting of the sharing of ideas into group-based networks. It does seem plausible that the practices of targeting and patterning through data are unlikely to facilitate hegemony. Yet, it is not just that data affords power beyond hegemony but that it actually seeks to reverse it.
The reader may be caught slightly off-guard by this position. Chun generally seems to picture power as emerging and solidifying through a genealogy of the technologies that have formed into contemporary data infrastructures. In this account power seems to be associated with established structures and operates through correlations, calls for authenticity and the means of recognition. These positions on power – with infrastructures on one side and reverse hegemony on the other – are not necessarily incompatible, yet the discussion of reverse hegemony perhaps stands a little outside of that other vision of power. I was left wondering if this reverse hegemony is a consequence of these more processional operations of power or, maybe, it is a kind of facilitator of them.
Chun’s book looks to bring out the deep divisions that data-informed discrimination has already created and will continue to create. The conceptual innovation and the historical details, particularly on statistics and eugenics, lend the book a deep sense of context that feeds into a range of genuinely engaging and revealing insights and ideas. Through its careful examination of the way that data exacerbates discrimination in very powerful ways, this is perhaps the most telling book yet on the topic. The digital divide may no longer be a particularly useful term but, as Chun’s book makes clear, the role data performs in animating discrimination means that the technological facilitation of divisions has never been more pertinent.
Summary: Researchers are challenging a long-held assumption that there is a trade-off between accuracy and fairness when using machine learning to make public policy decisions.
Carnegie Mellon University researchers are challenging a long-held assumption that there is a trade-off between accuracy and fairness when using machine learning to make public policy decisions.
As the use of machine learning has increased in areas such as criminal justice, hiring, health care delivery and social service interventions, concerns have grown over whether such applications introduce new or amplify existing inequities, especially among racial minorities and people with economic disadvantages. To guard against this bias, adjustments are made to the data, labels, model training, scoring systems and other aspects of the machine learning system. The underlying theoretical assumption is that these adjustments make the system less accurate.
A CMU team aims to dispel that assumption in a new study, recently published in Nature Machine Intelligence. Rayid Ghani, a professor in the School of Computer Science’s Machine Learning Department (MLD) and the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy; Kit Rodolfa, a research scientist in MLD; and Hemank Lamba, a post-doctoral researcher in SCS, tested that assumption in real-world applications and found the trade-off was negligible in practice across a range of policy domains.
“You actually can get both. You don’t have to sacrifice accuracy to build systems that are fair and equitable,” Ghani said. “But it does require you to deliberately design systems to be fair and equitable. Off-the-shelf systems won’t work.”
Ghani and Rodolfa focused on situations where in-demand resources are limited, and machine learning systems are used to help allocate those resources. The researchers looked at systems in four areas: prioritizing limited mental health care outreach based on a person’s risk of returning to jail to reduce reincarceration; predicting serious safety violations to better deploy a city’s limited housing inspectors; modeling the risk of students not graduating from high school in time to identify those most in need of additional support; and helping teachers reach crowdfunding goals for classroom needs.
In each context, the researchers found that models optimized for accuracy — standard practice for machine learning — could effectively predict the outcomes of interest but exhibited considerable disparities in recommendations for interventions. However, when the researchers applied adjustments to the outputs of the models that targeted improving their fairness, they discovered that disparities based on race, age or income — depending on the situation — could be removed without a loss of accuracy.
Ghani and Rodolfa hope this research will start to change the minds of fellow researchers and policymakers as they consider the use of machine learning in decision making.
“We want the artificial intelligence, computer science and machine learning communities to stop accepting this assumption of a trade-off between accuracy and fairness and to start intentionally designing systems that maximize both,” Rodolfa said. “We hope policymakers will embrace machine learning as a tool in their decision making to help them achieve equitable outcomes.”
Após ser aprovado na Câmara dos Deputados, no último dia 29 de setembro, o projeto de lei que regulamenta o uso da inteligêcia artificial (IA) no Brasil (PL 21/20) passará agora pela análise do Senado. Enquanto isso não acontece, o PL que estabelece o Marco Civil da IA, ainda é alvo de discussões.
A proposta, de autoria do deputado federal Eduardo Bismarck (PDT-CE), foi aprovado na Câmara na forma de um substitutivo apresentado pela deputada federal Luisa Canziani (PTB-PR). O texto define como sistemas de inteligência artificial as representações tecnológicas oriundas do campo da informática e da ciência da computação. Caberá privativamente à União legislar e editar normas sobre a matéria.
Em entrevista ao Portal Rota Jurídica, o neurocientista Álvaro Machado Dias salientou, por exemplo, que as intenções contidas no referido do PL apontam um caminho positivo. Contudo, as definições genéricas dão a sensação de que, enquanto o projeto tramita no Senado, vai ser importante aprofundar o contato com a área.
O neurocientista, que é professor livre-docente da UNIFESP, sócio da WeMind Escritório de Inovação, do Instituto Locomotiva de Pesquisas e do Rhizom Blockchain, salienta por outro lado que, em termos sociais, o Marco Civil da Inteligência Artificial promete aumentar a consciência sobre os riscos trazidos pelos algoritmos enviesados, bem como estimular a autorregulação.
Isso, segundo diz, deve aumentar a “justiça líquida” destes dispositivos que tanto influenciam a vida em sociedade. Ressalta que, em termos econômicos, a interoperabilidade (o equivalente a todas as tomadas teremos o mesmo número de pinos) vai fortalecer um pouco o mercado.
“Porém, verdade seja dita, estes impactos não serão tão grandes, já que o PL não fala em colocar a IA como tema estratégico para o País, nem aponta para maior apoio ao progresso científico na área”, acrescenta.
Para o neurocientista, os riscos são os de sempre: engessamento da inovação; endereçamento das responsabilidades aos alvos errados; externalidades abertas por estratégias que questionarão as bases epistemológicas do conceito com certa razão (o famoso: dada a definição X, isto aqui não é inteligência artificial).
Porém, o especialista diz que é importante ter em mente que é absolutamente fundamental regular esta indústria, cujo ponto mais alto é a singularidade. “Isto é, a criação de dispositivos capazes de fazer tudo aquilo que fazemos, do ponto de vista interativo e produtivo, só que com mais velocidade e precisão. Trata-se de um debate muito complexo. E, como sempre, na prática, a teoria é outra”, completou.
Álvaro Machado Dias explica que o objetivo principal do PL é definir obrigações para a União, estados e municípios, especialmente regras de governança, responsabilidades civis e parâmetros de impacto social, relacionadas à aplicação e comercialização de plataformas de inteligência artificial. Existe também uma parte mais técnica, que foca a interoperabilidade, isto é, a capacidade dos sistemas trocarem informações.
Observa, ainda, que a principal premissa do projeto é a de que estas tecnologias devem ter sua implementação determinada por princípios como a ausência da intenção de fazer o mal, a qual seria escorada na transparência e responsabilização dos chamados agentes da inteligência artificial.
Americano Joshua Walker defende que decisões judiciais nunca sejam automatizadas
Identificar as melhores práticas e quais fatores influenciaram decisões judiciais são alguns dos exemplos de como o uso da inteligência artificial pode beneficiar o sistema de Justiça e, consequentemente, a população, afirma o advogado americano Joshua Walker.
Um dos fundadores do CodeX, centro de informática legal da Universidade de Stanford (EUA) —onde também lecionou— e fundador da Lex Machina, empresa pioneira no segmento jurídico tecnológico, Walker iniciou a carreira no mundo dos dados há mais de 20 anos, trabalhando com processos do genocídio de 1994 em Ruanda, que matou ao menos 800 mil pessoas em cem dias.
Em entrevista à Folha por email, ele defende que os advogados não só aprendam a usar recursos de inteligência artificial, como também assumam o protagonismo nos processos de desenvolvimento de tecnologias voltadas ao direito.
“Nós [advogados] precisamos começar a nos tornar cocriadores porque, enquanto os engenheiros de software se lembram dos dados, nós nos lembramos da estória e das histórias”, afirma.
Ao longo de sua carreira, quais tabus foram superados e quais continuam quando o assunto é inteligência artificial? Como confrontar essas ideias? Tabus existem em abundância. Há mais e novos todos os dias. Você tem que se perguntar duas coisas: o que meus clientes precisam? E como posso ser —um ou o— melhor no que faço para ajudar meus clientes? Isso é tudo que você precisa se preocupar para “inovar”.
A tradição jurídica exige que nos adaptemos, e nos adaptemos rapidamente, porque temos: a) o dever de lealdade de ajudar nossos clientes com os melhores meios disponíveis; b) o dever de melhorar a prática e a administração da lei e do próprio sistema.
A inteligência artificial legal e outras técnicas básicas de outros campos podem impulsionar de forma massiva ambas as áreas. Para isso, o dever de competência profissional nos exige conhecimentos operacionais e sobre as plataformas, que são muito úteis para serem ignorados. Isso não significa que você deve adotar tudo. Seja cético.
Estamos aprendendo a classificar desafios humanos complexos em estruturas processuais que otimizam os resultados para todos os cidadãos, de qualquer origem. Estamos aprendendo qual impacto as diferentes regras locais se correlacionam com diferentes classes de resultados de casos. Estamos apenas começando.
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O sr. começou a trabalhar com análise de dados por causa do genocídio de Ruanda. O que aquela experiência lhe ensinou sobre as possibilidades e limites do trabalho com bancos de dados? O que me ensinou é que a arquitetura da informação é mais importante do que o número de doutores, consultores ou milhões de dólares do orçamento de TI (tecnologia da informação) que você tem à sua disposição.
Você tem que combinar a infraestrutura de TI, o design de dados, com o objetivo da equipe e da empresa. A empresa humana, seu cliente (e para nós eram os mortos) está em primeiro lugar. Todo o resto é uma variável dependente.
Talento, orçamento etc. são muito importantes. Mas você não precisa necessariamente de dinheiro para obter resultados sérios.
Como avalia o termo inteligência artificial? Como superar a estranheza que ele gera? É basicamente um meme de marketing que foi usado para inspirar financiadores a investir em projetos de ciência da computação, começando há muitas décadas. Uma boa descrição comercial de inteligência artificial —mais prática e menos jargão— é: software que faz análise. Tecnicamente falando, inteligência artificial é: dados mais matemática.
Se seus dados são terríveis, a IA resultante também o será. Se são tendenciosos, ou contêm comunicação abusiva, o resultado também será assim.
Esse é um dos motivos de tantas empresas de tecnologia jurídica e operações jurídicas dominadas pela engenharia fracassarem de forma tão espetacular. Você precisa de advogados altamente qualificados, técnicos, matemáticos e advogados céticos para desenvolver a melhor tecnologia/matemática.
Definir IA de forma mais simples também implica, precisamente, que cada inteligência artificial é única, como uma criança. Ela sempre está se desenvolvendo, mudando etc. Esta é a maneira de pensar sobre isso. E, como acontece com as crianças, você pode ensinar, mas nenhum pai pode controlar operacionalmente um filho, além de um certo limite.
Como o uso de dados pode ampliar o acesso à Justiça e torná-lo mais ágil? Nunca entendi muito bem o que significa o termo “acesso à Justiça”. Talvez seja porque a maioria das pessoas, de todas as origens socioeconômicas e étnicas, compartilha a experiência comum de não ter esse acesso.
Posso fazer analogias com outras áreas, porém. Um pedaço de software tem um custo marginal de aproximadamente zero. Cada vez que um de nós usa uma ferramenta de busca, ela não nos custa o investimento que foi necessário para fazer esse software e sofisticá-lo. Há grandes custos fixos, mas baixo custo por usuário.
Essa é a razão pela qual o software é um ótimo negócio. Se bem governado, podemos torná-lo um modus operandi ainda melhor para um país moderno. Isso supondo que possamos evitar todos os pesadelos que podem acontecer!
Podemos criar software de inteligência artificial legal que ajuda todas as pessoas em um país inteiro. Esse software pode ser perfeitamente personalizado e tornar-se fiel a cada indivíduo. Pode custar quase zero por cada operação incremental.
Eu criei um pacote de metodologias chamado Citizen’s AI Lab (laboratório de IA dos cidadãos) que será levado a muitos países ao redor do mundo, incluindo o Brasil, se as pessoas quiserem colocá-lo para funcionar. Vai fazer exatamente isso. Novamente, esses sistemas não apenas podem ser usados para cada operação (uso) de cada indivíduo, mas também para cada país.
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Em quais situações não é recomendado que a Justiça use IA? Nunca para a própria tomada de decisão. Neste momento, em qualquer caso, e/ou em minha opinião, não é possível e nem desejável automatizar a tomada de decisões judiciais.
Por outro lado, juízes podem sempre se beneficiar com a inteligência artificial. Quais são as melhores práticas? Quantos casos um determinado juiz tem em sua pauta? Ou em todo o tribunal? Como isso se compara a outros tribunais e como os resultados poderiam ser diferentes por causa dos casos ou do cenário econômico, político ou outros fatores?
Há protocolos que ajudam as partes a obter uma resolução antecipada de disputas? Esses resultados são justos?, uma questão humana possibilitada por uma base ou plataforma empírica auxiliada por IA. Ou os resultados são apenas impulsionados pelo acesso relativo aos fundos de litígio pelos litigantes?
Como estruturamos as coisas para que tenhamos menos disputas estúpidas nos tribunais? Quais advogados apresentam os comportamentos de arquivamento mais malignos e abusivos em todos os tribunais? Como a lei deve ser regulamentada?
Essas são perguntas que não podemos nem começar a fazer sem IA —leia-se: matemática— para nos ajudar a analisar grandes quantidades de dados.
Quais são os limites éticos para o uso de bancos de dados? Como evitar abusos? Uma boa revisão legal é essencial para todo projeto de inteligência artificial e dados que tenha um impacto material na humanidade. Mas para fazer isso em escala, nós, os advogados, também precisamos de mecanismos legais de revisão de IA.
Apoio muito o trabalho atual da inteligência artificial ética. Infelizmente, nos Estados Unidos, e talvez em outros lugares, a “IA ética” é uma espécie de “falsa questão” para impedir os advogados de se intrometerem em projetos de engenharia lucrativos e divertidos. Isso tem sido um desastre político, operacional e comercial em muitos casos.
