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This issue is 1,342 words, a 5-minute read.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios
The idea that AI can replicate or amplify human prejudice, once argued mostly at the field's fringes, has been thoroughly absorbed into its mainstream: Every major tech company now makes the necessary noise about "AI ethics."
Yes, but: A critical split divides AI reformers. On one side are the bias-fixers, who believe the systems can be purged of prejudice with a bit more math. (Big Tech is largely in this camp.) On the other side are the bias-blockers, who argue that AI has no place at all in some high-stakes decisions.
Why it matters: This debate will define the future of the controversial AI systems that help determine people's fates through hiring, underwriting, policing and bail-setting.
What's happening: Despite the rise of the bias-blockers in 2019, the bias-fixers remain the orthodoxy.
The other side: At the top academic conference for AI this week, Abeba Birhane of University College Dublin presented the opposing view.
The big picture: In a recent essay Frank Pasquale, a UMD law professor who studies AI, calls this a new wave of algorithmic accountability that looks beyond technical fixes toward fundamental questions about economic and social inequality.
The bottom line: Technology can help root out some biases in AI systems. But this rising movement is pushing experts to look past the math to consider how their inventions will be used beyond the lab.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios
Despite a flood of money and politics propelling AI forward, some researchers, companies and voters hit pause this year.
But the question at the core of the debate is whether a fairness fix even exists.
The swelling backlash says it doesn't — especially when companies and researchers ask machines to do the impossible, like guess someone's emotions by analyzing facial expressions, or predict future crime based on skewed data.
This blowback's spark was a 2017 research project from MIT's Joy Buolamwini. She found that major facial recognition systems struggled to identify female and darker-toned faces.
What's next: Companies are tightening access to their AI algorithms, invoking intellectual property protections to avoid sharing details about how their systems arrive at critical decisions.
A French soldier with an anti-drone rifle. Photo: Chesnot/Getty
Weapons that down threatening drones — by scrambling their electronics or just plain shooting them out of the sky — are flooding the market, even though most are still illegal in the U.S.
What's new: Just in the last year, hundreds of new products were released, in a scramble to head off an urgent unsolved menace. But off-the-shelf drones are evolving apace, threatening to make a thorny problem even worse.
The big picture: As I wrote this summer, plenty of roadblocks still lie ahead for the counter-drone industry. Fundamentally, many anti-drone systems don't work well — and even if they did, most are illegal in the U.S., except if used by federal agencies.
Driving the news: A new report from the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College is a comprehensive census of counter-drone technology.
The report raises two new problems. One is the limited range of many detection systems.
The second problem is the rapid progress of consumer drones, which is creating a "vicious feedback loop," Michel says. Advances that make the devices safer can also make them impervious to some counter-drone systems.
The bottom line: "There's nothing on the horizon that will cut the line on this [cycle]," says Michel. "There's nothing that just ends the game. … Until there is, it's going to be like this: a game of cat and mouse."
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
The multifront fight against robocalls (Margaret Harding McGill & Ina Fried - Axios)
The scholar who diagnosed "surveillance capitalism" (Frank Bajak - AP)
A sweeping government hunt for spies among Chinese–Americans (Peter Waldman & Andre Tartar - Bloomberg)
The gadgets that shaped the decade (The Verge)
2020 candidates want to track your phone's location (Theodore Schleifer - Recode)
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty
Does the ritual tapping of a shaken-up can of Coke or beer really stop it from foaming over?
With the help of 1,000 cans of Pilsner beer, a brave troop of volunteers and a device called the Unimax 2010 orbital platform shaker, scientists in Denmark set out to determine whether the trick really works.