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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Earlier this month, Ed Felten — a Princeton professor and former adviser to President Obama — chided an international audience of artificial intelligence experts packing a cavernous Montreal convention center.

What he's saying: For too long, AI hands have been hiding in their basements, in effect playing God by deciding which technology is ultimately released to the masses, Felten said. Stop assuming that you know what's best for people, he admonished his listeners, and instead dive into the already-raging public debate of what happens next with AI.

What's happening: As scientists in major fields have done for decades, AI experts are being prodded to step out of the lab, get political and help formulate how society confronts what they are creating.

Why it matters: It's important that the makers of AI are involved in the debate over the ultimate boundaries and uses of technologies that will transform how people live and work in the coming decades and beyond.

"It’s only fair that those whose lives we are going to change should have some say in how that change comes about. Decisions will be made. What is our role?"
— Ed Felten, Princeton professor

What’s happening: Employees at Google, Microsoft and Amazon — all of them dominant AI developers — have signed petitions urging their companies to back away from contracts to provide AI software to defense and law enforcement agencies.

But as AI increasingly informs life-altering decisions in banking, defense and other areas, top figures in the field are marshaling researchers for political action. In Montreal for the NeurIPS conference, Felten banged the war drum.

  • "We have a duty to be more active and more constructive in participating in public life," Felten said.
  • He laid out a mathematical model of democracy to explain why political decisions can seem nonsensical. (It's about one-third of the way down in this slideshow.)
  • Felten's bottom line: Fight to be in the room with political deciders, and encourage a culture that engages publicly.

Such momentum is slowly building.

  • "The group of us deeply concerned about the societal impacts of AI has grown extensively," said Brent Hecht, chair of the ACM Future of Computing Academy, an association of young computing professionals.
  • "People in computer science are definitely becoming aware of the impact that their research has on their society," said Mikey Fischer, a Stanford computer science Ph.D. student. 

This movement is being pushed along by nonprofits, including the Partnership on AI and OpenAI. The Center for a New American Security, a think tank, has convened back-room conversations between policymakers and researchers.

Go deeper: Confronting the demons of the computer age

Go deeper

Updated 4 hours 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.

Texas abortion law remains in effect after appeals court ruling

Pro- and anti-abortion protesters outside the Supreme Court as arguments begin about the Texas abortion law on Capitol Hill in November. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A U.S. appeals court transferred a challenge to Texas' law banning most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy to the state supreme court in a 2-1 vote on Monday evening.

Why it matters: The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision means the country's most restrictive abortion law can remain in place for the time being.

6 hours ago - World

At least 2 dead after Tonga volcano eruption and tsunami

A satellite image of the explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Saturday. Photo: UNICEF/NOAA

At least two people are confirmed to have died in Tonga following the undersea volcanic eruption that sent tsunami waves toward the island nation and across the Pacific over the weekend, officials said Monday.

The big picture: Officials reported major damage along the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu, where the capital, Nuku'alofa, was covered in ash and dust, including on the runway of the airport. A New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told Axios over the phone that two people had been confirmed to have died in the disaster.