Nós [advogados] precisamos começar a nos tornar cocriadores porque, enquanto os engenheiros de software se lembram dos dados, nós nos lembramos da estória e das histórias. Nós somos os leitores. Nossas IAs estão imbuídas de um tipo diferente de sentido, evoluíram de um tipo diferente de educação. Cientistas da computação e advogados/estudiosos do direito estão intimamente alinhados, mas nosso trabalho precisa ser o de guardiões da memória social.
Pesquisa Datafolha com advogados brasileiros mostrou que apenas 29% dos 303 entrevistados usavam recursos de IA no dia a dia. Como é nos EUA? O que é necessário para avançar mais? O que observei no “microclima” da tecnologia legal de São Paulo foi que o “tabu” contra o uso de tecnologia legal foi praticamente eliminado. Claro, isso é um microclima e pode não ser representativo ou ser contrarrepresentativo. Mas as pessoas podem estar usando IA todos os dias na prática, sem estar cientes disso. Os motores de busca são um exemplo muito simples. Temos que saber o que é algo antes de saber o quanto realmente o usamos.
Nos EUA: suspeito que o uso ainda esteja no primeiro “trimestre” do jogo em aplicações de IA para a lei. Litígio e contrato são casos de uso razoavelmente estabelecidos. Na verdade, eu não acho que você pode ser um advogado de propriedade intelectual de nível nacional sem o impulsionamento de alguma forma de dados empíricos.
Ainda são raros cursos de análise de dados para estudantes de direito no Brasil. Diante dessa lacuna, o que os profissionais devem fazer para se adaptar a essa nova realidade? Qual é o risco para quem não fizer nada? Eu começaria ensinando processo cívil com dados. Essa é a regra, é assim que as pessoas aplicam a regra (o que arquivam), e o que acontece quando o fazem (consequências). Isso seria revolucionário. Alunos, professores e doutores podem desenvolver todos os tipos de estudos e utilidades sociais.
Existem inúmeros outros exemplos. Os acadêmicos precisam conduzir isso em parceria com juízes, reguladores, a imprensa e a Ordem dos Advogados.
Na verdade, meu melhor conselho para os novos alunos é: assuma que todos os dados são falsos até prova em contrário. E quanto mais sofisticada a forma, mais volumosa a definição, mais para se aprofundar.
Autor do livro “On Legal AI – Um Rápido Tratado sobre a Inteligência Artificial no Direito” (Revista dos Tribunais, 2021) e diretor da empresa Aon IPS. Graduado em Havard e doutor pela Faculdade de Direito da Universidade de Chicago, foi cofundador do CodeX, centro de informática legal da Universidade de Stanford, e fundador da Lex Machina, empresa pioneira do segmento jurídico tecnológico. Também lecionou nas universidades de Stanford e Berkeley
Durante a pandemia do novo coronavírus, vimos nascer uma série de inovações ligadas à Inteligência Artificial (IA). Um exemplo foi o projeto “IACOV-BR: Inteligência Artificial para Covid-19 no Brasil”, do Laboratório de Big Data e Análise Preditiva em Saúde da Faculdade de Saúde Pública da Universidade de São Paulo (USP), que desenvolve algoritmos de machine learning (aprendizagem de máquina) para antecipar o diagnóstico e o prognóstico da doença e é conduzido com hospitais parceiros em diversas regiões do Brasil para auxiliar médicos e gestores.
Já uma pesquisa da Universidade Federal de São Paulo (Unifesp), em parceria com a Rede D’Or e o Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica (ITA), apontou, em fase piloto, ser possível identificar de forma rápida a gravidade dos casos de infecção por SARS-CoV-2 atendidos em pronto socorro lançando mão da IA para realizar a análise de diversos marcadores clínicos e de exames de sangue dos pacientes.
Esses são apenas dois – e nacionais – de uma infinidade de cases que mostram como o desenvolvimento e aprimoramento da IA pode ser benéfico para a sociedade. Temos que ressaltar, contudo, que a tecnologia é a famosa faca de dois gumes. De um lado, faz a humanidade avançar, otimiza processos, promove disrupções. De outro, cria divergências, paradoxos e traz problemas e dilemas que antes pareciam inimagináveis.
Em 2020, por exemplo, o departamento de polícia de Detroit, no Centro-Oeste dos Estados Unidos, foi processado por prender um homem negro identificado erroneamente por um software de reconhecimento facial como autor de um furto.
Ainda, um estudo publicado na revista Science em outubro de 2019 apontou que um software usado em atendimentos hospitalares nos EUA privilegiava pacientes brancos em detrimento de negros na fila de programas especiais voltados ao tratamento de doenças crônicas, como problemas renais e diabetes. A tecnologia, segundo os pesquisadores, tinha sido desenvolvida pela subsidiária de uma companhia de seguros e era utilizada no atendimento de, aproximadamente, 70 milhões de pacientes.
Mais recentemente, já em 2021, a startup russa Xsolla demitiu cerca de 150 funcionários com base em análise de big data. Dados dos colaboradores foram avaliados em ferramentas como o Jira – software que permite o monitoramento de tarefas e acompanhamento de projetos –, Gmail e o wiki corporativo Confluence, além de conversas e documentos, para classificá-los como “interessados” e “produtivos” no ambiente de trabalho remoto. Os que ficaram aquém do esperado foram desligados. Controverso, no mínimo, vez que houve a substituição de uma avaliação de resultados pelo simples monitoramento dos funcionários.
Novamente, esses são apenas alguns exemplos em um mar de diversos outros envolvendo polêmicas similares, cuja realidade demonstra que os gestores não estão preparados para lidar. O estudo “O estado da IA responsável: 2021”, produzido pela FICO em parceria com a empresa de inteligência de mercado Corinium, apontou que 65% das organizações não conseguem explicar como as decisões ou previsões dos seus modelos de IA são feitas. A pesquisa foi elaborada com base em conversas com 100 líderes de grandes empresas globais, inclusive brasileiros. Ainda, 73% dos entrevistados afirmaram estar enfrentando dificuldades para conseguir suporte executivo voltado a priorizar a ética e as práticas responsáveis de IA.
Softwares e aplicativos de Inteligência Artificial, que envolvem técnicas como big data e machine learning, não são perfeitos porque, justamente, foram programados por seres humanos. Há uma diferença, que pode até parecer sutil à primeira vista, entre ser inteligente e ser sábio, o que as máquinas, ao menos por enquanto, ainda não são. Em um mundo algorítmico, a IA responsável, pautada pela ética, deve ser o modelo de governança. Ao que tudo indica, entretanto, como demonstrou o estudo da FICO, é que tanto executivos como programadores não sabem como se guiar nesse sentido.
É aqui que entra a importância dos marcos regulatórios, que jogam luz sobre um tema, procuram prevenir conflitos e, caso estes ocorram, demonstram como os problemas devem ser solucionados.
Assim como ocorreu em relação à proteção de dados pessoais, a União Europeia busca ser protagonista e se tornar modelo global na regulação da IA. Por lá, o debate ainda é incipiente, mas já envolve pontos como a criação de uma autoridade para promover as normas de IA em cada país da União Europeia (EU). A regulação também mira o IA que potencialmente coloque em risco a segurança e os direitos fundamentais dos cidadãos, além da necessidade de uma maior transparência no uso de automações, como chatbots.
No Brasil, o Marco Legal da Inteligência Artificial (Projeto de Lei 21/2020) já está em tramitação no Congresso Nacional, para o qual o regime de urgência, que dispensa algumas formalidades regimentais, foi aprovado na Câmara dos Deputados. Além de toda a problemática envolvendo a falta de uma discussão aprofundada sobre o tema no Legislativo, o substitutivo do projeto se mostrou uma verdadeira bomba quanto à responsabilidade, trazendo que:
“(…) normas sobre responsabilidade dos agentes que atuam na cadeia de desenvolvimento e operação de sistemas de inteligência artificial devem, salvo disposição em contrário, se pautar na responsabilidade subjetiva, levar em consideração a efetiva participação desses agentes, os danos específicos que se deseja evitar ou remediar, e como esses agentes podem demonstrar adequação às normas aplicáveis por meio de esforços razoáveis compatíveis com padrões internacionais e melhores práticas de mercado”.
Enquanto a responsabilidade objetiva depende apenas de comprovação de nexo causal, a responsabilidade subjetiva pressupõe dolo ou culpa na conduta. Significa que agentes que atuam na cadeia de desenvolvimento e operação de sistemas de IA somente responderão por eventuais danos causados por esses sistemas se for comprovado que eles desejaram o resultado danoso ou que foram negligentes, imprudentes ou imperitos. Ademais, quem são tais agentes? Não há quaisquer definições sobre quem seriam esses operadores.
Na pressa de regular, corre-se o risco de termos, assim como diversas outras leis de nosso país, uma legislação “para inglês ver”, que mais atrapalha do que ajuda; que em vez de fazer justiça, é, na verdade, injusta. Por enquanto, no Brasil, não se tem registros de casos como os trazidos no início do texto, mas, invariavelmente, haverá. É apenas questão de tempo. E quando isso ocorrer, o risco que correremos é o de termos em mãos uma legislação incompatível com os preceitos constitucionais, que não protegem o cidadão, mas o tornam ainda mais vulnerável.
*André Aléxis de Almeida é advogado, especialista em Direito Constitucional, mestre em Direito Empresarial e mentor jurídico de empresas
The idea that consciousness is widespread is attractive to many for intellectual and, perhaps, also emotional reasons. But can it be tested? Surprisingly, perhaps it can.
Panpsychism is the belief that consciousness is found throughout the universe—not only in people and animals, but also in trees, plants, and bacteria. Panpsychists hold that some aspect of mind is present even in elementary particles. The idea that consciousness is widespread is attractive to many for intellectual and, perhaps, also emotional reasons. But can it be empirically tested? Surprisingly, perhaps it can. That’s because one of the most popular scientific theories of consciousness, integrated information theory (IIT), shares many—though not all—features of panpsychism.
As the American philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued, something is conscious if there is “something that it is like to be” that thing in the state that it is in. A human brain in a state of wakefulness feels like something specific.
IIT specifies a unique number, a system’s integrated information, labeled by the Greek letter φ (pronounced phi). If φ is zero, the system does not feel like anything; indeed, the system does not exist as a whole, as it is fully reducible to its constituent components. The larger φ, the more conscious a system is, and the more irreducible. Given an accurate and complete description of a system, IIT predicts both the quantity and the quality of its experience (if any). IIT predicts that because of the structure of the human brain, people have high values of φ, while animals have smaller (but positive) values and classical digital computers have almost none.
A person’s value of φ is not constant. It increases during early childhood with the development of the self and may decrease with onset of dementia and other cognitive impairments. φ will fluctuate during sleep, growing larger during dreams and smaller in deep, dreamless states.
IIT starts by identifying five true and essential properties of any and every conceivable conscious experience. For example, experiences are definite (exclusion). This means that an experience is not less than it is (experiencing only the sensation of the color blue but not the moving ocean that brought the color to mind), nor is it more than it is (say, experiencing the ocean while also being aware of the canopy of trees behind one’s back). In a second step, IIT derives five associated physical properties that any system—brain, computer, pine tree, sand dune—has to exhibit in order to feel like something. A “mechanism” in IIT is anything that has a causal role in a system; this could be a logical gate in a computer or a neuron in the brain. IIT says that consciousness arises only in systems of mechanisms that have a particular structure. To simplify somewhat, that structure must be maximally integrated—not accurately describable by breaking it into its constituent parts. It must also have cause-and-effect power upon itself, which is to say the current state of a given mechanism must constrain the future states of not only that particular mechanism, but the system as a whole.
Given a precise physical description of a system, the theory provides a way to calculate the φ of that system. The technical details of how this is done are complicated, but the upshot is that one can, in principle, objectively measure the φ of a system so long as one has such a precise description of it. (We can compute the φ of computers because, having built them, we understand them precisely. Computing the φ of a human brain is still an estimate.)
Debating the nature of consciousness might at first sound like an academic exercise, but it has real and important consequences.
Systems can be evaluated at different levels—one could measure the φ of a sugar-cube-size piece of my brain, or of my brain as a whole, or of me and you together. Similarly, one could measure the φ of a silicon atom, of a particular circuit on a microchip, or of an assemblage of microchips that make up a supercomputer. Consciousness, according to the theory, exists for systems for which φ is at a maximum. It exists for all such systems, and only for such systems.
The φ of my brain is bigger than the φ values of any of its parts, however one sets out to subdivide it. So I am conscious. But the φ of me and you together is less than my φ or your φ, so we are not “jointly” conscious. If, however, a future technology could create a dense communication hub between my brain and your brain, then such brain-bridging would create a single mind, distributed across four cortical hemispheres.
Conversely, the φ of a supercomputer is less than the φs of any of the circuits composing it, so a supercomputer—however large and powerful—is not conscious. The theory predicts that even if some deep-learning system could pass the Turing test, it would be a so-called “zombie”—simulating consciousness, but not actually conscious.
Like panpsychism, then, IIT considers consciousness an intrinsic, fundamental property of reality that is graded and most likely widespread in the tree of life, since any system with a non-zero amount of integrated information will feel like something. This does not imply that a bee feels obese or makes weekend plans. But a bee can feel a measure of happiness when returning pollen-laden in the sun to its hive. When a bee dies, it ceases to experience anything. Likewise, given the vast complexity of even a single cell, with millions of proteins interacting, it may feel a teeny-tiny bit like something.
Debating the nature of consciousness might at first sound like an academic exercise, but it has real and important consequences. Most obviously, it matters to how we think about people in vegetative states. Such patients may groan or otherwise move unprovoked but fail to respond to commands to signal in a purposeful manner by moving their eyes or nodding. Are they conscious minds, trapped in their damaged body, able to perceive but unable to respond? Or are they without consciousness?
Evaluating such patients for the presence of consciousness is tricky. IIT proponents have developed a procedure that can test for consciousness in an unresponsive person. First they set up a network of EEG electrodes that can measure electrical activity in the brain. Then they stimulate the brain with a gentle magnetic pulse, and record the echoes of that pulse. They can then calculate a mathematical measure of the complexity of those echoes, called a perturbational complexity index (PCI).
