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Yonatan Zunger Follow

Either political analysis of authoritarian regimes, or interesting facts about science,
depending on my mood.
Oct 12, 2017 · 35 min read

Asking the Right Questions About AI

In the past few years, we’ve been deluged with discussions of how
arti�cial intelligence (AI) will either save or destroy the world. Self-
driving cars will keep us alive; social media bubbles will destroy
democracy; robot toasters will rob us of our ability to heat bread.

It’s probably pretty clear to you that some of this is nonsense, and that
some of this is real. But if you aren’t deeply immersed in the �eld, it can
be hard to guess which is which. And while there are endless primers
on the Internet for people who want to learn to program AI, there
aren’t many explanations of the ideas, and the social and ethical
challenges they imply, for people who aren’t and don’t want to be
software engineers or statisticians.

And if we want to be able to have real discussions about this as a

society, we need to �x that. So today, we’re going to talk about the
realities of AI: what it can and can’t actually do, what it might be able
to do in the future, and what some of the social, cultural, and ethical
challenges it poses are. I won’t cover every possible challenge; some of
them, like �lter bubbles and disinformation, are so big that they need
entire articles of their own. But I want to give you enough examples of
the real problems that we face that you’ll be situated to start to ask hard
questions on your own.

I’ll give you one spoiler to start with: most of the hardest challenges

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aren’t technological at all. The biggest challenges of AI often start when

writing it makes us have to be very explicit about our goals, in a way
that almost nothing else does—and sometimes, we don’t want to be
that honest with ourselves.

“Robot and Shadow,” by Hsing Wei.

1 -

Arti�cial Intelligence and Machine Learning

As I write this, I’m going to use the terms “arti�cial intelligence” (AI)

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and “machine learning” (ML) more or less interchangeably. There’s a

stupid reason these terms mean almost the same thing: it’s that
“arti�cial intelligence” has historically been de�ned as “whatever
computers can’t do yet.” For years, people argued that it would take
true arti�cial intelligence to play chess, or simulate conversations, or
recognize images; every time one of those things actually happened,
the goalposts got moved. The phrase “arti�cial intelligence” was just
too frightening: it cut too close, perhaps, to the way we de�ne
ourselves, and what makes us di�erent as humans. So at some point,
professionals started using the term “machine learning” to avoid the
entire conversation, and it stuck. But it never really stuck, and if I only
talked about “machine learning” I’d sound strangely mechanical—
because even professionals talk about AI all the time.

So let’s start by talking about what machine learning, or arti�cial

intelligence, is. In the strictest sense, machine learning is part of the
�eld of “predictive statistics:” it’s all about building systems which can
take information about things which happened in the past, and make
out of those some kind of model of the world around them which they
can then use to predict what might happen under other circumstances.
This can be as simple as “when I turn the wheel left, the car tends to
turn left, too,” or as complicated as trying to understand a person’s
entire life and tastes.

You can use this picture to understand what every AI does:

There’s a system with some sensors that can perceive the world—these
can be anything from video cameras and LIDAR to a web crawler
looking at documents. There’s some other system which can act on the
world, by doing anything from driving a car to showing ads to sorting
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�sh. Sometimes, this system is a machine, and sometimes it’s a person,

who has to make decisions based on something hopelessly complex or
too large to think about at once—like the entire contents of the

To connect the two, you need a box that takes the perceptions of the
world, and comes out with advice about what what is likely to happen
if you take various courses of action. That box in the center is called a
“model,” as in “a model of how the world works,” and that box is the AI

The diagram above has some extra words in it, which are ones you may
hear when professionals discuss AI. “Features” are simply some
distillation of the raw perceptions, the parts of those perceptions which
the designers of the model thought would be useful to include. In some
AI systems, the features are just the raw perceptions—for example, the
color seen by every pixel of a camera. Such a huge number of features
is good for the AI in that it doesn’t impose any preconceptions of what
is and isn’t important, but makes it harder to build the AI itself; it’s only
in the past decade or so that it’s become possible to build computers big
enough to handle that.

“Predictions” are what comes out the other end: when you present the
model with some set of features, it will generally give you a bunch of
possible outcomes, and its best understanding of the likelihood of each.
If you want an AI to make a decision, you then apply some rule to that
—for example, “pick the one most likely to succeed,” or “pick the one
least likely to cause a catastrophic failure.” That �nal rule, of weighing
possible costs and bene�ts, is no less important to the system than the
model itself.

