Category: Social Justice

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AI and the War on Poverty

A.I. and Big Data Could Power a New War on Poverty is the title of on op-ed in today’s New York Times by Elisabeth Mason. I fear that AI and Big Data is more likely to fuel a new War on the Poor unless a radical rethinking occurs. In fact this algorithmic War on the Poor seems to have been going on for quite some time and the Poor are not winning.

Mason posits that AI and Big Data provide three paths forward from the trap of inequality: 1. The ability to match people to available jobs; 2. the ability to deliver customized training that enables people to perform those jobs; and 3. the ability to algorithmically deliver social welfare programs in a more efficient manner.

The first objective seems within the realm of Indeed.com and LinkedIn’s recommendation algorithms and second — personalized training — has a long history in AI systems development. The problem is access: how do you get one of the “good middle-class jobs” in San Francisco when you live in Atlanta and attend a high school that lacks the coursework to prepare you for Stanford? How do you get access to an immersive 3D training environment when your family can’t afford to put down 100 a month for high speed internet and your school lacks the equipment also?

The third part of Mason’s strategy is the most problematic. We’ve seen AI (meaning machine learning and decision making algorithms) used to enforce biased sentencing practices; seen how skewed training data can lead to racial bias in facial recognition; and the use of data-driven methods in predatory lending has also been documented. These examples constitute the tip of a deep problem and still largely un-addressed problem in AI. In short, if the algorithms on which our hopes for transformation are pinned learn from data that reifies the structural racism at the root of social inequity, then we’re simply finding a more optimal route to oppression.

Before we hand over the lives and futures of the most vulnerable members of society to algorithms that we are still trying to fathom, we should strive first for accountability and transparency in algorithms. The efforts underway in New York City to insure algorithmic ethical accountability is one start.

But if machine learning and AI are the new tools of our age, we should empower all people to put the computational tools and conceptual frameworks of data science to work for them. Black Lives Matter activists took the social networking tools to organize protests and share video that has changed and empowered. What could a coming generation do with additional visualization and analytical tools?

It was the prospect of using AI to empower education that first attracted me to the field. I think that the emerging technology has some good to do. But the process must necessarily be participatory. When artists, educators, poets, activists, grocery store owners, gardeners — everyone — can be given access to the tools then I’ll bet on the human capacity to find new paths to expression and opportunity.

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AI and the Souls of Black Folk

The impact of AI on communities of color — particularly through job displacement and policing — is now undeniable. Given that HBCUs have historically been on the forefront of technology education for the Black community, I am proposing to build a list of current activities (courses, research, seminars, clubs, etc.) at the HBCUs relevant to AI and its wider implications. If you’d like to contribute to the list, I’ll eagerly accept your input! To understand some of my motivations, keep reading.

We’ve now reached the point where the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) upon everyday life is undeniable. Everyone takes Siri for granted, your local Walmart can hook you up with a drone that does object recognition, and the introduction of self-driving cars now seems inevitable.

The title of my post is inspired both by W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic The Souls of Black Folk — a collection of essays on the state of African Americans at the start of the 20th century — and by Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine which chronicles the development of a computer architecture at the end of the 20th century. I think that at the start of the 21st century, a critical look at how African Americans are impacted by immense technological change is needed. The title tries to capture my central question:

What is the impact of AI and related technologies on the lives of Black folk, and how can we organically shape a future for these technologies that enhances opportunity rather than reifies oppression?

To be honest, I am deeply concerned about the potential AI has for disruptive and devastating impact on communities of color. The Obama administration released a sobering assessment of the  economic impact of AI — it forecasts that changes in the transportation sector alone (trucking and delivery) will mean the elimination of occupations which Black and Brown folk have relied upon for entry into the middle class. Those findings are likely to generalize to other occupations. The prevalence of predictive policing and algorithmic sentencing raise serious concerns about equality and self-determination — especially when mass incarceration and other racial disparities in criminal justice are taken into account.

In theory, a modern democracy should allow impacted communities to raise concerns about a technology and then foster the deliberative processes necessary to fairly address those concerns. In theory, the open source movement provides a model through which communities can identify and develop technologies that serve their particular needs.

You might respond that “technology is colorblind, science is colorblind, it shouldn’t matter whether there are any Black folk involved at all in the development of and policy making around AI technology“. I think in this case particularly, it matters a great deal. AI, looking back over its history, is itself an endeavor that grapples with the question of what it means to be human — it is an endeavor that demands broad societal input. 