In healthy, conscious individuals—or in people who have brain damage but are clearly conscious—the PCI is always above a particular threshold. On the other hand, 100% of the time, if healthy people are asleep, their PCI is below that threshold (0.31). So it is reasonable to take PCI as a proxy for the presence of a conscious mind. If the PCI of someone in a persistent vegetative state is always measured to be below this threshold, we can with confidence say that this person is not covertly conscious.
This method is being investigated in a number of clinical centers across the US and Europe. Other tests seek to validate the predictions that IIT makes about the location and timing of the footprints of sensory consciousness in the brains of humans, nonhuman primates, and mice.
Unlike panpsychism, the startling claims of IIT can be empirically tested. If they hold up, science may have found a way to cut through a knot that has puzzled philosophers for as long as philosophy has existed.
Christof Koch is the chief scientist of the MindScope program at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.
The Facebook engineer was itching to know why his date hadn’t responded to his messages. Perhaps there was a simple explanation—maybe she was sick or on vacation.
So at 10 p.m. one night in the company’s Menlo Park headquarters, he brought up her Facebook profile on the company’s internal systems and began looking at her personal data. Her politics, her lifestyle, her interests—even her real-time location.
The engineer would be fired for his behavior, along with 51 other employees who had inappropriately abused their access to company data, a privilege that was then available to everyone who worked at Facebook, regardless of their job function or seniority. The vast majority of the 51 were just like him: men looking up information about the women they were interested in.
In September 2015, after Alex Stamos, the new chief security officer, brought the issue to Mark Zuckerberg’s attention, the CEO ordered a system overhaul to restrict employee access to user data. It was a rare victory for Stamos, one in which he convinced Zuckerberg that Facebook’s design was to blame, rather than individual behavior.
So begins An Ugly Truth, a new book about Facebook written by veteran New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. With Frenkel’s expertise in cybersecurity, Kang’s expertise in technology and regulatory policy, and their deep well of sources, the duo provide a compelling account of Facebook’s years spanning the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Stamos would no longer be so lucky. The issues that derived from Facebook’s business model would only escalate in the years that followed but as Stamos unearthed more egregious problems, including Russian interference in US elections, he was pushed out for making Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg face inconvenient truths. Once he left, the leadership continued to refuse to address a whole host of profoundly disturbing problems, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the genocide in Myanmar, and rampant covid misinformation.
Frenkel and Kang argue that Facebook’s problems today are not the product of a company that lost its way. Instead they are part of its very design, built atop Zuckerberg’s narrow worldview, the careless privacy culture he cultivated, and the staggering ambitions he chased with Sandberg.
When the company was still small, perhaps such a lack of foresight and imagination could be excused. But since then, Zuckerberg’s and Sandberg’s decisions have shown that growth and revenue trump everything else.
In a chapter titled “Company Over Country,” for example, the authors chronicle how the leadership tried to bury the extent of Russian election interference on the platform from the US intelligence community, Congress, and the American public. They censored the Facebook security team’s multiple attempts to publish details of what they had found, and cherry-picked the data to downplay the severity and partisan nature of the problem. When Stamos proposed a redesign of the company’s organization to prevent a repeat of the issue, other leaders dismissed the idea as “alarmist” and focused their resources on getting control of the public narrative and keeping regulators at bay.
In 2014, a similar pattern began to play out in Facebook’s response to the escalating violence in Myanmar, detailed in the chapter “Think Before You Share.” A year prior, Myanmar-based activists had already begun to warn the company about the concerning levels of hate speech and misinformation on the platform being directed at the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. But driven by Zuckerberg’s desire to expand globally, Facebook didn’t take the warnings seriously.
When riots erupted in the country, the company further underscored their priorities. It remained silent in the face of two deaths and fourteen injured but jumped in the moment the Burmese government cut off Facebook access for the country. Leadership then continued to delay investments and platform changes that could have prevented the violence from getting worse because it risked reducing user engagement. By 2017, ethnic tensions had devolved into a full-blown genocide, which the UN later found had been “substantively contributed to” by Facebook, resulting in the killing of more than 24,000 Rohingya Muslims.
This is what Frenkel and Kang call Facebook’s “ugly truth.” Its “irreconcilable dichotomy” of wanting to connect people to advance society but also enrich its bottom line. Chapter after chapter makes abundantly clear that it isn’t possible to satisfy both—and Facebook has time again chosen the latter at the expense of the former.
The book is as much a feat of storytelling as it is reporting. Whether you have followed Facebook’s scandals closely as I have, or only heard bits and pieces at a distance, Frenkel and Kang weave it together in a way that leaves something for everyone. The detailed anecdotes take readers behind the scenes into Zuckerberg’s conference room known as “Aquarium,” where key decisions shaped the course of the company. The pacing of each chapter guarantees fresh revelations with every turn of the page.
While I recognized each of the events that the authors referenced, the degree to which the company sought to protect itself at the cost of others was still worse than I had previously known. Meanwhile, my partner who read it side-by-side with me and squarely falls into the second category of reader repeatedly looked up stunned by what he had learned.
The authors keep their own analysis light, preferring to let the facts speak for themselves. In this spirit, they demur at the end of their account from making any hard conclusions about what to do with Facebook, or where this leaves us. “Even if the company undergoes a radical transformation in the coming year,” they write, “that change is unlikely to come from within.” But between the lines, the message is loud and clear: Facebook will never fix itself.
Machine-learning systems can be duped or confounded by situations they haven’t seen before. A self-driving car gets flummoxed by a scenario that a human driver could handle easily. An AI system laboriously trained to carry out one task (identifying cats, say) has to be taught all over again to do something else (identifying dogs). In the process, it’s liable to lose some of the expertise it had in the original task. Computer scientists call this problem “catastrophic forgetting.”
These shortcomings have something in common: they exist because AI systems don’t understand causation. They see that some events are associated with other events, but they don’t ascertain which things directly make other things happen. It’s as if you knew that the presence of clouds made rain likelier, but you didn’t know clouds caused rain.
Understanding cause and effect is a big aspect of what we call common sense, and it’s an area in which AI systems today “are clueless,” says Elias Bareinboim. He should know: as the director of the new Causal Artificial Intelligence Lab at Columbia University, he’s at the forefront of efforts to fix this problem.
His idea is to infuse artificial-intelligence research with insights from the relatively new science of causality, a field shaped to a huge extent by Judea Pearl, a Turing Award–winning scholar who considers Bareinboim his protégé.
As Bareinboim and Pearl describe it, AI’s ability to spot correlations—e.g., that clouds make rain more likely—is merely the simplest level of causal reasoning. It’s good enough to have driven the boom in the AI technique known as deep learning over the past decade. Given a great deal of data about familiar situations, this method can lead to very good predictions. A computer can calculate the probability that a patient with certain symptoms has a certain disease, because it has learned just how often thousands or even millions of other people with the same symptoms had that disease.
But there’s a growing consensus that progress in AI will stall if computers don’t get better at wrestling with causation. If machines could grasp that certain things lead to other things, they wouldn’t have to learn everything anew all the time—they could take what they had learned in one domain and apply it to another. And if machines could use common sense we’d be able to put more trust in them to take actions on their own, knowing that they aren’t likely to make dumb errors.
Today’s AI has only a limited ability to infer what will result from a given action. In reinforcement learning, a technique that has allowed machines to master games like chess and Go, a system uses extensive trial and error to discern which moves will essentially cause them to win. But this approach doesn’t work in messier settings in the real world. It doesn’t even leave a machine with a general understanding of how it might play other games.
An even higher level of causal thinking would be the ability to reason about why things happened and ask “what if” questions. A patient dies while in a clinical trial; was it the fault of the experimental medicine or something else? School test scores are falling; what policy changes would most improve them? This kind of reasoning is far beyond the current capability of artificial intelligence.
The dream of endowing computers with causal reasoning drew Bareinboim from Brazil to the United States in 2008, after he completed a master’s in computer science at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He jumped at an opportunity to study under Judea Pearl, a computer scientist and statistician at UCLA. Pearl, 83, is a giant—the giant—of causal inference, and his career helps illustrate why it’s hard to create AI that understands causality.
Even well-trained scientists are apt to misinterpret correlations as signs of causation—or to err in the opposite direction, hesitating to call out causation even when it’s justified. In the 1950s, for example, a few prominent statisticians muddied the waters around whether tobacco caused cancer. They argued that without an experiment randomly assigning people to be smokers or nonsmokers, no one could rule out the possibility that some unknown—stress, perhaps, or some gene—caused people both to smoke and to get lung cancer.
Eventually, the fact that smoking causes cancer was definitively established, but it needn’t have taken so long. Since then, Pearl and other statisticians have devised a mathematical approach to identifying what facts would be required to support a causal claim. Pearl’s method shows that, given the prevalence of smoking and lung cancer, an independent factor causing both would be extremely unlikely.
Conversely, Pearl’s formulas also help identify when correlations can’t be used to determine causation. Bernhard Schölkopf, who researches causal AI techniques as a director at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, points out that you can predict a country’s birth rate if you know its population of storks. That isn’t because storks deliver babies or because babies attract storks, but probably because economic development leads to more babies and more storks. Pearl has helped give statisticians and computer scientists ways of attacking such problems, Schölkopf says.
Pearl’s work has also led to the development of causal Bayesian networks—software that sifts through large amounts of data to detect which variables appear to have the most influence on other variables. For example, GNS Healthcare, a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, uses these techniques to advise researchers about experiments that look promising.
In one project, GNS worked with researchers who study multiple myeloma, a kind of blood cancer. The researchers wanted to know why some patients with the disease live longer than others after getting stem-cell transplants, a common form of treatment. The software churned through data with 30,000 variables and pointed to a few that seemed especially likely to be causal. Biostatisticians and experts in the disease zeroed in on one in particular: the level of a certain protein in patients’ bodies. Researchers could then run a targeted clinical trial to see whether patients with the protein did indeed benefit more from the treatment. “It’s way faster than poking here and there in the lab,” says GNS cofounder Iya Khalil.
Nonetheless, the improvements that Pearl and other scholars have achieved in causal theory haven’t yet made many inroads in deep learning, which identifies correlations without too much worry about causation. Bareinboim is working to take the next step: making computers more useful tools for human causal explorations.
Pearl says AI can’t be truly intelligent until it has a rich understanding of cause and effect, which would enable the introspection that is at the core of cognition.
One of his systems, which is still in beta, can help scientists determine whether they have sufficient data to answer a causal question. Richard McElreath, an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, is using the software to guide research into why humans go through menopause (we are the only apes that do).
The hypothesis is that the decline of fertility in older women benefited early human societies because women who put more effort into caring for grandchildren ultimately had more descendants. But what evidence might exist today to support the claim that children do better with grandparents around? Anthropologists can’t just compare the educational or medical outcomes of children who have lived with grandparents and those who haven’t. There are what statisticians call confounding factors: grandmothers might be likelier to live with grandchildren who need the most help. Bareinboim’s software can help McElreath discern which studies about kids who grew up with their grandparents are least riddled with confounding factors and could be valuable in answering his causal query. “It’s a huge step forward,” McElreath says.
The last mile
Bareinboim talks fast and often gestures with two hands in the air, as if he’s trying to balance two sides of a mental equation. It was halfway through the semester when I visited him at Columbia in October, but it seemed as if he had barely moved into his office—hardly anything on the walls, no books on the shelves, only a sleek Mac computer and a whiteboard so dense with equations and diagrams that it looked like a detail from a cartoon about a mad professor.
He shrugged off the provisional state of the room, saying he had been very busy giving talks about both sides of the causal revolution. Bareinboim believes work like his offers the opportunity not just to incorporate causal thinking into machines, but also to improve it in humans.
Getting people to think more carefully about causation isn’t necessarily much easier than teaching it to machines, he says. Researchers in a wide range of disciplines, from molecular biology to public policy, are sometimes content to unearth correlations that are not actually rooted in causal relationships. For instance, some studies suggest drinking alcohol will kill you early, while others indicate that moderate consumption is fine and even beneficial, and still other research has found that heavy drinkers outlive nondrinkers. This phenomenon, known as the “reproducibility crisis,” crops up not only in medicine and nutrition but also in psychology and economics. “You can see the fragility of all these inferences,” says Bareinboim. “We’re flipping results every couple of years.”
He argues that anyone asking “what if”—medical researchers setting up clinical trials, social scientists developing pilot programs, even web publishers preparing A/B tests—should start not merely by gathering data but by using Pearl’s causal logic and software like Bareinboim’s to determine whether the available data could possibly answer a causal hypothesis. Eventually, he envisions this leading to “automated scientist” software: a human could dream up a causal question to go after, and the software would combine causal inference theory with machine-learning techniques to rule out experiments that wouldn’t answer the question. That might save scientists from a huge number of costly dead ends.
Bareinboim described this vision while we were sitting in the lobby of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, after a talk he gave last fall. “We have a building here at MIT with, I don’t know, 200 people,” he said. How do those social scientists, or any scientists anywhere, decide which experiments to pursue and which data points to gather? By following their intuition: “They are trying to see where things will lead, based on their current understanding.”
That’s an inherently limited approach, he said, because human scientists designing an experiment can consider only a handful of variables in their minds at once. A computer, on the other hand, can see the interplay of hundreds or thousands of variables. Encoded with “the basic principles” of Pearl’s causal calculus and able to calculate what might happen with new sets of variables, an automated scientist could suggest exactly which experiments the human researchers should spend their time on. Maybe some public policy that has been shown to work only in Texas could be made to work in California if a few causally relevant factors were better appreciated. Scientists would no longer be “doing experiments in the darkness,” Bareinboim said.
He also doesn’t think it’s that far off: “This is the last mile before the victory.”
Finishing that mile will probably require techniques that are just beginning to be developed. For example, Yoshua Bengio, a computer scientist at the University of Montreal who shared the 2018 Turing Award for his work on deep learning, is trying to get neural networks—the software at the heart of deep learning—to do “meta-learning” and notice the causes of things.
As things stand now, if you wanted a neural network to detect when people are dancing, you’d show it many, many images of dancers. If you wanted it to identify when people are running, you’d show it many, many images of runners. The system would learn to distinguish runners from dancers by identifying features that tend to be different in the images, such as the positions of a person’s hands and arms. But Bengio points out that fundamental knowledge about the world can be gleaned by analyzing the things that are similar or “invariant” across data sets. Maybe a neural network could learn that movements of the legs physically cause both running and dancing. Maybe after seeing these examples and many others that show people only a few feet off the ground, a machine would eventually understand something about gravity and how it limits human movement. Over time, with enough meta-learning about variables that are consistent across data sets, a computer could gain causal knowledge that would be reusable in many domains.
