IBM just reignited the discussion around whether AI is biased, but more needs to be done to ensure the technology isn’t racist

  • Artificial intelligence holds a lot of promise to revolutionize our lives. 
  • Still, there’s a dark side to the technology that could not only hinder progress on critical issues but also exacerbate them. 
  • As the country prepares for a deep examination around the drivers of systemic racism, the regulation of AI deserves to be a part of that discussion. 
  • On Tuesday, IBM reignited the discourse with its decision to no longer offer “general purpose” facial-recognition software. Then, Amazon said it would stop allowing law enforcement to use its software for a year, and Microsoft said it won’t sell the tech to US police until laws change.
  • There may now be appetite for change, which could begin to assuage concerns and make AI something we can dream about changing our lives again.
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There’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to artificial intelligence. 

Robots, self-driving cars — it’s the kind of technology that I envisioned when I was asked as a little kid what the future would look like.

But for all the positive developments that AI supports, it has a more nefarious side that could not only prevent forward progress on the most critical issues of the day but also exacerbate the existing problems

Now the historic protests under way around the world in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans are reigniting an argument around AI and the tech’s potential bias.

On Tuesday, IBM agreed with the critics, saying it would no longer offer “general purpose” facial recognition, given concerns over mass surveillance and racial profiling. And on Wednesday, Amazon relented too and said it would stop allowing law enforcement to use its facial recognition software for one year. Microsoft President Brad Smith said on Thursday it doesn’t sell facial recognition to US police departments, and it won’t until there is a national law “grounded in human rights.”

The tech has long been chastised as inherently biased as more police forces across the country have used it.

IBM’s decision was a long time coming. There have been countless stories over the past year of AI models exhibiting racist behavior. One directed Black Americans away from higher-quality healthcare, while another labeled a thermometer in the hands of a Black person a gun. 

Google CEO Sundar Pichai even once famously demonstrated how easy it was to create a racist model. 

It shouldn’t be surprising then that the discussion of AI regulation is resurfacing now. In fact, Dario Gil, the director of IBM research, told me last year that it might not be the case that AI is biased, but rather that the technology is a reflection of our own problematic viewpoints.  

“We could blame it on the technology — which sometimes it does deserve blame — but very often it is a mirror back into ourselves. And when you look more deeply, it tells you something about society because AI is trained by example: What examples have we set in our past? What are the examples in our society?” he said at the time.

It was a failing of mine at the time to realize just how prescient his comments were.

Trust as the major inhibitor in AI adoption

There’s good reason that the industry should be willing to take a tough examination of whether additional regulation is needed.

Trust is a key inhibitor in the adoption of AI, according to Gil. So without addressing the shortcomings of the tech, we could risk missing out on the significant benefits it could provide.  

AI, for example, held a lot of promise for removing inherent bias in hiring and leading to more diversity within workforces. Many algorithms, however, remain shrouded in mystery and could be unwittingly contributing to fewer people of color getting hired.

So lawmakers across the country now have a real opportunity to craft a regulatory framework for the burgeoning technology that begins to assuage the very real fears that many Americans have about it

The momentum for change appears to be there beyond IBM. CEOs from Google, IBM, Tesla, and Salesforce have also called for more regulation. But the tech giants may have opposing views on what that should entail. Google, for example, has already pushed back against some of Europe’s attempts to rein in AI.  

Still, Americans are clamoring for change across corporate America. There’s no reason that AI shouldn’t be a part of that.

It’s a good thing for us to dream about all the ways the technology can change our life. But it’s up to us to make sure that vision doesn’t come at the detriment of so many of our fellow Americans. 

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