Aside from President Obama’s initiative, I see very little presence of the disenfranchised in discussions on the future course of AI. For example, OpenAI is a research institute of sorts formed with the express purpose of “discovering and enacting the path to safe artificial general intelligence“. Despite lofty claims OpenAI seems to have the traditional Silicon Valley underrepresentation.

So all that said, what is the simplest concrete contribution I can make?

I have spent most of my career in AI. I grew up in Atlanta, attended Morehouse College and Georgia Tech through the Atlanta University Center’s Dual Degree Program, and went on later to complete a doctorate in computer science at the University of Chicago focusing on robot planning and learning. Along the way I studied and worked with other Black people doing advanced computing, witnessed Black people found successful technology startups and saw Black women and men lead successful academic careers in these fields. On the one hand, the diversity (exclusion?) figures we see from Facebook and Google seem at odds with  that experience. On the other hand, it jibes with the experience of being “the one and only” in many places I’ve worked or studied at. I wanted to begin to quantify and understand the dimensions and particulars of exclusion — things just don’t seem to add up, so perhaps we are looking in the wrong places and asking the wrong questions when we conclude there are no Black folk doing AI?

The Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) provided the fertile intellectual soil in which Du Bois’s ideas sprouted and grew. So I thought my first concrete step would be to take inspiration from Tracy Chou’s Women in Software Engineering and put together a set of Google spreadsheets that document how HBCUs are looking at AI.

I created the spreadsheet AI at HBCUs. Please give it a look. Right now it is an aspirational document in that it tries to gather up any kind of activity at the HBCUs related to AI, Machine Learning, or Data Science. Hopefully it can be the basis of other kinds of summary statistics, update posts,  or active development efforts.

I’ve split the document into a number of sheets:

Sheet Name

Description

HBCUS

Name and address information for US HBCUs based on information obtained from IPEDS

Course

Information on AI related courses taught at the institution. Any department.

Grants

Information on grants received by the HBCU for AI related work

Publications

Publications on AI related topics.

Clubs

Student related clubs. For example a robotics club, drone club, a group formed for Kaggle competitions, etc.

Workshops and Seminars

Has the institution hosted any seminars or workshops? Links to videos would be great.

Outreach

Any Saturday events for grade schoolers? Teach-ins for community organizers?

Graduate Placements

Any numbers on the graduates who’ve gone on to careers, graduate school or internships in AI related fields.

Here’s how I think this could work. If you are a  faculty or a student at a HBCU, you can for the time being send an email to me charles.cearl@gmail.com with information on courses, seminars, research, clubs, outreach programs or other related activity at your institution. I’ll manually post your information to the relevant sheet. If there’s enough interest, I can just set this up to allow direct update (through pull requests or direct editing of the relevant sheet). I’m open to suggestions on formatting, information gathering, and overall focus.

Let’s get the discussion started!

Social Justice

Reverence for the righteous

Several months ago I read Timothy Snyder’s award winning Black Earth, an important but difficult book on the horrific destruction of millions of lives in the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe during the Second World War.

Despite the gravity of the book, there was a deep and eternal hope that I found in its stories of the ordinary and extraordinary Jews, Poles, Ukrainians — in other words people — coping with the unimaginable. The grandmother who hid and sheltered strangers, only to see them found out and killed; the farmer who kept three desperate sisters alive despite the risk of brutal death. The faith of saving your neighbor, standing with your neighbor, for years, sun up and sun down, despite the risk. Righteousness.

I read the book because I felt that I needed to keep awareness of the struggles that are now fading into history in mind — the people I knew who had faced that ghastly horror, breathed its stench and survived as testament have now left this realm. As I write this a mosque in Quebec has been attacked, Muslim brothers and sisters, children from Iran, survivors from Syria — people, human beings — are again being caught up in an echo of those dark times. I am, we are, all being called to account — again.

Snyder’s words are poignant:

In the darkest of times and places, a few people rescued Jews for what seems like no earthly reason. These tended to be people who in normal times might seem to take ethical and social norms a bit too literally, and whose fidelity to their expressed principles survived the end of the institutions that supported and defended them.

If these rescuers had anything in common beyond that, it was self-knowledge. When you know yourself, there is little to say.

The events of the last few months, of the last two days have been challenging. The thought of how to respond — whether to run, to shout, to cry, to detach, to pray — we are all gripped by a range of conflicting emotion and inclination.

I just try to hold the truth of those righteous souls in each moment and look for the self-knowledge to respond as a brother, a father, a friend, a fellow person.