Image credit: Nick Philip

Embracing a Future with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems

By Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab

I first met John Havens at an Aspen Institute Roundtable to discuss the future of artificial intelligence. I had always pictured IEEE as a place where engineers hammered out practical technical standards and published rigorous academic journals so I was surprised — and excited — to find him advocating the importance of ethics in autonomous and intelligent systems in such a nuanced and inclusive way. Soon, we had drafted the beginning of the Global Council on Extended Intelligence (CXI) and its mandate: to ensure that these tools benefit people and the planet, make our systems more robust and resilient, and don’t reinforce negative systemic biases.

The MIT Media Lab has a long-standing history with the discipline of machine learning and AI, beginning with the work of founding faculty member Marvin Minsky. But we’re a long way from 1985 and the ideals and optimism that the field once held. As time pressed on, and the interfaces between humans and machines ushered in celebrated tech toys and important conveniences, the ramifications of this work and the divisions it created became increasingly obvious.

Visit any floor of the Media Lab and you’ll see students and faculty addressing these new issues: PhD candidate Joy Buolamwini is working to improve facial recognition software, where biased data sets lead to difficulties identifying women and people with darker skin; Professor Iyad Rahwan and his students are evaluating the future of work and workers in a world that is becoming increasingly automated; and our class with The Harvard Berkman Klein Center addresses the ethics and governance of AI.

That’s why this collaboration is so important to me and, I believe, different from other groups currently addressing the future of AI. While engineers and technologists take the ethics and social issues of machine learning seriously, many simply don’t feel it’s their job to address those issues. With a powerhouse like The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association (IEEE-SA) involved — the very group who represents engineers and their interests — it changes the paradigm. The ethics, the values, will be part of the engineering conversation.

Together, we will attempt to empower people with tools to live with artificial and extended intelligence, instead of feeling like they’re going to be replaced or destroyed by machines. It’s also recognizing that we can’t continue to measure success in purely economic terms, or to look for one-size-fits-all solutions — we have to remember that we are part of a web of complex, self-adaptive systems, which also includes the tools we use and the environments in which we live.

So far, more than 50 researchers and professors have signed on to CXI, including Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs, former Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, Jonathan Zittrain from The Berkman Klein Center, and Paul Nemitz of the European Commission. We plan to implement three projects right away: introduce extended intelligence and participatory design to policymakers and the general public; create a data policy template for governments and organizations to help people maintain control over their digital identities; and create a Wellbeing Indicator template for governments and organizations to redefine “prosperity” in a way that values human flourishing and natural ecosystems.

And while these ideas are still evolving, the ultimate goal is to encourage conversation and collaboration — we can’t answer the questions these new technologies raise without input and feedback from everyone who develops them, uses them, or will be affected by them.