Now, you could imagine a very simple “model” that gives rules that are
just �ne for many uses: for example, the mechanical regulator valves on
old steam engines were a kind of simple “model” which read the
pressure in on one end, and if that pressure pushed a lever beyond
some set point, it would open a valve. It was a simple rule: if the
pressure is above the set point, open the valve; otherwise, close it.

The reason this valve is so simple is that it only needs to consider one
input, and make one decision. If it had to decide something more

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complicated that depended on thousands or millions of inputs—like

how to control a car (that depends on all of your vision, hearing, and
more), or which web page might give the best answer to your question
about wombat farming (that depends on whether you’re casually
interested or a professional marsupial wrangler, and on interpreting if
the site was written by an enthusiast or is just trying to sell you cheap
generic wombat Viagra)—you would �nd not one simple comparison,
but millions, even tens of millions, needed to decide.

AI’s don’t get bored or distracted: a model can keep

making decisions over di�erent pieces of data,
millions or billions of times in a row, and not get
any worse (or better) at it.

What makes AI models special is that they are designed for this. Inside
any AI model are a bunch of rules to combine features, each of which
depends on one of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of individual
knobs, telling it how much to weigh the signi�cance of each feature
under di�erent circumstances. For example, in one kind of AI model
called a “decision tree,” the model looks like a giant tree of yes/no
questions. If the AI’s job were to tell tuna from salmon, the very �rst
question may be “is the left half of the picture darker than the right
half?,” and by the end of it it would look like “given the answers to the
past 374 questions, is the average color of pixels in this square more
orange or red?” The “knobs” here are the order in which questions are
asked, and what the boundaries between a yes and a no for each of
them are.

Here’s the magic: It would be impossible to �nd the right combination

of settings which would reliably tell a tuna from a salmon. There are
just too many of them. So to start out with, AI’s run in “training mode.”
The AI is shown one example after another, each time adjusting its
knobs so that it gets better at guessing what will come next, correcting
itself after each mistake. The more examples it sees, and the more
di�erent examples it sees, the better it gets at telling the crucial from
the incidental. And once it has been trained, the values of the knobs are
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�xed, and the model can be put to use, connected to real actuators.

The advantage that ML models have over humans doing the same task
isn’t speed; an ML model typically takes a few milliseconds to make a
decision, which is roughly what a human takes as well. (You do this all
the time while driving a car) Their real advantage is that they don’t get
bored or distracted: an ML model can keep making decisions over
di�erent pieces of data, millions or billions of times in a row, and not
get any worse (or better) at it. That means you can apply them to
problems that humans are very bad at—like ranking billions of web
pages for a single search, or driving a car.

(Humans are terrible at driving cars: that’s why 35,000 people were
killed by them in the US alone in 2015. The huge majority of these
crashes were due to distraction or driver error—things that people
normally do just �ne, but failed to do just once at a critical moment.
Driving requires tremendous awareness and the ability to react within
a small fraction of a second, something which if you think about it is
kind of amazing we can do at all. But worse, it requires the ability to
consistently do that for hours on end, something which it turns out we
actually can’t do.)

When someone is talking about using AI in a project, they mean

breaking the project down into the components drawn above, and then
building the right model. That process starts by gathering training
examples, which is often the hardest part of the task; then choosing the
basic shape of the model (which is what things like “neural networks,”
“decision trees,” and so on are; these are basic kinds of model which
are good for di�erent problems) and running the training; and then,
most importantly, �guring out what’s broken and adjusting it.

For example, look at the following six pictures, and �gure out the key
di�erence between the �rst three and the second three:

• If you guessed “the �rst three have carpet in them,” you’re right!

You would also be right, of course, if you had guessed that the �rst

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three were pictures of grey cats, and the second three were pictures of
white cats. But if you had used these images to train your Grey Cat
Detector, you might get excellent performance when the model tries to
rate your training pictures, and terrible performance in the real world,
because what the model actually learned was “grey cats are cat-shaped
things which sit on carpets.”

This is called “over�tting:” when your model has learned idiosyncrasies

of the training data, rather than what you actually cared about.
Avoiding this is what people who build ML systems spend most of their
time worrying about.

