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?