For his part, Pearl says AI can’t be truly intelligent until it has a rich understanding of cause and effect. Although causal reasoning wouldn’t be sufficient for an artificial general intelligence, it’s necessary, he says, because it would enable the introspection that is at the core of cognition. “What if” questions “are the building blocks of science, of moral attitudes, of free will, of consciousness,” Pearl told me.
You can’t draw Pearl into predicting how long it will take for computers to get powerful causal reasoning abilities. “I am not a futurist,” he says. But in any case, he thinks the first move should be to develop machine-learning tools that combine data with available scientific knowledge: “We have a lot of knowledge that resides in the human skull which is not utilized.”
Brian Bergstein, a former editor at MIT Technology Review, is deputy opinion editor at the Boston Globe.
Moore’s argument was an economic one. Integrated circuits, with multiple transistors and other electronic devices interconnected with aluminum metal lines on a tiny square of silicon wafer, had been invented a few years earlier by Robert Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor. Moore, the company’s R&D director, realized, as he wrote in 1965, that with these new integrated circuits, “the cost per component is nearly inversely proportional to the number of components.” It was a beautiful bargain—in theory, the more transistors you added, the cheaper each one got. Moore also saw that there was plenty of room for engineering advances to increase the number of transistors you could affordably and reliably put on a chip.
Soon these cheaper, more powerful chips would become what economists like to call a general purpose technology—one so fundamental that it spawns all sorts of other innovations and advances in multiple industries. A few years ago, leading economists credited the information technology made possible by integrated circuits with a third of US productivity growth since 1974. Almost every technology we care about, from smartphones to cheap laptops to GPS, is a direct reflection of Moore’s prediction. It has also fueled today’s breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and genetic medicine, by giving machine-learning techniques the ability to chew through massive amounts of data to find answers.
But how did a simple prediction, based on extrapolating from a graph of the number of transistors by year—a graph that at the time had only a few data points—come to define a half-century of progress? In part, at least, because the semiconductor industry decided it would.
Moore wrote that “cramming more components onto integrated circuits,” the title of his 1965 article, would “lead to such wonders as home computers—or at least terminals connected to a central computer—automatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment.” In other words, stick to his road map of squeezing ever more transistors onto chips and it would lead you to the promised land. And for the following decades, a booming industry, the government, and armies of academic and industrial researchers poured money and time into upholding Moore’s Law, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that kept progress on track with uncanny accuracy. Though the pace of progress has slipped in recent years, the most advanced chips today have nearly 50 billion transistors.
Every year since 2001, MIT Technology Review has chosen the 10 most important breakthrough technologies of the year. It’s a list of technologies that, almost without exception, are possible only because of the computation advances described by Moore’s Law.
For some of the items on this year’s list the connection is obvious: consumer devices, including watches and phones, infused with AI; climate-change attribution made possible by improved computer modeling and data gathered from worldwide atmospheric monitoring systems; and cheap, pint-size satellites. Others on the list, including quantum supremacy, molecules discovered using AI, and even anti-aging treatments and hyper-personalized drugs, are due largely to the computational power available to researchers.
But what happens when Moore’s Law inevitably ends? Or what if, as some suspect, it has already died, and we are already running on the fumes of the greatest technology engine of our time?
“It’s over. This year that became really clear,” says Charles Leiserson, a computer scientist at MIT and a pioneer of parallel computing, in which multiple calculations are performed simultaneously. The newest Intel fabrication plant, meant to build chips with minimum feature sizes of 10 nanometers, was much delayed, delivering chips in 2019, five years after the previous generation of chips with 14-nanometer features. Moore’s Law, Leiserson says, was always about the rate of progress, and “we’re no longer on that rate.” Numerous other prominent computer scientists have also declared Moore’s Law dead in recent years. In early 2019, the CEO of the large chipmaker Nvidia agreed.
In truth, it’s been more a gradual decline than a sudden death. Over the decades, some, including Moore himself at times, fretted that they could see the end in sight, as it got harder to make smaller and smaller transistors. In 1999, an Intel researcher worried that the industry’s goal of making transistors smaller than 100 nanometers by 2005 faced fundamental physical problems with “no known solutions,” like the quantum effects of electrons wandering where they shouldn’t be.
For years the chip industry managed to evade these physical roadblocks. New transistor designs were introduced to better corral the electrons. New lithography methods using extreme ultraviolet radiation were invented when the wavelengths of visible light were too thick to precisely carve out silicon features of only a few tens of nanometers. But progress grew ever more expensive. Economists at Stanford and MIT have calculated that the research effort going into upholding Moore’s Law has risen by a factor of 18 since 1971.
Likewise, the fabs that make the most advanced chips are becoming prohibitively pricey. The cost of a fab is rising at around 13% a year, and is expected to reach $16 billion or more by 2022. Not coincidentally, the number of companies with plans to make the next generation of chips has now shrunk to only three, down from eight in 2010 and 25 in 2002.
Finding successors to today’s silicon chips will take years of research.If you’re worried about what will replace moore’s Law, it’s time to panic.
Nonetheless, Intel—one of those three chipmakers—isn’t expecting a funeral for Moore’s Law anytime soon. Jim Keller, who took over as Intel’s head of silicon engineering in 2018, is the man with the job of keeping it alive. He leads a team of some 8,000 hardware engineers and chip designers at Intel. When he joined the company, he says, many were anticipating the end of Moore’s Law. If they were right, he recalls thinking, “that’s a drag” and maybe he had made “a really bad career move.”
But Keller found ample technical opportunities for advances. He points out that there are probably more than a hundred variables involved in keeping Moore’s Law going, each of which provides different benefits and faces its own limits. It means there are many ways to keep doubling the number of devices on a chip—innovations such as 3D architectures and new transistor designs.
These days Keller sounds optimistic. He says he has been hearing about the end of Moore’s Law for his entire career. After a while, he “decided not to worry about it.” He says Intel is on pace for the next 10 years, and he will happily do the math for you: 65 billion (number of transistors) times 32 (if chip density doubles every two years) is 2 trillion transistors. “That’s a 30 times improvement in performance,” he says, adding that if software developers are clever, we could get chips that are a hundred times faster in 10 years.
Still, even if Intel and the other remaining chipmakers can squeeze out a few more generations of even more advanced microchips, the days when you could reliably count on faster, cheaper chips every couple of years are clearly over. That doesn’t, however, mean the end of computational progress.
Time to panic
Neil Thompson is an economist, but his office is at CSAIL, MIT’s sprawling AI and computer center, surrounded by roboticists and computer scientists, including his collaborator Leiserson. In a new paper, the two document ample room for improving computational performance through better software, algorithms, and specialized chip architecture.
One opportunity is in slimming down so-called software bloat to wring the most out of existing chips. When chips could always be counted on to get faster and more powerful, programmers didn’t need to worry much about writing more efficient code. And they often failed to take full advantage of changes in hardware architecture, such as the multiple cores, or processors, seen in chips used today.
Thompson and his colleagues showed that they could get a computationally intensive calculation to run some 47 times faster just by switching from Python, a popular general-purpose programming language, to the more efficient C. That’s because C, while it requires more work from the programmer, greatly reduces the required number of operations, making a program run much faster. Further tailoring the code to take full advantage of a chip with 18 processing cores sped things up even more. In just 0.41 seconds, the researchers got a result that took seven hours with Python code.
That sounds like good news for continuing progress, but Thompson worries it also signals the decline of computers as a general purpose technology. Rather than “lifting all boats,” as Moore’s Law has, by offering ever faster and cheaper chips that were universally available, advances in software and specialized architecture will now start to selectively target specific problems and business opportunities, favoring those with sufficient money and resources.
Indeed, the move to chips designed for specific applications, particularly in AI, is well under way. Deep learning and other AI applications increasingly rely on graphics processing units (GPUs) adapted from gaming, which can handle parallel operations, while companies like Google, Microsoft, and Baidu are designing AI chips for their own particular needs. AI, particularly deep learning, has a huge appetite for computer power, and specialized chips can greatly speed up its performance, says Thompson.
But the trade-off is that specialized chips are less versatile than traditional CPUs. Thompson is concerned that chips for more general computing are becoming a backwater, slowing “the overall pace of computer improvement,” as he writes in an upcoming paper, “The Decline of Computers as a General Purpose Technology.”
At some point, says Erica Fuchs, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, those developing AI and other applications will miss the decreases in cost and increases in performance delivered by Moore’s Law. “Maybe in 10 years or 30 years—no one really knows when—you’re going to need a device with that additional computation power,” she says.
The problem, says Fuchs, is that the successors to today’s general purpose chips are unknown and will take years of basic research and development to create. If you’re worried about what will replace Moore’s Law, she suggests, “the moment to panic is now.” There are, she says, “really smart people in AI who aren’t aware of the hardware constraints facing long-term advances in computing.” What’s more, she says, because application–specific chips are proving hugely profitable, there are few incentives to invest in new logic devices and ways of doing computing.
Wanted: A Marshall Plan for chips
In 2018, Fuchs and her CMU colleagues Hassan Khan and David Hounshell wrote a paper tracing the history of Moore’s Law and identifying the changes behind today’s lack of the industry and government collaboration that fostered so much progress in earlier decades. They argued that “the splintering of the technology trajectories and the short-term private profitability of many of these new splinters” means we need to greatly boost public investment in finding the next great computer technologies.
If economists are right, and much of the growth in the 1990s and early 2000s was a result of microchips—and if, as some suggest, the sluggish productivity growth that began in the mid-2000s reflects the slowdown in computational progress—then, says Thompson, “it follows you should invest enormous amounts of money to find the successor technology. We’re not doing it. And it’s a public policy failure.”
There’s no guarantee that such investments will pay off. Quantum computing, carbon nanotube transistors, even spintronics, are enticing possibilities—but none are obvious replacements for the promise that Gordon Moore first saw in a simple integrated circuit. We need the research investments now to find out, though. Because one prediction is pretty much certain to come true: we’re always going to want more computing power.
Could the way drosophila use antennae to sense heat help us teach self-driving cars make decisions?
Date: April 6, 2021
Source: Northwestern University
Summary: With over 70% of respondents to a AAA annual survey on autonomous driving reporting they would fear being in a fully self-driving car, makers like Tesla may be back to the drawing board before rolling out fully autonomous self-driving systems. But new research shows us we may be better off putting fruit flies behind the wheel instead of robots.
With over 70% of respondents to a AAA annual survey on autonomous driving reporting they would fear being in a fully self-driving car, makers like Tesla may be back to the drawing board before rolling out fully autonomous self-driving systems. But new research from Northwestern University shows us we may be better off putting fruit flies behind the wheel instead of robots.
Drosophila have been subjects of science as long as humans have been running experiments in labs. But given their size, it’s easy to wonder what can be learned by observing them. Research published today in the journal Nature Communications demonstrates that fruit flies use decision-making, learning and memory to perform simple functions like escaping heat. And researchers are using this understanding to challenge the way we think about self-driving cars.
“The discovery that flexible decision-making, learning and memory are used by flies during such a simple navigational task is both novel and surprising,” said Marco Gallio, the corresponding author on the study. “It may make us rethink what we need to do to program safe and flexible self-driving vehicles.”
According to Gallio, an associate professor of neurobiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the questions behind this study are similar to those vexing engineers building cars that move on their own. How does a fruit fly (or a car) cope with novelty? How can we build a car that is flexibly able to adapt to new conditions?
This discovery reveals brain functions in the household pest that are typically associated with more complex brains like those of mice and humans.
“Animal behavior, especially that of insects, is often considered largely fixed and hard-wired — like machines,” Gallio said. “Most people have a hard time imagining that animals as different from us as a fruit fly may possess complex brain functions, such as the ability to learn, remember or make decisions.”
To study how fruit flies tend to escape heat, the Gallio lab built a tiny plastic chamber with four floor tiles whose temperatures could be independently controlled and confined flies inside. They then used high-resolution video recordings to map how a fly reacted when it encountered a boundary between a warm tile and a cool tile. They found flies were remarkably good at treating heat boundaries as invisible barriers to avoid pain or harm.
Using real measurements, the team created a 3D model to estimate the exact temperature of each part of the fly’s tiny body throughout the experiment. During other trials, they opened a window in the fly’s head and recorded brain activity in neurons that process external temperature signals.
Miguel Simões, a postdoctoral fellow in the Gallio lab and co-first author of the study, said flies are able to determine with remarkable accuracy if the best path to thermal safety is to the left or right. Mapping the direction of escape, Simões said flies “nearly always” escape left when they approach from the right, “like a tennis ball bouncing off a wall.”
“When flies encounter heat, they have to make a rapid decision,” Simões said. “Is it safe to continue, or should it turn back? This decision is highly dependent on how dangerous the temperature is on the other side.”
Observing the simple response reminded the scientists of one of the classic concepts in early robotics.
“In his famous book, the cyberneticist Valentino Braitenberg imagined simple models made of sensors and motors that could come close to reproducing animal behavior,” said Josh Levy, an applied math graduate student and a member of the labs of Gallio and applied math professor William Kath. “The vehicles are a combination of simple wires, but the resulting behavior appears complex and even intelligent.”
Braitenberg argued that much of animal behavior could be explained by the same principles. But does that mean fly behavior is as predictable as that of one of Braitenberg’s imagined robots?
The Northwestern team built a vehicle using a computer simulation of fly behavior with the same wiring and algorithm as a Braitenberg vehicle to see how closely they could replicate animal behavior. After running model race simulations, the team ran a natural selection process of sorts, choosing the cars that did best and mutating them slightly before recombining them with other high-performing vehicles. Levy ran 500 generations of evolution in the powerful NU computing cluster, building cars they ultimately hoped would do as well as flies at escaping the virtual heat.
This simulation demonstrated that “hard-wired” vehicles eventually evolved to perform nearly as well as flies. But while real flies continued to improve performance over time and learn to adopt better strategies to become more efficient, the vehicles remain “dumb” and inflexible. The researchers also discovered that even as flies performed the simple task of escaping the heat, fly behavior remains somewhat unpredictable, leaving space for individual decisions. Finally, the scientists observed that while flies missing an antenna adapt and figure out new strategies to escape heat, vehicles “damaged” in the same way are unable to cope with the new situation and turn in the direction of the missing part, eventually getting trapped in a spin like a dog chasing its tail.
