Values for the AI Community, Part 2: Readers Respond

Published
Aug 19, 2020
Reading time
2 min read
Values for the AI Community, Part 2: Readers Respond

Dear friends,

Last week, I asked what values the AI community stands for. Thank you to everyone who replied! The email responses in aggregate ran to 55 pages of text, and I enjoyed reading all of them.

A reader who works for a large company wrote, “A purely commercial objective of work is not my calling and I often find myself dreaming about how to break out of the corporate shackles and contribute the rest of my life to doing something meaningful.” These words struck a chord with me. Many of us have the good fortune to find meaning in our work. But if you don’t currently, I hope the AI community will help you do so.

Some other comments stood out to me (lightly edited):

  • “A challenge for all of us working in AI is to reimagine the world with respect to concerns like healthcare, education, justice, and environmental protection.” — Shane Ó Seasnáin, Program Manager, Eindhoven AI Systems Institute, Eindhoven
  • “The foundation of our shared values should be refusal to participate in works that would bring harm, regardless of political pressure and monetary rewards.” — Cecilia Cheung, Member, British Computer Society
  • We stand for “fair treatment for all, establishment of trust throughout society, and decreasing the gap between the haves and have-nots.” — Shira L. Broschat, Professor, Washington State University, Pullman
  • The community “believes in science, data, and facts.” — Nick Brestoff, Chief Inventor, Intraspexion, Seattle
  • “AI has to be made accessible to as many people as possible.” — Benjamin Freisberg, Data Scientist, Substring, Bern
  • The AI community should “engage and empower the community to contribute to all levels of the conversation.” — Reece Robinson, VP Engineering, Orion Health, Auckland
  • We ought to “push harder on compassion and squeeze out the cruelty.” — Natalie Smithson, Digital Innovation Copywriter, Warwick

These thoughts, and many, many others you sent, are wonderful. But one challenge of pushing on compassion (as in the last comment) is that compassion means different things to different individuals. To one person, it may mean mentoring an underprivileged student. To another, it may mean tuning an algorithm to reduce hate speech in social media.

Concepts like compassion, empowerment, and being human are easy to agree on in the absence of specifics, but difficult to define and realize in a concrete way. We all want to be compassionate. But what does that mean in practice?

We will reach a common understanding only by considering such abstractions in light of a wide variety of ways they might translate into action. This will require tireless discussion as a community. When we have a chance to talk to one another, let’s take the opportunity to discuss the values we hold in common and what it would mean to stand for them in real life. That way, the next time we feel the urge to take a stand — say, tuning a hyperparameter to reduce hate speech at the cost of revenue — we’re more likely to act in a consistent and principled way.

I’m heartened by your responses and encouraged that so many of you are looking for greater meaning and positive impact. I will continue to think about how we can come together as a community and keep the conversation going.

Keep learning!

Andrew

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