Wednesday night, more than 100 people attended a panel discussion titled “Understanding the Social Implications of AI.”  The panel, part of the Dissonance Event Series, was held in the Michigan League.

Organizing Committee Member Sol Bermann, chief privacy officer and interim chief information security officer for the University of Michigan, explained Dissonance lies at the intersection of many different areas of study.

“Dissonance is what I like to call a grassroots faculty and student effort to take a multidisciplinary approach to issues at the confluence of technology, policy, privacy, security and law,” Bermann said.

Bermann said Dissonance makes an effort to incorporate perspectives from many different schools and organizations housed at the University. He listed LSA, the College of Engineering, the School of Public Health, the School of Public Policy, the Medical School and the Law School as a few of the many past participants.

“As we were putting the series together, we wanted to get a range of perspectives,” Bermann said. “We didn’t just want it to be coming from a pro perspective or a con perspective. When you put the pro and con together you get a sort of clash: dissonance.”

Bermann said he believes the University provides the unique capacity as a world-class research institution to pull in-house speakers together and provide informative panels such as the panel on Artificial Intelligence. He explained Dissonance focuses on issues that relate to current events, a category in which he believes AI falls.

“AI is increasingly a known commodity in your daily life, but do you even think about it anymore?” Bermann said. “Do you think about the way you’re seeing the things you see on Amazon, or on Facebook, or on the news? Do you think about who’s presenting those things to you? Do you think about what it means to have autonomous vehicles versus having the responsibility of driving a car? Do you think about the algorithms and how transparent they are or aren’t because those algorithms, again, are influencing our daily life.”

Bermann said because college-age students are on the cusp of the “digital age,” never having known a time before cell phones or the Internet, they are less likely to question the merits of AI.

“If you’re not thinking that there’s not some inherent risk in the ‘Big Brother’ in a machine doing things to you, then we’re doing you a misservice,” Bermann said.

Business freshman Ian Cooper attended the Dissonance panel to take part in the exploration Bermann fears students are missing. Cooper is enrolled in an engineering course where he has been forced to think critically about AI. He told The Daily after the event that he came across an announcement on the Happening at Michigan webpage for the Dissonance event and thought it would be a proper supplement to his classwork.

“AI is basically changing the world as we know it,” Cooper said. “All of these distinguished professionals in different fields can really inform the way we think about it.”

Cooper appreciated Dissonance’s attention to interdisciplinary exploration of the issue.

“It seems like a lot of people are just saying AI is going to ruin the economy and automation is going to make everyone jobless,” Cooper said. “I’m wondering if maybe some of these people will have more optimistic viewpoints.”

Panelist Ella Atkins, an aerospace engineering professor, addressed Cooper’s concern about job loss during her presentation. From the perspective of her work with autonomous aircrafts, she has seen a reorganization of labor rather than a loss of jobs. She said there are the same amount of people being hired, but the jobs they are doing require a more advanced education and elite technology.

“A lot of people are working together to solve problems that will make money for the company and hopefully benefit society,” Atkins said. “They’re just doing different jobs.”

Atkins presented on the neutrality of technology, explaining it is not inherently good or bad. Atkins said technology serves the purpose of those humans who employ it, no matter whether it is constructive or regressive to society.

“It’s more complicated than not liking the AI, because people have a long history of also doing some pretty good and some scary things,” Atkins said. “We expect the same thing from the AI agents … If we begin imagining all of the scary things that AI can do, maybe we forget two things. One, the scary things people can do, and the second thing is how the AI on the things like drones can help stop the scary things.”

Panelist Kentaro Toyama, professor of information, began his presentation by emphasizing the other perspective of technology being neutral and malleable by human beings. Toyama presented a graph detailing how although technology has expanded rapidly over the course of the past decade, the poverty rate in America has remained stagnant. He said technology exacerbates inequality due to the human promotion of inequality.

“Technology, for the most part, amplifies other human forces,” Toyama said.

Toyama said he thinks technology has also deepened the country’s political divide because it provides a platform on which the conflict can brew.

“It’s entirely up to the human beings in terms of how the technology gets used,” Toyama said. “It could be positive, it could be negative. If we’re really confident it’s always going to be positive, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t develop more technology. On the other hand, if you have some doubts about that, we should be very careful.”

Toyama equated the power of AI to the danger a nuclear bomb presents to society. Toyama said AI could be even more dangerous — there are only nine countries across the world with nuclear weapons, but AI is ever-present and growing more ubiquitous as technology continues to progress.

“There’s always going to be a cat and mouse game in terms of security versus people doing bad things online.” Toyama said. “…The law always tends to be behind the technology, and so for that reason, I think we need to have regulation in place that is actually a little conservative.”

Bermann said the purpose of Dissonance is to spark thought and conversation.

“When I was a child and watched cartoons like The Jetsons, they were science fictions shows,” Bermann said. “If you had told me that the world today would be full of AI and autonomous this and that, I would have thought that was the most wonderful thing ever, but it’s not been as bright and rosy a scene as the cartoons and movies depicted it to be. Instead, there are many dystopian things that are related to artificial intelligence.”

Bermann said he hopes the panel event encouraged attendees to question AI, believing it is both a problem and a solution.

“I don’t think any of us, particularly in the AI space, presume to know the outcomes yet, but we want to get people thinking about are we comfortable having machines making decisions on our behalf?” Bermann said.


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