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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Artificial intelligence experts — concerned about reported blunders with high-stakes AI systems from makers like Amazon and IBM — are urging more oversight, testing, and perhaps a fundamental rethinking of the underlying technology.

Why it matters: Wall Street, the military, and other sectors expect AI to make increasingly weighty decisions in the future — with less and less human involvement. But if the systems behave inaccurately or display biases, the consequences outside the lab could cause harm to real people.

In reports this week:

  • Amazon’s face-recognition platform, Rekognition, matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots when it was put through testing by the ACLU, which announced the results Thursday. The misidentified faces disproportionately belonged to people of color. Responding on its blog, Amazon said the ACLU didn’t test Rekognition with the correct settings, and that its system is meant to help humans make big decisions — not final determinations on its own. Amazon amended the blog post on Friday, Cnet reported, inviting the federal government to recommend rules for how law enforcement uses facial recognition technology.
  • IBM’s Watson gave doctors "unsafe and incorrect" recommendations for cancer treatments, Stat News reported last week, quoting internal IBM documents. The finding blamed both IBM engineers and the doctors who were feeding in training data. IBM told Stat News that Watson Health has since improved.
  • In an earlier case, a self-driving Uber killed a pedestrian in Arizona in March.

The context: For skeptics of deep learning, the leading machine-learning method that powers most commercial AI, these shortcomings belie greater problems ahead.

  • "We shouldn’t mistake pattern recognition for genuine intelligence," Gary Marcus, an NYU professor, tells Axios in an email. "And we shouldn’t be surprised when narrow, shallow intelligence (which is all we have, so far) lets us down."
  • Garrett Kenyon, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that deep learning can’t grasp abstract concepts, or even reliably count or compare objects.
  • This isn’t the first time an external audit has found bias in deployed face-recognition algorithms. In research published by MIT, researcher Joy Buolamwini tested three companies' face-recognition systems and found that they performed poorly on darker-skinned and female faces. In response, two of the companies — IBM and Microsoft — published improvements to their algorithms.

The other side: Jack Clark, strategy and communications director at OpenAI, said these cases are not marks against deep learning as a technology.

  • "We know DL works," Clark said, using an abbreviation for deep learning.
  • "We also know that DL bugs can be pretty bad and implementing DL systems is hard," he continued.
  • Without more details about the Amazon and IBM incidents, "it's very difficult to make a call as to whether this is due to a flaw in implementation (which would be my assumption) or a flaw in the algorithm itself (which to my mind seems less likely)."

The bottom line: Clark said that AI systems need to be "vigorously and transparently tested in the wild" before they’re put to work in the real world.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Energy & Environment

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm lashed much of the East Coast Sunday and Monday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: Authorities in North Carolina confirmed that two people died in a car crash and that they responded 600 vehicle accidents during the storm on Sunday, per the Washington Post.

2 hours ago - Health

CDC director says COVID-19 messaging should have been clearer

Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic and changing guidance should have been clearer.

State of play: Walensky is being coached by media experts and is planning to have more press briefings by herself in order to ensure that CDC is seen as an independent, scientific entity, rather than as a political one, the Journal reports.

2 hours ago - World

UAE asks U.S. to reinstate Houthi terrorist designation after attack

Secretary of State Tony Blinken (left) listens to United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan during a joint news conference at the State Department iin October. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed asked Secretary of State Tony Blinken in a phone call Monday to re-designate the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organization, a senior Emirati official told Axios.

Why it matters: Less than a month after he assumed office, President Biden rolled back the Trump administration’s decision to make the designation. He said it hampered humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people. Since then, the Houthis have escalated their attacks against Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region — including an attack Monday in Abu Dhabi.