2 -

What AI is good at and bad at

So now that we’ve talked about what AI (or ML) is, let’s talk about
where it’s actually useful or useless.

Problems where both the goals, and the means to achieve those goals,
are well-understood don’t even require AI. For example, if your goal is
“tighten all the nuts on this car wheel to 100 foot-pounds,” all you need
is a mechanism that can tighten and measure torque, and stops
tightening when the torque reaches 100. This is called a “torque
wrench,” and if someone o�ers you an arti�cially intelligent torque
wrench the correct �rst question to ask them is why would I want that.

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These are the steam relief valves of AI; all you need is a simple

AI shines in problems where the goals are understood, but the means
aren’t. This is easiest to do when:

The number of possible external stimuli is limited, so the model

has a chance to learn about them, and

The number of things you have to control is limited, so you don’t

need to look at an overwhelming range of options, and

The number of stimuli or decisions is still so big that you can’t just
write down the rule; and separately, that

It’s easy to connect one of your actions to an observable

consequence in the outside world, so you can easily �gure out
what did and didn’t work.

These things are harder than they seem. For example, pick up an object
sitting next to you right now—I’ll do it with an empty soda can. Now
do that again slowly, and watch what your arm did.

My arm rotated at the elbow quickly to move my hand from horizontal

on the keyboard to vertical, a few inches from the can, then quickly
stopped. Then it moved forward, while I opened my �ngers just a bit
larger than the can, more slowly than the �rst motion but still
somewhat rapidly, until I saw that my thumb was on the opposite side
of the can from my other �ngers—despite the fact that my other
�ngers were obscured from my sight by the can. Then my �ngers closed
until they met resistance, and stopped almost immediately. And as my
arm started to raise up, this time from the shoulder (keeping the elbow
�xed), their grip tightened in�nitesimally, until it was securely holding,
but not deforming, the can.

The fact that we can walk without falling on our faces in confusion is a
lot more amazing than it seems. Next time you walk across the room,
pay attention to the exact path you take, each time you bend or move
your body or put your foot down anywhere except directly in front of
you. “Motion planning,” as this problem is called in robotics, is really

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This is one of the tasks which is so hard that our brains have a double-
digit percentage of their mass dedicated to nothing else. That makes
them seem far easier to us than they actually are. Other tasks in this
category are face recognition (a lot of our brain is dedicated not to
general vision, but speci�cally to recognizing faces), understanding
words, identifying 3D objects, and moving without running into things.
We don’t think of these as hard because they’re so intuitive to us—but
they’re intuitive because we have evolved specialized organs to do
nothing but be really good at those.

For this narrow set of tasks, computers do very poorly, not because they
do worse at them than they do at similar tasks, but because we’re
intuitively so good at them that our baseline for what constitutes
“acceptable performance” is very high. If we didn’t have a huge chunk
of our brain doing nothing but recognizing faces, people would look
about as di�erent to us as armadillos do—which is just what happens
to computers.

(Conversely, the way humans are wired makes other tasks arti�cially
easy for computers to get “right enough.” For example, human brains
are wired to assume, in case of doubt, that something which acts more-
or-less alive is actually animate. This means that having convincing
dialogues with humans doesn’t require understanding language in
general; so long as you can keep the conversation on a more-or-less
focused topic, humans will autocorrect around anything unclear. This
is why voice assistants are possible. The most famous example of this is
ELIZA, a 1964 “AI” which mimicked a Rogerian psychotherapist. It
would understand just enough of your sentences to ask you to tell it
more about various things, and if it got confused, it would fall back on
safe questions like “Tell me about your mother.” While it was half
meant as a joke, people did report feeling better after talking to it. If
you have access to a Google Assistant-powered device, you can tell it
“OK Google; talk to Eliza” and see for yourself.)

To understand the last of the problems described above—a case where

it’s hard to connect your immediate actions to a consequence—think
about learning to play a video game. Some action-consequences are
pretty obvious: you zigged when you should have zagged, ran into a
wall, game over. But as you get better at a game, you start to realize
“crap, I missed that one boost, I’m going to be totally screwed �ve

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minutes from now,” and can attribute that decision to a much later
consequence. You had to spend a lot of time understanding the
mechanics of the game before that connection became understandable
to you; AI’s have the same problem.

