Solving AI Problems With Civility

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Project management cartoon

Dear friends,

I’m grateful to the AI community for the friendships it has brought me and the benefits it has brought to billions of people. But members of the AI community don’t always honor one another. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, which we in the U.S. celebrate this week, I’d like to talk about how we can treat each other with greater civility.

While AI has done much good, it has also created adverse effects. Machine learning systems have perpetuated harmful stereotypes, generated results that treat some minority groups unfairly, aided the spread of disinformation, and enabled some governments to oppress their citizens. It’s up to us to find, call out, and solve these problems.

But there’s a difference between airing problems so we can work toward a solution and attacking fellow AI developers for their perceived sins. We’re sometimes too quick to attack each other on social media when we have disagreements. Misdirected criticisms can go viral before a correction can catch up.
I’ve seen many events that people may have misconstrued:

  • A workshop had a slate of invited speakers who were all of one gender and lacked diversity in other dimensions. The organizer must have been biased, right? Actually, the group was fairly diverse until several speakers unexpectedly canceled at the last minute, leaving a homogeneous slate.
  • A vision algorithm favored a light skinned person over a dark skinned person. Clearly the algorithm was racist, and possibly the people who built it as well, right? But when its performance was examined on a larger set of data, this appeared to be an isolated example rather than a pervasive trend.
  • Members of a majority group found a certain word derogatory toward a particular minority and had it removed from public communications. Anyone using it must be insensitive and ignorant, right? It turned out the minority group in question didn’t consider the word derogatory. Perhaps the critics were mistaken.

To be clear, the AI world has problems. I don’t want anyone to shy away from addressing them. When you come across a pressing issue, here are suggestions that might encourage productive conversation:

  • Reach out privately. When you see someone doing something you consider problematic — perhaps even unethical — give them a chance to explain why, or make sure someone else has, before you fire off that explosive tweet. Perhaps they had an innocent, or even positive, reason for their actions that you weren’t aware of.
  • Encourage transgressors to correct their mistakes. If you find that a scientist has made an error, try privately to persuade them to publish a correction or retraction. That can fix the problem while preserving their dignity. If you reach out and find them immovable or they refuse to engage, you can still call them out publicly and make sure the truth gets out.
  • Don’t be cowed. If you find a real problem, and you’ve spoken with the people at the center of it and found that more needs to be said in public, go for it! If you’re not sure, consider asking colleagues to help you double-check your thinking, consider other perspectives, and gather allies who can help you push forward.

As we wrestle with important issues around values, ethics, diversity, and responsibility, let’s keep our arguments civil and support discussions that focus on solving problems rather than public shaming. In addition to being civil yourself, I ask you also to encourage others to be civil, and think twice before repeating or amplifying messages that aren’t. The AI community faces difficult challenges, and working together will make us more effective in wrestling with them.

Happy Thanksgiving and keep learning!



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