Gallio said the idea that simple navigation contains such complexity provides fodder for future work in this area.
Work in the Gallio lab is supported by the NIH (Award No. R01NS086859 and R21EY031849), a Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences and a McKnight Technological Innovation in Neuroscience Awards.
José Miguel Simões, Joshua I. Levy, Emanuela E. Zaharieva, Leah T. Vinson, Peixiong Zhao, Michael H. Alpert, William L. Kath, Alessia Para, Marco Gallio. Robustness and plasticity in Drosophila heat avoidance. Nature Communications, 2021; 12 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-22322-w
Joaquin Quiñonero Candela, a director of AI at Facebook, was apologizing to his audience.
It was March 23, 2018, just days after the revelation that Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy that worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign, had surreptitiously siphoned the personal data of tens of millions of Americans from their Facebook accounts in an attempt to influence how they voted. It was the biggest privacy breach in Facebook’s history, and Quiñonero had been previously scheduled to speak at a conference on, among other things, “the intersection of AI, ethics, and privacy” at the company. He considered canceling, but after debating it with his communications director, he’d kept his allotted time.
As he stepped up to face the room, he began with an admission. “I’ve just had the hardest five days in my tenure at Facebook,” he remembers saying. “If there’s criticism, I’ll accept it.”
The Cambridge Analytica scandal would kick off Facebook’s largest publicity crisis ever. It compounded fears that the algorithms that determine what people see on the platform were amplifying fake news and hate speech, and that Russian hackers had weaponized them to try to sway the election in Trump’s favor. Millions began deleting the app; employees left in protest; the company’s market capitalization plunged by more than $100 billion after its July earnings call.
In the ensuing months, Mark Zuckerberg began his own apologizing. He apologized for not taking “a broad enough view” of Facebook’s responsibilities, and for his mistakes as a CEO. Internally, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, kicked off a two-year civil rights audit to recommend ways the company could prevent the use of its platform to undermine democracy.
Finally, Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, asked Quiñonero to start a team with a directive that was a little vague: to examine the societal impact of the company’s algorithms. The group named itself the Society and AI Lab (SAIL); last year it combined with another team working on issues of data privacy to form Responsible AI.
Quiñonero was a natural pick for the job. He, as much as anybody, was the one responsible for Facebook’s position as an AI powerhouse. In his six years at Facebook, he’d created some of the first algorithms for targeting users with content precisely tailored to their interests, and then he’d diffused those algorithms across the company. Now his mandate would be to make them less harmful.
Facebook has consistently pointed to the efforts by Quiñonero and others as it seeks to repair its reputation. It regularly trots out various leaders to speak to the media about the ongoing reforms. In May of 2019, it granted a series of interviews with Schroepfer to the New York Times, which rewarded the company with a humanizing profile of a sensitive, well-intentioned executive striving to overcome the technical challenges of filtering out misinformation and hate speech from a stream of content that amounted to billions of pieces a day. These challenges are so hard that it makes Schroepfer emotional, wrote the Times: “Sometimes that brings him to tears.”
In the spring of 2020, it was apparently my turn. Ari Entin, Facebook’s AI communications director, asked in an email if I wanted to take a deeper look at the company’s AI work. After talking to several of its AI leaders, I decided to focus on Quiñonero. Entin happily obliged. As not only the leader of the Responsible AI team but also the man who had made Facebook into an AI-driven company, Quiñonero was a solid choice to use as a poster boy.
He seemed a natural choice of subject to me, too. In the years since he’d formed his team following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, concerns about the spread of lies and hate speech on Facebook had only grown. In late 2018 the company admitted that this activity had helped fuel a genocidal anti-Muslim campaign in Myanmar for several years. In 2020 Facebook started belatedly taking action against Holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers, and the conspiracy movement QAnon. All these dangerous falsehoods were metastasizing thanks to the AI capabilities Quiñonero had helped build. The algorithms that underpin Facebook’s business weren’t created to filter out what was false or inflammatory; they were designed to make people share and engage with as much content as possible by showing them things they were most likely to be outraged or titillated by. Fixing this problem, to me, seemed like core Responsible AI territory.
I began video-calling Quiñonero regularly. I also spoke to Facebook executives, current and former employees, industry peers, and external experts. Many spoke on condition of anonymity because they’d signed nondisclosure agreements or feared retaliation. I wanted to know: What was Quiñonero’s team doing to rein in the hate and lies on its platform?
But Entin and Quiñonero had a different agenda. Each time I tried to bring up these topics, my requests to speak about them were dropped or redirected. They only wanted to discuss the Responsible AI team’s plan to tackle one specific kind of problem: AI bias, in which algorithms discriminate against particular user groups. An example would be an ad-targeting algorithm that shows certain job or housing opportunities to white people but not to minorities.
By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.
The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.
In other words, the Responsible AI team’s work—whatever its merits on the specific problem of tackling AI bias—is essentially irrelevant to fixing the bigger problems of misinformation, extremism, and political polarization. And it’s all of us who pay the price.
“When you’re in the business of maximizing engagement, you’re not interested in truth. You’re not interested in harm, divisiveness, conspiracy. In fact, those are your friends,” says Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who collaborates with Facebook to understand image- and video-based misinformation on the platform.
“They always do just enough to be able to put the press release out. But with a few exceptions, I don’t think it’s actually translated into better policies. They’re never really dealing with the fundamental problems.”
In March of 2012, Quiñonero visited a friend in the Bay Area. At the time, he was a manager in Microsoft Research’s UK office, leading a team using machine learning to get more visitors to click on ads displayed by the company’s search engine, Bing. His expertise was rare, and the team was less than a year old. Machine learning, a subset of AI, had yet to prove itself as a solution to large-scale industry problems. Few tech giants had invested in the technology.
Quiñonero’s friend wanted to show off his new employer, one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley: Facebook, then eight years old and already with close to a billion monthly active users (i.e., those who have logged in at least once in the past 30 days). As Quiñonero walked around its Menlo Park headquarters, he watched a lone engineer make a major update to the website, something that would have involved significant red tape at Microsoft. It was a memorable introduction to Zuckerberg’s “Move fast and break things” ethos. Quiñonero was awestruck by the possibilities. Within a week, he had been through interviews and signed an offer to join the company.
His arrival couldn’t have been better timed. Facebook’s ads service was in the middle of a rapid expansion as the company was preparing for its May IPO. The goal was to increase revenue and take on Google, which had the lion’s share of the online advertising market. Machine learning, which could predict which ads would resonate best with which users and thus make them more effective, could be the perfect tool. Shortly after starting, Quiñonero was promoted to managing a team similar to the one he’d led at Microsoft.
Unlike traditional algorithms, which are hard-coded by engineers, machine-learning algorithms “train” on input data to learn the correlations within it. The trained algorithm, known as a machine-learning model, can then automate future decisions. An algorithm trained on ad click data, for example, might learn that women click on ads for yoga leggings more often than men. The resultant model will then serve more of those ads to women. Today at an AI-based company like Facebook, engineers generate countless models with slight variations to see which one performs best on a given problem.
Facebook’s massive amounts of user data gave Quiñonero a big advantage. His team could develop models that learned to infer the existence not only of broad categories like “women” and “men,” but of very fine-grained categories like “women between 25 and 34 who liked Facebook pages related to yoga,” and targeted ads to them. The finer-grained the targeting, the better the chance of a click, which would give advertisers more bang for their buck.
Within a year his team had developed these models, as well as the tools for designing and deploying new ones faster. Before, it had taken Quiñonero’s engineers six to eight weeks to build, train, and test a new model. Now it took only one.
News of the success spread quickly. The team that worked on determining which posts individual Facebook users would see on their personal news feeds wanted to apply the same techniques. Just as algorithms could be trained to predict who would click what ad, they could also be trained to predict who would like or share what post, and then give those posts more prominence. If the model determined that a person really liked dogs, for instance, friends’ posts about dogs would appear higher up on that user’s news feed.
Quiñonero’s success with the news feed—coupled with impressive new AI research being conducted outside the company—caught the attention of Zuckerberg and Schroepfer. Facebook now had just over 1 billion users, making it more than eight times larger than any other social network, but they wanted to know how to continue that growth. The executives decided to invest heavily in AI, internet connectivity, and virtual reality.
They created two AI teams. One was FAIR, a fundamental research lab that would advance the technology’s state-of-the-art capabilities. The other, Applied Machine Learning (AML), would integrate those capabilities into Facebook’s products and services. In December 2013, after months of courting and persuasion, the executives recruited Yann LeCun, one of the biggest names in the field, to lead FAIR. Three months later, Quiñonero was promoted again, this time to lead AML. (It was later renamed FAIAR, pronounced “fire.”)
“That’s how you know what’s on his mind. I was always, for a couple of years, a few steps from Mark’s desk.”
Joaquin Quiñonero Candela
In his new role, Quiñonero built a new model-development platform for anyone at Facebook to access. Called FBLearner Flow, it allowed engineers with little AI experience to train and deploy machine-learning models within days. By mid-2016, it was in use by more than a quarter of Facebook’s engineering team and had already been used to train over a million models, including models for image recognition, ad targeting, and content moderation.
Zuckerberg’s obsession with getting the whole world to use Facebook had found a powerful new weapon. Teams had previously used design tactics, like experimenting with the content and frequency of notifications, to try to hook users more effectively. Their goal, among other things, was to increase a metric called L6/7, the fraction of people who logged in to Facebook six of the previous seven days. L6/7 is just one of myriad ways in which Facebook has measured “engagement”—the propensity of people to use its platform in any way, whether it’s by posting things, commenting on them, liking or sharing them, or just looking at them. Now every user interaction once analyzed by engineers was being analyzed by algorithms. Those algorithms were creating much faster, more personalized feedback loops for tweaking and tailoring each user’s news feed to keep nudging up engagement numbers.
Zuckerberg, who sat in the center of Building 20, the main office at the Menlo Park headquarters, placed the new FAIR and AML teams beside him. Many of the original AI hires were so close that his desk and theirs were practically touching. It was “the inner sanctum,” says a former leader in the AI org (the branch of Facebook that contains all its AI teams), who recalls the CEO shuffling people in and out of his vicinity as they gained or lost his favor. “That’s how you know what’s on his mind,” says Quiñonero. “I was always, for a couple of years, a few steps from Mark’s desk.”
With new machine-learning models coming online daily, the company created a new system to track their impact and maximize user engagement. The process is still the same today. Teams train up a new machine-learning model on FBLearner, whether to change the ranking order of posts or to better catch content that violates Facebook’s community standards (its rules on what is and isn’t allowed on the platform). Then they test the new model on a small subset of Facebook’s users to measure how it changes engagement metrics, such as the number of likes, comments, and shares, says Krishna Gade, who served as the engineering manager for news feed from 2016 to 2018.
If a model reduces engagement too much, it’s discarded. Otherwise, it’s deployed and continually monitored. On Twitter, Gade explained that his engineers would get notifications every few days when metrics such as likes or comments were down. Then they’d decipher what had caused the problem and whether any models needed retraining.
But this approach soon caused issues. The models that maximize engagement also favor controversy, misinformation, and extremism: put simply, people just like outrageous stuff. Sometimes this inflames existing political tensions. The most devastating example to date is the case of Myanmar, where viral fake news and hate speech about the Rohingya Muslim minority escalated the country’s religious conflict into a full-blown genocide. Facebook admitted in 2018, after years of downplaying its role, that it had not done enough “to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.”
While Facebook may have been oblivious to these consequences in the beginning, it was studying them by 2016. In an internal presentation from that year, reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, a company researcher, Monica Lee, found that Facebook was not only hosting a large number of extremist groups but also promoting them to its users: “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools,” the presentation said, predominantly thanks to the models behind the “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover” features.
“The question for leadership was: Should we be optimizing for engagement if you find that somebody is in a vulnerable state of mind?”
A former AI researcher who joined in 2018
In 2017, Chris Cox, Facebook’s longtime chief product officer, formed a new task force to understand whether maximizing user engagement on Facebook was contributing to political polarization. It found that there was indeed a correlation, and that reducing polarization would mean taking a hit on engagement. In a mid-2018 document reviewed by the Journal, the task force proposed several potential fixes, such as tweaking the recommendation algorithms to suggest a more diverse range of groups for people to join. But it acknowledged that some of the ideas were “antigrowth.” Most of the proposals didn’t move forward, and the task force disbanded.
Since then, other employees have corroborated these findings. A former Facebook AI researcher who joined in 2018 says he and his team conducted “study after study” confirming the same basic idea: models that maximize engagement increase polarization. They could easily track how strongly users agreed or disagreed on different issues, what content they liked to engage with, and how their stances changed as a result. Regardless of the issue, the models learned to feed users increasingly extreme viewpoints. “Over time they measurably become more polarized,” he says.
The researcher’s team also found that users with a tendency to post or engage with melancholy content—a possible sign of depression—could easily spiral into consuming increasingly negative material that risked further worsening their mental health. The team proposed tweaking the content-ranking models for these users to stop maximizing engagement alone, so they would be shown less of the depressing stuff. “The question for leadership was: Should we be optimizing for engagement if you find that somebody is in a vulnerable state of mind?” he remembers. (A Facebook spokesperson said she could not find documentation for this proposal.)
But anything that reduced engagement, even for reasons such as not exacerbating someone’s depression, led to a lot of hemming and hawing among leadership. With their performance reviews and salaries tied to the successful completion of projects, employees quickly learned to drop those that received pushback and continue working on those dictated from the top down.
One such project heavily pushed by company leaders involved predicting whether a user might be at risk for something several people had already done: livestreaming their own suicide on Facebook Live. The task involved building a model to analyze the comments that other users were posting on a video after it had gone live, and bringing at-risk users to the attention of trained Facebook community reviewers who could call local emergency responders to perform a wellness check. It didn’t require any changes to content-ranking models, had negligible impact on engagement, and effectively fended off negative press. It was also nearly impossible, says the researcher: “It’s more of a PR stunt. The efficacy of trying to determine if somebody is going to kill themselves in the next 30 seconds, based on the first 10 seconds of video analysis—you’re not going to be very effective.”