We’ve talked about cases where the goals and means are understood,
and cases where the goals but not the means are understood. There’s a
third category, where AI can’t help at all: problems where the goal itself
isn’t well understood. After all, if you can’t give the AI a bunch of
examples of what is and isn’t a good solution look like, what’s it going
to learn from?

We’ll talk about these problems a lot more in a moment, because

problems which actually are like this but which we think aren’t are
often where the thorniest ethical issues come up. What’s really
happening a lot of the time is that either we don’t know what “success”
really means (in which case, how do you know if you’ve succeeded?),
or worse, we do know—but don’t really want to admit it to ourselves.
And the �rst rule of programming computers is that they’re no good at
self-deception: if you want them to do something, you have to actually
explain to them what you want.

. . .

Before we go into ethics, here’s another way to divide up what AI is

good and bad at.

The easiest problem is clear goals in a predictable environment.

That’s anything from a very simple environment (one lug nut, where
you don’t even need AI) to a more complicated, but predictable one (a
camera looking at an assembly line, where it knows a car will show up
soon and it has to spot the wheels). We’ve been good at automating this
for several years.

A harder problem is clear goals in an unpredictable environment.

Driving a car is a good example of this: the goals (get from point A to
point B safely and at a reasonable speed) are straightforward to
describe, but the environment can contain arbitrarily many surprises.
AI has only developed to the point where these problems can really be

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attacked in the past few years, which is why we’re now attacking
problems like self-driving cars or self-�ying airplanes.

Another kind of hard problem is indirect goals in a predictable

environment. These are problems where the environment makes
sense, but the relationship between your actions and these goals is very
distant—like playing games. This is another �eld where we’ve made
tremendous progress in the recent past, with AI’s able to do previously-
unimaginable things like winning at Go.

Winning at board games isn’t very useful in its own right, but it opens
up the path to indirect goals in an unpredictable environment, like
planning your �nancial portfolio. This is a harder problem, and we
haven’t yet made major inroads on it, but I would expect us to get good
at these over the next decade.

And �nally you have the hardest case, of unde�ned goals. These can’t
be solved by AI at all; you can’t train the system if you can’t tell it what
you want it to do. Writing a novel might be an example of this, since
there isn’t a clear answer to what makes something a “good novel.” On
the other hand, there are speci�c parts of that problem where goals
could be de�ned—for example, “write a novel which will sell well if
marketed as horror.”

Whether this is a good or bad use of AI is left to the reader’s wisdom.

3 -

Ethics and the Real World

So now we can start to look at the meat of our question: what do real-
world hard questions look like, ones where AI working or failing could
make major di�erences in people’s lives? And what kinds of questions
keep coming up?

I could easily �ll a bookshelf with discussions of this; there’s no way to

look at every interesting problem in this �eld, or even at most of them.
But I’ll give you six examples which I’ve found have helped me think
about a lot of other problems, in turn—not in that they gave me the
right answers, but in that they helped me ask the right questions.

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1. The Passenger and the Pedestrian

A self-driving car is crossing a narrow bridge, when a child suddenly darts
out in front of it. It’s too late to stop; all the car can do is go forward,
striking the child, or swerve, sending itself and its passenger into the
rushing river below. What should it do?

I’m starting with this problem because it’s been discussed a lot in public
in the past few years, and the discussion has often been remarkably
intelligent, and shows o� the kinds of question we really need to ask.

First of all, there’s a big caveat to this entire question: this problem
matters very little in practice, because the whole point of self-driving
cars is that they don’t get into this situation in the �rst place. Children
rarely appear out of nowhere; mostly when that happens, either the
driver was going too fast for their own re�exes to handle a child
jumping out from behind an obstruction they could see, or the driver
was distracted and for some reason didn’t notice the chid until too late.
These are both exactly the sorts of things that an automatic driver has
no problem with: looking at all the signals around at once, for hours on
end, without getting bored or distracted. A situation like this one would
become vanishingly rare, and that’s where the lives saved come from.

But “almost never” isn’t the same thing as “never,” and we have to
accept that sometimes this will happen. When it does, what should the
car do? Should it prioritize the life of its passengers, or of pedestrians?

This isn’t a technology question: it’s a policy question, and in the form
above, it’s been boiled down to its simple core. We could agree on
either answer (or any combination) as a society, and we can program
the cars to do that. If we don’t like the answer, we can change it.

