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AI makers get political

Illustration of a spotlight illuminating an AI robot in the corner of a room.
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