Facebook disputes this characterization, saying the team that worked on this effort has since successfully predicted which users were at risk and increased the number of wellness checks performed. But the company does not release data on the accuracy of its predictions or how many wellness checks turned out to be real emergencies.
That former employee, meanwhile, no longer lets his daughter use Facebook.
Quiñonero should have been perfectly placed to tackle these problems when he created the SAIL (later Responsible AI) team in April 2018. His time as the director of Applied Machine Learning had made him intimately familiar with the company’s algorithms, especially the ones used for recommending posts, ads, and other content to users.
It also seemed that Facebook was ready to take these problems seriously. Whereas previous efforts to work on them had been scattered across the company, Quiñonero was now being granted a centralized team with leeway in his mandate to work on whatever he saw fit at the intersection of AI and society.
At the time, Quiñonero was engaging in his own reeducation about how to be a responsible technologist. The field of AI research was paying growing attention to problems of AI bias and accountability in the wake of high-profile studies showing that, for example, an algorithm was scoring Black defendants as more likely to be rearrested than white defendants who’d been arrested for the same or a more serious offense. Quiñonero began studying the scientific literature on algorithmic fairness, reading books on ethical engineering and the history of technology, and speaking with civil rights experts and moral philosophers.
Over the many hours I spent with him, I could tell he took this seriously. He had joined Facebook amid the Arab Spring, a series of revolutions against oppressive Middle Eastern regimes. Experts had lauded social media for spreading the information that fueled the uprisings and giving people tools to organize. Born in Spain but raised in Morocco, where he’d seen the suppression of free speech firsthand, Quiñonero felt an intense connection to Facebook’s potential as a force for good.
Six years later, Cambridge Analytica had threatened to overturn this promise. The controversy forced him to confront his faith in the company and examine what staying would mean for his integrity. “I think what happens to most people who work at Facebook—and definitely has been my story—is that there’s no boundary between Facebook and me,” he says. “It’s extremely personal.” But he chose to stay, and to head SAIL, because he believed he could do more for the world by helping turn the company around than by leaving it behind.
“I think if you’re at a company like Facebook, especially over the last few years, you really realize the impact that your products have on people’s lives—on what they think, how they communicate, how they interact with each other,” says Quiñonero’s longtime friend Zoubin Ghahramani, who helps lead the Google Brain team. “I know Joaquin cares deeply about all aspects of this. As somebody who strives to achieve better and improve things, he sees the important role that he can have in shaping both the thinking and the policies around responsible AI.”
At first, SAIL had only five people, who came from different parts of the company but were all interested in the societal impact of algorithms. One founding member, Isabel Kloumann, a research scientist who’d come from the company’s core data science team, brought with her an initial version of a tool to measure the bias in AI models.
The team also brainstormed many other ideas for projects. The former leader in the AI org, who was present for some of the early meetings of SAIL, recalls one proposal for combating polarization. It involved using sentiment analysis, a form of machine learning that interprets opinion in bits of text, to better identify comments that expressed extreme points of view. These comments wouldn’t be deleted, but they would be hidden by default with an option to reveal them, thus limiting the number of people who saw them.
And there were discussions about what role SAIL could play within Facebook and how it should evolve over time. The sentiment was that the team would first produce responsible-AI guidelines to tell the product teams what they should or should not do. But the hope was that it would ultimately serve as the company’s central hub for evaluating AI projects and stopping those that didn’t follow the guidelines.
Former employees described, however, how hard it could be to get buy-in or financial support when the work didn’t directly improve Facebook’s growth. By its nature, the team was not thinking about growth, and in some cases it was proposing ideas antithetical to growth. As a result, it received few resources and languished. Many of its ideas stayed largely academic.
On August 29, 2018, that suddenly changed. In the ramp-up to the US midterm elections, President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders ratcheted up accusations that Facebook, Twitter, and Google had anti-conservative bias. They claimed that Facebook’s moderators in particular, in applying the community standards, were suppressing conservative voices more than liberal ones. This charge would later be debunked, but the hashtag #StopTheBias, fueled by a Trump tweet, was rapidly spreading on social media.
For Trump, it was the latest effort to sow distrust in the country’s mainstream information distribution channels. For Zuckerberg, it threatened to alienate Facebook’s conservative US users and make the company more vulnerable to regulation from a Republican-led government. In other words, it threatened the company’s growth.
Facebook did not grant me an interview with Zuckerberg, but previousreporting has shown how he increasingly pandered to Trump and the Republican leadership. After Trump was elected, Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s VP of global public policy and its highest-ranking Republican, advised Zuckerberg to tread carefully in the new political environment.
On September 20, 2018, three weeks after Trump’s #StopTheBias tweet, Zuckerberg held a meeting with Quiñonero for the first time since SAIL’s creation. He wanted to know everything Quiñonero had learned about AI bias and how to quash it in Facebook’s content-moderation models. By the end of the meeting, one thing was clear: AI bias was now Quiñonero’s top priority. “The leadership has been very, very pushy about making sure we scale this aggressively,” says Rachad Alao, the engineering director of Responsible AI who joined in April 2019.
It was a win for everybody in the room. Zuckerberg got a way to ward off charges of anti-conservative bias. And Quiñonero now had more money and a bigger team to make the overall Facebook experience better for users. They could build upon Kloumann’s existing tool in order to measure and correct the alleged anti-conservative bias in content-moderation models, as well as to correct other types of bias in the vast majority of models across the platform.
This could help prevent the platform from unintentionally discriminating against certain users. By then, Facebook already had thousands of models running concurrently, and almost none had been measured for bias. That would get it into legal trouble a few months later with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which alleged that the company’s algorithms were inferring “protected” attributes like race from users’ data and showing them ads for housing based on those attributes—an illegal form of discrimination. (The lawsuit is still pending.) Schroepfer also predicted that Congress would soon pass laws to regulate algorithmic discrimination, so Facebook needed to make headway on these efforts anyway.
(Facebook disputes the idea that it pursued its work on AI bias to protect growth or in anticipation of regulation. “We built the Responsible AI team because it was the right thing to do,” a spokesperson said.)
But narrowing SAIL’s focus to algorithmic fairness would sideline all Facebook’s other long-standing algorithmic problems. Its content-recommendation models would continue pushing posts, news, and groups to users in an effort to maximize engagement, rewarding extremist content and contributing to increasingly fractured political discourse.
Zuckerberg even admitted this. Two months after the meeting with Quiñonero, in a public note outlining Facebook’s plans for content moderation, he illustrated the harmful effects of the company’s engagement strategy with a simplified chart. It showed that the more likely a post is to violate Facebook’s community standards, the more user engagement it receives, because the algorithms that maximize engagement reward inflammatory content.
But then he showed another chart with the inverse relationship. Rather than rewarding content that came close to violating the community standards, Zuckerberg wrote, Facebook could choose to start “penalizing” it, giving it “less distribution and engagement” rather than more. How would this be done? With more AI. Facebook would develop better content-moderation models to detect this “borderline content” so it could be retroactively pushed lower in the news feed to snuff out its virality, he said.
The problem is that for all Zuckerberg’s promises, this strategy is tenuous at best.
Misinformation and hate speech constantly evolve. New falsehoods spring up; new people and groups become targets. To catch things before they go viral, content-moderation models must be able to identify new unwanted content with high accuracy. But machine-learning models do not work that way. An algorithm that has learned to recognize Holocaust denial can’t immediately spot, say, Rohingya genocide denial. It must be trained on thousands, often even millions, of examples of a new type of content before learning to filter it out. Even then, users can quickly learn to outwit the model by doing things like changing the wording of a post or replacing incendiary phrases with euphemisms, making their message illegible to the AI while still obvious to a human. This is why new conspiracy theories can rapidly spiral out of control, and partly why, even after such content is banned, forms of it canpersist on the platform.
In his New York Times profile, Schroepfer named these limitations of the company’s content-moderation strategy. “Every time Mr. Schroepfer and his more than 150 engineering specialists create A.I. solutions that flag and squelch noxious material, new and dubious posts that the A.I. systems have never seen before pop up—and are thus not caught,” wrote the Times. “It’s never going to go to zero,” Schroepfer told the publication.
Meanwhile, the algorithms that recommend this content still work to maximize engagement. This means every toxic post that escapes the content-moderation filters will continue to be pushed higher up the news feed and promoted to reach a larger audience. Indeed, a study from New York University recently found that among partisan publishers’ Facebook pages, those that regularly posted political misinformation received the most engagement in the lead-up to the 2020 US presidential election and the Capitol riots. “That just kind of got me,” says a former employee who worked on integrity issues from 2018 to 2019. “We fully acknowledged [this], and yet we’re still increasing engagement.”
But Quiñonero’s SAIL team wasn’t working on this problem. Because of Kaplan’s and Zuckerberg’s worries about alienating conservatives, the team stayed focused on bias. And even after it merged into the bigger Responsible AI team, it was never mandated to work on content-recommendation systems that might limit the spread of misinformation. Nor has any other team, as I confirmed after Entin and another spokesperson gave me a full list of all Facebook’s other initiatives on integrity issues—the company’s umbrella term for problems including misinformation, hate speech, and polarization.
A Facebook spokesperson said, “The work isn’t done by one specific team because that’s not how the company operates.” It is instead distributed among the teams that have the specific expertise to tackle how content ranking affects misinformation for their part of the platform, she said. But Schroepfer told me precisely the opposite in an earlier interview. I had asked him why he had created a centralized Responsible AI team instead of directing existing teams to make progress on the issue. He said it was “best practice” at the company.
“[If] it’s an important area, we need to move fast on it, it’s not well-defined, [we create] a dedicated team and get the right leadership,” he said. “As an area grows and matures, you’ll see the product teams take on more work, but the central team is still needed because you need to stay up with state-of-the-art work.”
When I described the Responsible AI team’s work to other experts on AI ethics and human rights, they noted the incongruity between the problems it was tackling and those, like misinformation, for which Facebook is most notorious. “This seems to be so oddly removed from Facebook as a product—the things Facebook builds and the questions about impact on the world that Facebook faces,” said Rumman Chowdhury, whose startup, Parity, advises firms on the responsible use of AI, and was acquired by Twitter after our interview. I had shown Chowdhury the Quiñonero team’s documentation detailing its work. “I find it surprising that we’re going to talk about inclusivity, fairness, equity, and not talk about the very real issues happening today,” she said.
“It seems like the ‘responsible AI’ framing is completely subjective to what a company decides it wants to care about. It’s like, ‘We’ll make up the terms and then we’ll follow them,’” says Ellery Roberts Biddle, the editorial director of Ranking Digital Rights, a nonprofit that studies the impact of tech companies on human rights. “I don’t even understand what they mean when they talk about fairness. Do they think it’s fair to recommend that people join extremist groups, like the ones that stormed the Capitol? If everyone gets the recommendation, does that mean it was fair?”
“We’re at a place where there’s one genocide [Myanmar] that the UN has, with a lot of evidence, been able to specifically point to Facebook and to the way that the platform promotes content,” Biddle adds. “How much higher can the stakes get?”
Over the last two years, Quiñonero’s team has built out Kloumann’s original tool, called Fairness Flow. It allows engineers to measure the accuracy of machine-learning models for different user groups. They can compare a face-detection model’s accuracy across different ages, genders, and skin tones, or a speech-recognition algorithm’s accuracy across different languages, dialects, and accents.
Fairness Flow also comes with a set of guidelines to help engineers understand what it means to train a “fair” model. One of the thornier problems with making algorithms fair is that there are different definitions of fairness, which can be mutually incompatible. Fairness Flow lists four definitions that engineers can use according to which suits their purpose best, such as whether a speech-recognition model recognizes all accents with equal accuracy or with a minimum threshold of accuracy.
But testing algorithms for fairness is still largely optional at Facebook. None of the teams that work directly on Facebook’s news feed, ad service, or other products are required to do it. Pay incentives are still tied to engagement and growth metrics. And while there are guidelines about which fairness definition to use in any given situation, they aren’t enforced.
This last problem came to the fore when the company had to deal with allegations of anti-conservative bias.
In 2014, Kaplan was promoted from US policy head to global vice president for policy, and he began playing a more heavy-handed role in content moderation and decisions about how to rank posts in users’ news feeds. After Republicans started voicing claims of anti-conservative bias in 2016, his team began manually reviewing the impact of misinformation-detection models on users to ensure—among other things—that they didn’t disproportionately penalize conservatives.
All Facebook users have some 200 “traits” attached to their profile. These include various dimensions submitted by users or estimated by machine-learning models, such as race, political and religious leanings, socioeconomic class, and level of education. Kaplan’s team began using the traits to assemble custom user segments that reflected largely conservative interests: users who engaged with conservative content, groups, and pages, for example. Then they’d run special analyses to see how content-moderation decisions would affect posts from those segments, according to a former researcher whose work was subject to those reviews.
The Fairness Flow documentation, which the Responsible AI team wrote later, includes a case study on how to use the tool in such a situation. When deciding whether a misinformation model is fair with respect to political ideology, the team wrote, “fairness” does not mean the model should affect conservative and liberal users equally. If conservatives are posting a greater fraction of misinformation, as judged by public consensus, then the model should flag a greater fraction of conservative content. If liberals are posting more misinformation, it should flag their content more often too.
But members of Kaplan’s team followed exactly the opposite approach: they took “fairness” to mean that these models should not affect conservatives more than liberals. When a model did so, they would stop its deployment and demand a change. Once, they blocked a medical-misinformation detector that had noticeably reduced the reach of anti-vaccine campaigns, the former researcher told me. They told the researchers that the model could not be deployed until the team fixed this discrepancy. But that effectively made the model meaningless. “There’s no point, then,” the researcher says. A model modified in that way “would have literally no impact on the actual problem” of misinformation.
“I don’t even understand what they mean when they talk about fairness. Do they think it’s fair to recommend that people join extremist groups, like the ones that stormed the Capitol? If everyone gets the recommendation, does that mean it was fair?”
Ellery Roberts Biddle, editorial director of Ranking Digital Rights
This happened countless other times—and not just for content moderation. In 2020, the Washington Post reported that Kaplan’s team had undermined efforts to mitigate election interference and polarization within Facebook, saying they could contribute to anti-conservative bias. In 2018, it used the same argument to shelve a project to edit Facebook’s recommendation models even though researchers believed it would reduce divisiveness on the platform, according to the Wall Street Journal. His claims about political bias also weakened a proposal to edit the ranking models for the news feed that Facebook’s data scientists believed would strengthen the platform against the manipulation tactics Russia had used during the 2016 US election.