There’s one big way in which this is di�erent from the world we inhabit
today. If you ask people what they would do in this situation, they’ll
give a wide variety of answers, and caveat them with all sorts of “it
depends”es. The fact is that we don’t want to have to make this
decision, and we certainly don’t want to publicly admit if our decision
is to protect ourselves over the child. When people actually are in such
situations, their responses end up all over the map.

Culturally, we have an answer for this: in the heat of the moment, in

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that split-second between when you see oncoming disaster and when it
happens, we recognize that we can’t make rational decisions. We will
end up both holding the driver accountable for their decision, and
recognizing it as inevitable, no matter what they decide. (Although we
might hold them much more accountable for decisions they made
before that �nal split-second, like speeding or driving drunk.)

With a self-driving car, we don’t have that option; the programming

literally has a space in it where it’s asking us now, years before the
accident happens: “When this happens, what should I do? How should
I weight the risk to the passenger against the risk to the pedestrian?”

And it will do what we tell it to. The task of programming a computer

requires brutal honesty about what we want it to decide. When these
decisions a�ect society as a whole, as they do in this case, that means
that as a society, we are faced with similarly hard choices.

2. Polite �ctions
Machine-learned models have a very nasty habit: they will learn what
the data shows them, and then tell you what they’ve learned. They
obstinately refuse to learn “the world as we wish it were,” or “the world
as we like to claim it is,” unless we explicitly explain to them what that
is—even if we like to pretend that we’re doing no such thing.

In mid-2016, high school student Kabir Alli tried doing Google image
searches for “three white teenagers” and “three black teenagers.” The
results were even worse than you’d expect.

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Kabir Alli’s (in)famous results

“Three white teenagers” turned up stock photography of attractive,

athletic teens; “three black teenagers” turned up mug shots, from news
stories about three black teenagers being arrested. (Nowadays, either
search mostly turns up news stories about this event)

What happened here wasn’t a bias in Google’s algorithms: it was a bias

in the underlying data. This particular bias was a combination of
“invisible whiteness” and media bias in reporting: if three white
teenagers are arrested for a crime, not only are news media much less
likely to show their mug shots, but they’re less likely to refer to them as
“white teenagers.” In fact, nearly the only time groups of teenagers
were explicitly labeled as being “white” was in stock photography
catalogues. But if three black teenagers are arrested, you can count on
that phrase showing up a lot in the press coverage.

Many people were shocked by these results, because they seemed so at

odds with our national idea of being a “post-racial” society. (Remember
that this was in mid-2016) But the underlying data was very clear:
when people said “three black teenagers” in media with high-quality
images, they were almost always talking about them as criminals, and
when they talked about “three white teenagers,” they were almost
always advertising stock photography.

The fact is that these biases do exist in our society, and they’re re�ected
in nearly any piece of data you look at. In the United States, it’s a good
bet that if your data doesn’t show a racial skew of some sort, you’ve
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done something wrong. If you try to manually “ignore race” by not

letting race be an input to your model, it comes in through the back
door: for example, someone’s zip code and income predict their race
with great precision. An ML model which sees those but not race, and
which is asked to predict something which actually is tied to race in our
society, will quickly �gure that out as its “best rule.”

AI models hold a mirror up to us; they don’t understand when we really

don’t want honesty. They will only tell us polite �ctions if we tell them
how to lie to us ahead of time.

This kind of honesty can force you to be very explicit. A good recent
example was in a technical paper about “word debiasing.” This was
about a very popular ML model called word2vec which learned various
relationships between the meanings of English words—for example,
that “king is to man, as queen is to woman.” The authors of this paper
found that it contained quite a few examples of social bias: for
example, it would also say that “computer programmer is to man, as
homemaker is to woman.” The paper is about a technique they came up
with for eliminating that bias.

