Artificial intelligence thinkers seem to emerge from two communities. One is what I call blue sky visionaries who speculate on the future possibilities of technology, invoking utopian fantasies to generate excitement. Blue sky ideas are compelling but are often clouded by unrealistic visions and ethical challenges of what can and should be built.
In contrast, what I call muddy-booted pragmatists are problem- and solution-oriented. They want to reduce the damage that widely used AI-infused systems can create. They focus on fixing biased and faulty systems, such as facial recognition systems that often mistakenly identify people as criminals or violate privacy. Pragmatists want to reduce fatal medical errors that AI can make and ensure that self-driving cars are safe cars. Their goal is also to improve AI-based decisions around mortgages, college admissions, hiring, and granting parole.
As a computer science professor with a long track record of building innovative apps that have been widely implemented, I think blue-sky visionaries would benefit from taking the thoughtful messages of muddy-booted realists. Combining the work of both sides is more likely to produce the beneficial results that will lead to the success of next-generation technologies.
While the futuristic thinking of blue sky speculators elicits our admiration and earns much of the funding, the thinking of muddy boots reminds us that some AI apps threaten privacy, spread misinformation, and are outspokenly racist, sexist, and otherwise ethically questionable. Machines are undeniably part of our future, but will they also serve all future humans? I believe that the caution and practicality of the muddy boot camp will benefit humanity in the short and long term by ensuring diversity and equality in the development of the algorithms that increasingly govern our daily lives. If blue-sky thinkers integrate the concerns of muddy-boot realists into their designs, they can create future technologies that are more likely to advance human values, rights, and dignity.
Blue sky thinking started early in the development of AI. Literature was dominated by authors pioneering technology and heralding its inevitable transformation of society. The “fathers” of AI are generally considered to be Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy of MIT and Allen Newell and Herb Simon of Carnegie Mellon University. They came together at meetings, such as the Dartmouth Conference of 1956, generating an enthusiasm exemplified by Simon’s prediction in 1965 that “machines will be able, within 20 years, to do any job that ‘a man can do’.
There have been many other contributors to AI, including the three Turing Award winners in 2018: Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio and Yann LeCun. Their work on deep learning algorithms was an important contribution, but their ongoing celebrations of the importance and inevitability of AI included Hinton’s disturbing 2016 quote that “people should stop training radiologists now. It is quite obvious that within five years, deep learning will outperform radiologists. A more human-centric view is that deep learning algorithms will become another tool, like mammograms and blood tests, that will allow radiologists and other clinicians to make more accurate diagnoses and offer treatment plans. more appropriate treatment.
The theme of robots replacing people, thereby creating widespread unemployment, was legitimized by a 2013 report from the University of Oxford, which claimed that 47% of all jobs could be automated. 2015 book by futurist Martin Ford The rise of robots latched onto this idea, painting a disturbing picture of low- and high-skilled jobs becoming so completely automated that governments would have to provide a universal basic income because there would be few jobs left. The reality is that well-designed automation increases productivity, which lowers prices, increases demand, and brings benefits to many people. These changes are triggering a parallel phenomenon of vigorous new job creation, which has contributed to the current high levels of employment in the United States and other countries.
Yes, there were authors who offered cautionary tales and a different view, like MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum in his 1976 book Computer power and human reason, but these were exceptions.
The muddy-booted pragmatists have started a new wave of thoughtful critiques of AI. They shifted the discussion from optimistic optimism to a clear identification of threats to human dignity, fairness and democracy. Opinion pieces and a White House symposium in 2016 were helpful initiatives, and mathematician Cathy O’Neil’s 2016 book Weapons of mathematical destruction expanded the audience. She focused on how opaque AI algorithms could be harmful when applied at scale to decide parole, mortgage, and job applications. O’Neil’s powerful examples encouraged human-centered thinking.
Other books, like Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, followed on how algorithms needed to be changed to increase economic opportunity and reduce racial bias.
2019 book by social psychologist Shoshanna Zuboff The Age of Surveillance Capitalism showed the shift from Google’s initial motto “Don’t be mean” to calculated efforts “to obfuscate these processes and their implications”. Zuboff’s solution was to call for a change in business models, democratic oversight and privacy sanctuaries. Researcher Kate Crawford delivered another devastating analysis of muddy boots in her 2021 book AI Atlas, which focused on the extractive and destructive power of AI on jobs, the environment, human relations and democracy. She refined her message in a captivating talk for the National Academy of Engineering, outlining constructive actions AI researchers and implementers could take, while encouraging government regulation and individual efforts to protect privacy.
Muddy-boots activists are increasingly being recognized for their positive research contributions that deliver smart designs that benefit people. In October 2021, Cynthia Rudin received the $1 Million Artificial Intelligence Award to Benefit Humanity from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. His work on interpretable forms of AI was a response to the bewildering complexity of opaque black box algorithms, which made it difficult for people to understand why they were being rejected for parole, mortgages or jobs.
Many of the muddy-boot thinkers are women, but men also spoke of the need for human oversight. Tech pioneer Jaron Lanier is also raising concerns in his Ten Reasons to Delete Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which identifies the harms of social media and suggests users better control their use. Lawyer Frank Pasquale New laws of robotics explains why AI developers should value human expertise, avoid technology arms races, and take responsibility for the technologies they create. However, achieving human control through human-centered designs will require substantial changes in national policies, business practices, research programs and educational curricula.
The diverse workers at this camp, including women, non-binary people, people with disabilities, and people of color, have important messages to ensure blue sky dreams can be channeled into actionable products and services that benefit people and preserve the environment.