And ahead of the 2020 election, Facebook policy executives used this excuse, according to the New York Times, to veto or weaken several proposals that would have reduced the spread of hateful and damaging content.
Facebook disputed the Wall Street Journal’s reporting in a follow-up blog post, and challenged the New York Times’s characterization in an interview with the publication. A spokesperson for Kaplan’s team also denied to me that this was a pattern of behavior, saying the cases reported by the Post, the Journal, and the Times were “all individual instances that we believe are then mischaracterized.” He declined to comment about the retraining of misinformation models on the record.
Many of these incidents happened before Fairness Flow was adopted. But they show how Facebook’s pursuit of fairness in the service of growth had already come at a steep cost to progress on the platform’s other challenges. And if engineers used the definition of fairness that Kaplan’s team had adopted, Fairness Flow could simply systematize behavior that rewarded misinformation instead of helping to combat it.
Often “the whole fairness thing” came into play only as a convenient way to maintain the status quo, the former researcher says: “It seems to fly in the face of the things that Mark was saying publicly in terms of being fair and equitable.”
The last time I spoke with Quiñonero was a month after the US Capitol riots. I wanted to know how the storming of Congress had affected his thinking and the direction of his work.
In the video call, it was as it always was: Quiñonero dialing in from his home office in one window and Entin, his PR handler, in another. I asked Quiñonero what role he felt Facebook had played in the riots and whether it changed the task he saw for Responsible AI. After a long pause, he sidestepped the question, launching into a description of recent work he’d done to promote greater diversity and inclusion among the AI teams.
I asked him the question again. His Facebook Portal camera, which uses computer-vision algorithms to track the speaker, began to slowly zoom in on his face as he grew still. “I don’t know that I have an easy answer to that question, Karen,” he said. “It’s an extremely difficult question to ask me.”
Entin, who’d been rapidly pacing with a stoic poker face, grabbed a red stress ball.
I asked Quiñonero why his team hadn’t previously looked at ways to edit Facebook’s content-ranking models to tamp down misinformation and extremism. He told me it was the job of other teams (though none, as I confirmed, have been mandated to work on that task). “It’s not feasible for the Responsible AI team to study all those things ourselves,” he said. When I asked whether he would consider having his team tackle those issues in the future, he vaguely admitted, “I would agree with you that that is going to be the scope of these types of conversations.”
Near the end of our hour-long interview, he began to emphasize that AI was often unfairly painted as “the culprit.” Regardless of whether Facebook used AI or not, he said, people would still spew lies and hate speech, and that content would still spread across the platform.
I pressed him one more time. Certainly he couldn’t believe that algorithms had done absolutely nothing to change the nature of these issues, I said.
“I don’t know,” he said with a halting stutter. Then he repeated, with more conviction: “That’s my honest answer. Honest to God. I don’t know.”
Corrections:We amended a line that suggested that Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global policy, had used Fairness Flow. He has not. But members of his team have used the notion of fairness to request the retraining of misinformation models in ways that directly contradict Responsible AI’s guidelines. We also clarified when Rachad Alao, the engineering director of Responsible AI, joined the company.
A ideia da inteligência artificial derrubar a humanidade tem sido discutida por muitas décadas, e os cientistas acabaram de dar seu veredicto sobre se seríamos capazes de controlar uma superinteligência de computador de alto nível. A resposta? Quase definitivamente não.
O problema é que controlar uma superinteligência muito além da compreensão humana exigiria uma simulação dessa superinteligência que podemos analisar. Mas se não formos capazes de compreendê-lo, é impossível criar tal simulação.
Regras como ‘não causar danos aos humanos’ não podem ser definidas se não entendermos o tipo de cenário que uma IA irá criar, sugerem os pesquisadores. Uma vez que um sistema de computador está trabalhando em um nível acima do escopo de nossos programadores, não podemos mais estabelecer limites.
“Uma superinteligência apresenta um problema fundamentalmente diferente daqueles normalmente estudados sob a bandeira da ‘ética do robô’”, escrevem os pesquisadores.
“Isso ocorre porque uma superinteligência é multifacetada e, portanto, potencialmente capaz de mobilizar uma diversidade de recursos para atingir objetivos que são potencialmente incompreensíveis para os humanos, quanto mais controláveis.”
Parte do raciocínio da equipe vem do problema da parada apresentado por Alan Turing em 1936. O problema centra-se em saber se um programa de computador chegará ou não a uma conclusão e responderá (para que seja interrompido), ou simplesmente ficar em um loop eterno tentando encontrar uma.
Como Turing provou por meio de uma matemática inteligente, embora possamos saber isso para alguns programas específicos, é logicamente impossível encontrar uma maneira que nos permita saber isso para cada programa potencial que poderia ser escrito. Isso nos leva de volta à IA, que, em um estado superinteligente, poderia armazenar todos os programas de computador possíveis em sua memória de uma vez.
Qualquer programa escrito para impedir que a IA prejudique humanos e destrua o mundo, por exemplo, pode chegar a uma conclusão (e parar) ou não – é matematicamente impossível para nós estarmos absolutamente seguros de qualquer maneira, o que significa que não pode ser contido.
“Na verdade, isso torna o algoritmo de contenção inutilizável”, diz o cientista da computação Iyad Rahwan, do Instituto Max-Planck para o Desenvolvimento Humano, na Alemanha.
A alternativa de ensinar alguma ética à IA e dizer a ela para não destruir o mundo – algo que nenhum algoritmo pode ter certeza absoluta de fazer, dizem os pesquisadores – é limitar as capacidades da superinteligência. Ele pode ser cortado de partes da Internet ou de certas redes, por exemplo.
O novo estudo também rejeita essa ideia, sugerindo que isso limitaria o alcance da inteligência artificial – o argumento é que se não vamos usá-la para resolver problemas além do escopo dos humanos, então por que criá-la?
Se vamos avançar com a inteligência artificial, podemos nem saber quando chega uma superinteligência além do nosso controle, tal é a sua incompreensibilidade. Isso significa que precisamos começar a fazer algumas perguntas sérias sobre as direções que estamos tomando.
“Uma máquina superinteligente que controla o mundo parece ficção científica”, diz o cientista da computação Manuel Cebrian, do Instituto Max-Planck para o Desenvolvimento Humano. “Mas já existem máquinas que executam certas tarefas importantes de forma independente, sem que os programadores entendam totalmente como as aprenderam.”
“Portanto, surge a questão de saber se isso poderia em algum momento se tornar incontrolável e perigoso para a humanidade.”
Machine learning algorithms serve us the news we read, the ads we see, and in some cases even drive our cars. But there’s an insidious layer to these algorithms: They rely on data collected by and about humans, and they spit our worst biases right back out at us. For example, job candidate screening algorithms may automatically reject names that sound like they belong to nonwhite people, while facial recognition software is often much worse at recognizing women or nonwhite faces than it is at recognizing white male faces. An increasing number of scientists and institutions are waking up to these issues, and speaking out about the potential for AI to cause harm.
Brian Nord is one such researcher weighing his own work against the potential to cause harm with AI algorithms. Nord is a cosmologist at Fermilab and the University of Chicago, where he uses artificial intelligence to study the cosmos, and he’s been researching a concept for a “self-driving telescope” that can write and test hypotheses with the help of a machine learning algorithm. At the same time, he’s struggling with the idea that the algorithms he’s writing may one day be biased against him—and even used against him—and is working to build a coalition of physicists and computer scientists to fight for more oversight in AI algorithm development.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gizmodo: How did you become a physicist interested in AI and its pitfalls?
Brian Nord: My Ph.d is in cosmology, and when I moved to Fermilab in 2012, I moved into the subfield of strong gravitational lensing. [Editor’s note: Gravitational lenses are places in the night sky where light from distant objects has been bent by the gravitational field of heavy objects in the foreground, making the background objects appear warped and larger.] I spent a few years doing strong lensing science in the traditional way, where we would visually search through terabytes of images, through thousands of candidates of these strong gravitational lenses, because they’re so weird, and no one had figured out a more conventional algorithm to identify them. Around 2015, I got kind of sad at the prospect of only finding these things with my eyes, so I started looking around and found deep learning.
Here we are a few years later—myself and a few other people popularized this idea of using deep learning—and now it’s the standard way to find these objects. People are unlikely to go back to using methods that aren’t deep learning to do galaxy recognition. We got to this point where we saw that deep learning is the thing, and really quickly saw the potential impact of it across astronomy and the sciences. It’s hitting every science now. That is a testament to the promise and peril of this technology, with such a relatively simple tool. Once you have the pieces put together right, you can do a lot of different things easily, without necessarily thinking through the implications.
Gizmodo: So what is deep learning? Why is it good and why is it bad?
BN: Traditional mathematical models (like the F=ma of Newton’s laws) are built by humans to describe patterns in data: We use our current understanding of nature, also known as intuition, to choose the pieces, the shape of these models. This means that they are often limited by what we know or can imagine about a dataset. These models are also typically smaller and are less generally applicable for many problems.
On the other hand, artificial intelligence models can be very large, with many, many degrees of freedom, so they can be made very general and able to describe lots of different data sets. Also, very importantly, they are primarily sculpted by the data that they are exposed to—AI models are shaped by the data with which they are trained. Humans decide what goes into the training set, which is then limited again by what we know or can imagine about that data. It’s not a big jump to see that if you don’t have the right training data, you can fall off the cliff really quickly.
The promise and peril are highly related. In the case of AI, the promise is in the ability to describe data that humans don’t yet know how to describe with our ‘intuitive’ models. But, perilously, the data sets used to train them incorporate our own biases. When it comes to AI recognizing galaxies, we’re risking biased measurements of the universe. When it comes to AI recognizing human faces, when our data sets are biased against Black and Brown faces for example, we risk discrimination that prevents people from using services, that intensifies surveillance apparatus, that jeopardizes human freedoms. It’s critical that we weigh and address these consequences before we imperil people’s lives with our research.
Gizmodo: When did the light bulb go off in your head that AI could be harmful?
BN: I gotta say that it was with the Machine Bias article from ProPublica in 2016, where they discuss recidivism and sentencing procedure in courts. At the time of that article, there was a closed-source algorithm used to make recommendations for sentencing, and judges were allowed to use it. There was no public oversight of this algorithm, which ProPublica found was biased against Black people; people could use algorithms like this willy nilly without accountability. I realized that as a Black man, I had spent the last few years getting excited about neural networks, then saw it quite clearly that these applications that could harm me were already out there, already being used, and we’re already starting to become embedded in our social structure through the criminal justice system. Then I started paying attention more and more. I realized countries across the world were using surveillance technology, incorporating machine learning algorithms, for widespread oppressive uses.
Gizmodo: How did you react? What did you do?
BN: I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel; I wanted to build a coalition. I started looking into groups like Fairness, Accountability and Transparency in Machine Learning, plus Black in AI, who is focused on building communities of Black researchers in the AI field, but who also has the unique awareness of the problem because we are the people who are affected. I started paying attention to the news and saw that Meredith Whittaker had started a think tank to combat these things, and Joy Buolamwini had helped found the Algorithmic Justice League. I brushed up on what computer scientists were doing and started to look at what physicists were doing, because that’s my principal community.
It became clear to folks like me and Savannah Thais that physicists needed to realize that they have a stake in this game. We get government funding, and we tend to take a fundamental approach to research. If we bring that approach to AI, then we have the potential to affect the foundations of how these algorithms work and impact a broader set of applications. I asked myself and my colleagues what our responsibility in developing these algorithms was and in having some say in how they’re being used down the line.
Gizmodo: How is it going so far?
BN: Currently, we’re going to write a white paper for SNOWMASS, this high-energy physics event. The SNOWMASS process determines the vision that guides the community for about a decade. I started to identify individuals to work with, fellow physicists, and experts who care about the issues, and develop a set of arguments for why physicists from institutions, individuals, and funding agencies should care deeply about these algorithms they’re building and implementing so quickly. It’s a piece that’s asking people to think about how much they are considering the ethical implications of what they’re doing.
We’ve already held a workshop at the University of Chicago where we’ve begun discussing these issues, and at Fermilab we’ve had some initial discussions. But we don’t yet have the critical mass across the field to develop policy. We can’t do it ourselves as physicists; we don’t have backgrounds in social science or technology studies. The right way to do this is to bring physicists together from Fermilab and other institutions with social scientists and ethicists and science and technology studies folks and professionals, and build something from there. The key is going to be through partnership with these other disciplines.
Gizmodo: Why haven’t we reached that critical mass yet?
BN: I think we need to show people, as Angela Davis has said, that our struggle is also their struggle. That’s why I’m talking about coalition building. The thing that affects us also affects them. One way to do this is to clearly lay out the potential harm beyond just race and ethnicity. Recently, there was this discussion of a paper that used neural networks to try and speed up the selection of candidates for Ph.D programs. They trained the algorithm on historical data. So let me be clear, they said here’s a neural network, here’s data on applicants who were denied and accepted to universities. Those applicants were chosen by faculty and people with biases. It should be obvious to anyone developing that algorithm that you’re going to bake in the biases in that context. I hope people will see these things as problems and help build our coalition.
Gizmodo: What is your vision for a future of ethical AI?
BN: What if there were an agency or agencies for algorithmic accountability? I could see these existing at the local level, the national level, and the institutional level. We can’t predict all of the future uses of technology, but we need to be asking questions at the beginning of the processes, not as an afterthought. An agency would help ask these questions and still allow the science to get done, but without endangering people’s lives. Alongside agencies, we need policies at various levels that make a clear decision about how safe the algorithms have to be before they are used on humans or other living things. If I had my druthers, these agencies and policies would be built by an incredibly diverse group of people. We’ve seen instances where a homogeneous group develops an app or technology and didn’t see the things that another group who’s not there would have seen. We need people across the spectrum of experience to participate in designing policies for ethical AI.
Gizmodo: What are your biggest fears about all of this?