What isn’t obvious to the casual reader of this paper—including many

of the people who wrote news articles about it—is that there’s no
automatic way to eliminate bias. Their procedure was quite reasonable:
�rst, they analyzed the word2vec model to �nd pairs of words which
were sharply split along the he/she axis. Next, they asked a bunch of
humans to identify which of those pairs represented meaningful splits
(e.g., “boy is to man as girl is to woman”) and which represented social
biases. Finally, they applied a mathematical technique to subtract o�
the biases from the model as a whole, leaving behind an improved

This is all good work, but it’s important to recognize that the key step in
this—of identifying which male/female splits should be removed—
was a human decision, not an automatic process. It required people to
literally articulate which splits they thought were natural and which
ones weren’t. Moreover, there’s a reason the original model derived
those splits; it came from analysis of millions of written texts from all
over the world. The original word2vec model accurately captured
people’s biases; the cleaned model accurately captured the raters’

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preference about which of these biases should be removed.

The risk which this highlights is the “naturalistic fallacy,” what happens
when we confuse what is with what ought to be. The original model is
appropriate if we want to use it to study people’s perceptions and
behavior; the modi�ed model is appropriate if we want to use it to
generate new behavior and communicate some intent to others. It
would be wrong to say that the modi�ed model more accurately
re�ects what the world is; it would be just as wrong to say that because
the world is some way, it also ought to be that way. After all, the
purpose of any model—AI or mental—is to make decisions. Decisions
and actions are entirely about what we wish the world to be like; if they
weren’t, we would never do anything at all.

3. The Gorilla Incident

In July of 2015, when I was technical leader for Google’s social e�orts
(including photos), I received an urgent message from a colleague at
Google: our photo indexing system had publicly described a picture of
a Black man and his friend as “gorillas,” and he was—with good

My immediate response, after swearing loudly, was to page the team

and publicly respond that this was not something we considered to be
okay. The team sprung into action and disabled the o�ending
characterization, as well as several other potentially risky ones, until
they could solve the underlying issue.

Many people suspected that this issue was the same one as the one that
caused HP’s face-tracking webcams to not work on Black people six
years earlier: that the training data for “faces” had been composed
exclusively of white people. This was the �rst thing we suspected as
well, but it we quickly crossed it o� the list: the training data included a
wide range of people of all races and colors.

What actually happened was the intersection of three subtle problems.

The �rst problem was that face recognition is hard. Di�erent people
look so vividly di�erent to us precisely because a tremendous fraction
of our brain matter is dedicated to nothing but recognizing people’s
faces; we’ve spent millions of years evolving tools for nothing else. But
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if you compare how di�erent two di�erent faces are in to how di�erent,
say, two di�erent chairs are, you’ll see that faces are tremendously
more similar than you would guess—even across species.

In fact, we discovered that this bug was far from isolated: the system
was also prone to misidentifying white faces as dogs and seals.

And this goes to the second problem, which is the real heart of the
matter: ML systems are very smart in their domain, but know nothing
at all about the broader world, unless they were taught it. And when
trying to think about all the ways in which di�erent pictures could be
identi�ed as di�erent objects—this AI isn’t just about faces— nobody
thought to explain to it the long history of Black people being
dehumanized by being compared to apes. That context is what made
this error so serious and harmful, while misidentifying someone’s
toddler as a seal would just be funny.

There’s no simple answer to this question. When dealing with problems

involving humans, the cost of errors is typically tied in with
tremendously subtle cultural issues. It’s not so much that it’s hard to
explain them as that it’s hard to think of them in advance: quickly, list
for me the top cultural sensitivities that might show up around pictures
of arms!

This problem doesn’t just manifest in AI: it also manifests when people
are asked to make value judgments across cultures. One particular
challenge for this is when detecting harassment and abuse online. Such
questions are almost entirely handled by humans, rather than AI’s,
because it’s extremely di�cult to set down rules that even humans can
use to judge these things. I spent a year and a half developing such
rules at Google, and consider it to be one of the greatest intellectual
challenges I’ve ever faced. To give a very simple example: people often
say “well, an obvious rule is that if you say n****r, that’s bad.” I
challenge you to apply that rule to the di�erent meanings of the word
in (1) nearly any of Jay-Z’s songs, (2) Langston Hughes’ poem “Christ
in Alabama,” (3) that routine by Chris Rock, (4) that same routine if he
had performed it in front of a white audience, (5) and that same
routine if Ted Nugent had performed it, verbatim, to one of his
audiences, and come up with a coherent explanation of what’s going
on. It’s possible; it’s far from simple. And those are just �ve examples

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involving published, edited, creative works, not even normal


Even with teams of people coming up with rules, and humans, not AI’s,
enforcing them, cultural barriers are a huge problem. A reviewer in
India won’t necessarily have the cultural context around the meaning
of a racial slur in America, nor would one in America have cultural
context for one in India. But the number of cultures around the world is
huge: how do you express these ideas in a way that anyone can learn

The lesson is this: often the most dangerous risks in a system come, not
from problems within the system, but from unexpected ways that the
system can interact with the broader world. We don’t yet have a good
way to manage this.

(The third problem in the Gorilla Incident—for those of you who are
interested—is a problem of racism in photography. Since the �rst days
of commercial �lm, the standards for color and image calibration have
included things like “Shirley Cards,” pictures of standardized models.
These models were exclusively white until the 1970’s—when furniture
manufacturers complained that �lm couldn’t accurately capture the
brown tones of dark wood! Even though modern color calibration
standards are more diverse, our standards for what constitute “good
images” still overwhelmingly favor white faces rather than black ones.
As a result, amateur pictures of white people with cell phone cameras
turn out reasonably well, but amateur pictures of black people—
especially dark-skinned people—often come out underexposed. Faces
are reduced to vague blobs of brown with eyes and sometimes a mouth,
which unsurprisingly are hard for image recognition algorithms to
make much sense of. Photography director Ava Berkofsky recently gave
an excellent interview on how to light and photograph Black faces

4. Unfortunately, the AI will do what you tell it

“The computer has it in for me / I wish that they would sell it. / It never
does just what I want / but only what I tell it.”—Anonymous

One important use of AI is to help humans make better decisions: not to

directly operate some actuator, but to tell a person what it
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recommends, and so better-equip them to make a good choice. This is

most valuable when the choices have high stakes, but the factors which
really a�ect long-term outcomes aren’t immediately obvious to the
humans in the �eld. In fact, absent clearly useful information, humans
may easily act on their unconscious biases, rather than on real data.
That’s why many courts started to use automated “risk assessments” as
part of their sentencing guidelines.

Modern risk assessments are ML models, tasked with predicting the

likelihood of a person committing another crime in the future. Trained
on the full corpus of an area’s court history, it can form a surprisingly
good picture of who is and isn’t a risk.

If you’ve been reading carefully so far, you may have spotted a few ways
this could go horribly, terribly, wrong. And that’s exactly what
happened across the country, as revealed by a 2016 ProPublica exposé.

The designers of the COMPAS system, the one used by Broward

County, Florida, followed best practices. They made sure their training
data hadn’t been arti�cially biased by group, for example making sure
there was equal training data about people of all races. They took care
to ensure that race was not one of the input features that their model
had access to. There was only one problem: their model didn’t predict
what they thought it was predicting.

The question that a sentencing risk assessment model ought to be

asking is something like, “what is the probability that this person will
commit a serious crime in the future, as a function of the sentence you
give them now?” That would take into account both the person and the
e�ect of the sentence itself on their future life: will it imprison them
forever? Release them with no chance to get a straight job?

It was trained to answer, “who is more likely to be

convicted,” and then asked “who is more likely to
commit a crime,” without anyone paying attention
to the fact that these are two entirely di�erent
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But we don’t have a magic light that goes o� every time someone
commits a crime, and we certainly don’t have training examples where
the same person was given two di�erent sentences at once and turned
out two di�erent ways. So the COMPAS model was trained on a proxy
for the real, unobtainable data: given the information we know about a
person at the time of sentencing, what is the probability that this
person will be convicted of a crime? Or phrased as a comparison
between two people, “Which of these two people is most likely to be
convicted of a crime in the future?”

If you know anything at all about the politics of the United States, you
can answer that question immediately: “The Black one!” Black people
are tremendously more likely to be stopped, arrested, convicted, and
given long sentences for identical crimes than white people, so an ML
model which looked at the data and, ignoring absolutely everything
else, always predicted that a Black defendant is more likely to be
convicted of another crime in the future, would in fact be predicting
quite accurately.

But what the model was being trained for wasn’t what the model was
being used for. It was trained to answer, “who is more likely to be
convicted,” and then asked “who is more likely to commit a crime,”
without anyone paying attention to the fact that these are two entirely
di�erent questions.

(COMPAS’ not using race as an explicit input made no di�erence:

housing is very segregated in much of the US, very much so in Broward
County, and so knowing somebody’s address is as good as knowing
their race.)