BN: My biggest fear is that people who already have access to technology resources will continue to use them to subjugate people who are already oppressed; Pratyusha Kalluri has also advanced this idea of power dynamics. That’s what we’re seeing across the globe. Sure, there are cities that are trying to ban facial recognition, but unless we have a broader coalition, unless we have more cities and institutions willing to take on this thing directly, we’re not going to be able to keep this tool from exacerbating white supremacy, racism, and misogyny that that already exists inside structures today. If we don’t push policy that puts the lives of marginalized people first, then they’re going to continue being oppressed, and it’s going to accelerate.
Gizmodo: How has thinking about AI ethics affected your own research?
BN: I have to question whether I want to do AI work and how I’m going to do it; whether or not it’s the right thing to do to build a certain algorithm. That’s something I have to keep asking myself… Before, it was like, how fast can I discover new things and build technology that can help the world learn something? Now there’s a significant piece of nuance to that. Even the best things for humanity could be used in some of the worst ways. It’s a fundamental rethinking of the order of operations when it comes to my research.
I don’t think it’s weird to think about safety first. We have OSHA and safety groups at institutions who write down lists of things you have to check off before you’re allowed to take out a ladder, for example. Why are we not doing the same thing in AI? A part of the answer is obvious: Not all of us are people who experience the negative effects of these algorithms. But as one of the few Black people at the institutions I work in, I’m aware of it, I’m worried about it, and the scientific community needs to appreciate that my safety matters too, and that my safety concerns don’t end when I walk out of work.
Gizmodo: Anything else?
BN: I’d like to re-emphasize that when you look at some of the research that has come out, like vetting candidates for graduate school, or when you look at the biases of the algorithms used in criminal justice, these are problems being repeated over and over again, with the same biases. It doesn’t take a lot of investigation to see that bias enters these algorithms very quickly. The people developing them should really know better. Maybe there needs to be more educational requirements for algorithm developers to think about these issues before they have the opportunity to unleash them on the world.
This conversation needs to be raised to the level where individuals and institutions consider these issues a priority. Once you’re there, you need people to see that this is an opportunity for leadership. If we can get a grassroots community to help an institution to take the lead on this, it incentivizes a lot of people to start to take action.
And finally, people who have expertise in these areas need to be allowed to speak their minds. We can’t allow our institutions to quiet us so we can’t talk about the issues we’re bringing up. The fact that I have experience as a Black man doing science in America, and the fact that I do AI—that should be appreciated by institutions. It gives them an opportunity to have a unique perspective and take a unique leadership position. I would be worried if individuals felt like they couldn’t speak their mind. If we can’t get these issues out into the sunlight, how will we be able to build out of the darkness?
Ryan F. Mandelbaum – Former Gizmodo physics writer and founder of Birdmodo, now a science communicator specializing in quantum computing and birds
Introduction: Sensors everywhere. Infinite storage. Clouds of processors. Our ability to capture, warehouse, and understand massive amounts of data is changing science, medicine, business, and technology. As our collection of facts and figures grows, so will the opportunity to find answers to fundamental questions. Because in the era of big data, more isn’t just more. […]
Sensors everywhere. Infinite storage. Clouds of processors. Our ability to capture, warehouse, and understand massive amounts of data is changing science, medicine, business, and technology. As our collection of facts and figures grows, so will the opportunity to find answers to fundamental questions. Because in the era of big data, more isn’t just more. More is different.
Does big data have the answers? Maybe some, but not all, says Mark Graham
In 2008, Chris Anderson, then editor of Wired, wrote a provocative piece titled The End of Theory. Anderson was referring to the ways that computers, algorithms, and big data can potentially generate more insightful, useful, accurate, or true results than specialists or domain experts who traditionally craft carefully targeted hypotheses and research strategies.
This revolutionary notion has now entered not just the popular imagination, but also the research practices of corporations, states, journalists and academics. The idea being that the data shadows and information trails of people, machines, commodities and even nature can reveal secrets to us that we now have the power and prowess to uncover.
In other words, we no longer need to speculate and hypothesise; we simply need to let machines lead us to the patterns, trends, and relationships in social, economic, political, and environmental relationships.
It is quite likely that you yourself have been the unwitting subject of a big data experiment carried out by Google, Facebook and many other large Web platforms. Google, for instance, has been able to collect extraordinary insights into what specific colours, layouts, rankings, and designs make people more efficient searchers. They do this by slightly tweaking their results and website for a few million searches at a time and then examining the often subtle ways in which people react.
Most large retailers similarly analyse enormous quantities of data from their databases of sales (which are linked to you by credit card numbers and loyalty cards) in order to make uncanny predictions about your future behaviours. In a now famous case, the American retailer, Target, upset a Minneapolis man by knowing more about his teenage daughter’s sex life than he did. Target was able to predict his daughter’s pregnancy by monitoring her shopping patterns and comparing that information to an enormous database detailing billions of dollars of sales. This ultimately allows the company to make uncanny predictions about its shoppers.
More significantly, national intelligence agencies are mining vast quantities of non-public Internet data to look for weak signals that might indicate planned threats or attacks.
There can by no denying the significant power and potentials of big data. And the huge resources being invested in both the public and private sectors to study it are a testament to this.
However, crucially important caveats are needed when using such datasets: caveats that, worryingly, seem to be frequently overlooked.
The raw informational material for big data projects is often derived from large user-generated or social media platforms (e.g. Twitter or Wikipedia). Yet, in all such cases we are necessarily only relying on information generated by an incredibly biased or skewed user-base.
Gender, geography, race, income, and a range of other social and economic factors all play a role in how information is produced and reproduced. People from different places and different backgrounds tend to produce different sorts of information. And so we risk ignoring a lot of important nuance if relying on big data as a social/economic/political mirror.
We can of course account for such bias by segmenting our data. Take the case of using Twitter to gain insights into last summer’s London riots. About a third of all UK Internet users have a twitter profile; a subset of that group are the active tweeters who produce the bulk of content; and then a tiny subset of that group (about 1%) geocode their tweets (essential information if you want to know about where your information is coming from).
Despite the fact that we have a database of tens of millions of data points, we are necessarily working with subsets of subsets of subsets. Big data no longer seems so big. Such data thus serves to amplify the information produced by a small minority (a point repeatedly made by UCL’s Muki Haklay), and skew, or even render invisible, ideas, trends, people, and patterns that aren’t mirrored or represented in the datasets that we work with.
Big data is undoubtedly useful for addressing and overcoming many important issues face by society. But we need to ensure that we aren’t seduced by the promises of big data to render theory unnecessary.
We may one day get to the point where sufficient quantities of big data can be harvested to answer all of the social questions that most concern us. I doubt it though. There will always be digital divides; always be uneven data shadows; and always be biases in how information and technology are used and produced.
And so we shouldn’t forget the important role of specialists to contextualise and offer insights into what our data do, and maybe more importantly, don’t tell us.
Illustration: Marian Bantjes“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
So proclaimed statistician George Box 30 years ago, and he was right. But what choice did we have? Only models, from cosmological equations to theories of human behavior, seemed to be able to consistently, if imperfectly, explain the world around us. Until now. Today companies like Google, which have grown up in an era of massively abundant data, don’t have to settle for wrong models. Indeed, they don’t have to settle for models at all.
Sixty years ago, digital computers made information readable. Twenty years ago, the Internet made it reachable. Ten years ago, the first search engine crawlers made it a single database. Now Google and like-minded companies are sifting through the most measured age in history, treating this massive corpus as a laboratory of the human condition. They are the children of the Petabyte Age.
The Petabyte Age is different because more is different. Kilobytes were stored on floppy disks. Megabytes were stored on hard disks. Terabytes were stored in disk arrays. Petabytes are stored in the cloud. As we moved along that progression, we went from the folder analogy to the file cabinet analogy to the library analogy to — well, at petabytes we ran out of organizational analogies.
At the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics. It calls for an entirely different approach, one that requires us to lose the tether of data as something that can be visualized in its totality. It forces us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later. For instance, Google conquered the advertising world with nothing more than applied mathematics. It didn’t pretend to know anything about the culture and conventions of advertising — it just assumed that better data, with better analytical tools, would win the day. And Google was right.
Google’s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough. No semantic or causal analysis is required. That’s why Google can translate languages without actually “knowing” them (given equal corpus data, Google can translate Klingon into Farsi as easily as it can translate French into German). And why it can match ads to content without any knowledge or assumptions about the ads or the content.
Speaking at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference this past March, Peter Norvig, Google’s research director, offered an update to George Box’s maxim: “All models are wrong, and increasingly you can succeed without them.”
This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.
The big target here isn’t advertising, though. It’s science. The scientific method is built around testable hypotheses. These models, for the most part, are systems visualized in the minds of scientists. The models are then tested, and experiments confirm or falsify theoretical models of how the world works. This is the way science has worked for hundreds of years.
Scientists are trained to recognize that correlation is not causation, that no conclusions should be drawn simply on the basis of correlation between X and Y (it could just be a coincidence). Instead, you must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect the two. Once you have a model, you can connect the data sets with confidence. Data without a model is just noise.
But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete. Consider physics: Newtonian models were crude approximations of the truth (wrong at the atomic level, but still useful). A hundred years ago, statistically based quantum mechanics offered a better picture — but quantum mechanics is yet another model, and as such it, too, is flawed, no doubt a caricature of a more complex underlying reality. The reason physics has drifted into theoretical speculation about n-dimensional grand unified models over the past few decades (the “beautiful story” phase of a discipline starved of data) is that we don’t know how to run the experiments that would falsify the hypotheses — the energies are too high, the accelerators too expensive, and so on.
Now biology is heading in the same direction. The models we were taught in school about “dominant” and “recessive” genes steering a strictly Mendelian process have turned out to be an even greater simplification of reality than Newton’s laws. The discovery of gene-protein interactions and other aspects of epigenetics has challenged the view of DNA as destiny and even introduced evidence that environment can influence inheritable traits, something once considered a genetic impossibility.
In short, the more we learn about biology, the further we find ourselves from a model that can explain it.
There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.
The best practical example of this is the shotgun gene sequencing by J. Craig Venter. Enabled by high-speed sequencers and supercomputers that statistically analyze the data they produce, Venter went from sequencing individual organisms to sequencing entire ecosystems. In 2003, he started sequencing much of the ocean, retracing the voyage of Captain Cook. And in 2005 he started sequencing the air. In the process, he discovered thousands of previously unknown species of bacteria and other life-forms.
If the words “discover a new species” call to mind Darwin and drawings of finches, you may be stuck in the old way of doing science. Venter can tell you almost nothing about the species he found. He doesn’t know what they look like, how they live, or much of anything else about their morphology. He doesn’t even have their entire genome. All he has is a statistical blip — a unique sequence that, being unlike any other sequence in the database, must represent a new species.
This sequence may correlate with other sequences that resemble those of species we do know more about. In that case, Venter can make some guesses about the animals — that they convert sunlight into energy in a particular way, or that they descended from a common ancestor. But besides that, he has no better model of this species than Google has of your MySpace page. It’s just data. By analyzing it with Google-quality computing resources, though, Venter has advanced biology more than anyone else of his generation.
This kind of thinking is poised to go mainstream. In February, the National Science Foundation announced the Cluster Exploratory, a program that funds research designed to run on a large-scale distributed computing platform developed by Google and IBM in conjunction with six pilot universities. The cluster will consist of 1,600 processors, several terabytes of memory, and hundreds of terabytes of storage, along with the software, including IBM’s Tivoli and open source versions of Google File System and MapReduce.111 Early CluE projects will include simulations of the brain and the nervous system and other biological research that lies somewhere between wetware and software.
Learning to use a “computer” of this scale may be challenging. But the opportunity is great: The new availability of huge amounts of data, along with the statistical tools to crunch these numbers, offers a whole new way of understanding the world. Correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all.
There’s no reason to cling to our old ways. It’s time to ask: What can science learn from Google?
O Papa Francisco pediu aos fiéis do mundo inteiro para que, durante o mês de novembro, rezem para que o progresso da robótica e da inteligência artificial (IA) possam sempre servir a humanidade.
A mensagem faz parte de uma série de intenções de oração que o pontífice divulga anualmente, e compartilha a cada mês no YouTube para auxiliar os católicos a “aprofundar sua oração diária”, concentrando-se em tópicos específicos. Em setembro, o papa pediu orações para o “compartilhamento dos recursos do planeta”; em agosto, para o “mundo marítimo”; e agora chegou a vez dos robôs e da IA.
Na sua mensagem, o Papa Francisco pediu uma atenção especial para a IA que, segundo ele, está “no centro da mudança histórica que estamos experimentando”. E que não se trata apenas dos benefícios que a robótica pode trazer para o mundo.
Progresso tecnológico e algoritmos
Francisco afirma que nem sempre o progresso tecnológico é sinal de bem-estar para a humanidade, pois, se esse progresso contribuir para aumentar as desigualdades, não poderá ser considerado como um progresso verdadeiro. “Os avanços futuros devem ser orientados para o respeito à dignidade da pessoa”, alerta o papa.
A preocupação com que a tecnologia possa aumentar as divisões sociais já existentes levou o Vaticano assinar no início deste ano, em conjunto com a Microsoft e a IBM, a “Chamada de Roma por Ética de IA”, um documento em que são fixados alguns princípios para orientar a implantação da IA: transparência, inclusão, imparcialidade e confiabilidade.
Mesmo pessoas não religiosas são capazes de reconhecer que, quando se trata de implantar algoritmos, a preocupação do papa faz todo o sentido.
Audrey Azoulay: Director-General, Unesco How will AI shape our lives post-Covid?
Covid-19 is a test like no other. Never before have the lives of so many people around the world been affected at this scale or speed.
Over the past six months, thousands of AI innovations have sprung up in response to the challenges of life under lockdown. Governments are mobilising machine-learning in many ways, from contact-tracing apps to telemedicine and remote learning.
However, as the digital transformation accelerates exponentially, it is highlighting the challenges of AI. Ethical dilemmas are already a reality – including privacy risks and discriminatory bias.
It is up to us to decide what we want AI to look like: there is a legislative vacuum that needs to be filled now. Principles such as proportionality, inclusivity, human oversight and transparency can create a framework allowing us to anticipate these issues.
This is why Unesco is working to build consensus among 193 countries to lay the ethical foundations of AI. Building on these principles, countries will be able to develop national policies that ensure AI is designed, developed and deployed in compliance with fundamental human values.
As we face new, previously unimaginable challenges – like the pandemic – we must ensure that the tools we are developing work for us, and not against us.