There are obviously many problems at play here. One is that the courts
took the AI model far too seriously, using it as a direct factor in
sentencing decisions, skipping human judgment, with far more
con�dence than any model should warrant. (A good rule of thumb,
also recently encoded into EU law, is that decisions with serious
consequences of people should be sanity-checked by a human—and
that there should be a human override mechanism available.) Another
problem, of course, is the underlying systemic racism which this
exposed: the fact that Black people are more likely to be arrested and
convicted of the same crimes.

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But there’s an issue speci�c to ML here, and it’s one that bears
attention: there is often a di�erence between the quantity you want to
measure, and the one you can measure. When these di�er, your ML
model will become good at predicting the quantity you measured, not
the quantity for which it was meant to be a proxy. You need to very
carefully reason about the ways in which these are similar and di�er
before trusting your model.

5. Man is a rationalizing animal

There is a new buzzword afoot in the discussion of machine learning:
the “right to explanation.” The idea is that, if ML is being used to make
decisions of any signi�cance at all, people have a right to understand
how those decisions were made.

Intuitively, this seems obvious and valuable—yet when this is

mentioned around ML professionals, their faces turn colors and they
try to explain that what’s requested is physically impossible. Why is

First, we should understand why it’s hard to do this; second, and more
importantly, we should understand why we expect it to be easy to do,
and why this expectation is wrong. And third, we can look at what we
can actually do.

Earlier, I described an ML model as containing between hundreds and

millions of dials. This doesn’t do justice to the complexity of real
models. For example, modern ML-based language translation systems
take as their input one letter at a time. That means that the model has
to express conditions about the state of its understanding of a text after
reading however many letters, and how each successive next letter
might a�ect its interpretation of meaning. (And it works; with some
language pairs like English and Spanish, it performs as well as

For any situation the model encounters, the only “explanation” it has of
what it’s doing is “well, the following thousand variables were in these
states, and then I saw the letter ‘c,’ and I know that this should change
the probability of the user talking about a dog according to the
following polynomial…”

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This isn’t just incomprehensible to you: it’s also incomprehensible to

ML researchers. Debugging ML systems is one of the hardest problems
in the �eld, since examining the individual state of the variables at any
given time tells you approximately as much about the model as
measuring a human’s neural potentials will tell you about what they
had for dinner.

And yet—this is coming to the second part—we always feel that we

can explain our own decisions, and it’s this kind of explanation that
people (especially regulators) keep expecting. “I set the interest rate for
this mortgage at 7.25% because of their median FICO score,” they
expect it to say, “had their FICO score from Experian been 35 points
higher, the rate would have dropped to 7.15%.” Or perhaps, “I
recommended we hire this person because of the clarity with which
they explained machine learning during our interview.”

But there’s a dark secret which everyone in cognitive or behavioral

psychology knows: All of these explanations are nonsense. Our
decisions about whether we like someone or not are set within the �rst
few seconds of conversation, and can be in�uenced by something as
seemingly random as whether they were holding a hot or cold drink
before shaking your hand. Unconscious biases pervade our thinking,
and can be measured, even though we aren’t aware of them. Cognitive
biases are one of the largest (and IMO most interesting) branches of
psychology research today.

What people are good at, it turns out, isn’t explaining how they made
decisions: it’s coming up with a reasonable-sounding explanation for
their decision after the fact. Sometimes this is perfectly innocent: for
example, we identify some fact which was salient for us in the decision-
making process (“I liked the color of the car”) and focus on that, while
ignoring things which may have been important to us but were
invisible. (“My stepfather had a hatchback. I hated him.”) It can also
have deeper motivations: to resolve cognitive dissonance by explaining
how we did or didn’t want something anyway (“the grapes were
probably sour, anyway”), or to avoid thinking too closely about
something we may not want to admit. (“The �rst candidate sounded
just like I did when I graduated. That woman was good, but she felt
di�erent… she wouldn’t �t as well working with me.”)

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If we expect ML systems to provide actual explanations for their

decisions, we will have as much trouble as if we asked humans to
explain the actual basis for their own decisions: they don’t know any
more than we do.

But when we ask for explanations, what we’re really often interested in
is which facts were both salient (in that changing them would have
changed the outcome materially) and mutable (in that changes to them
are worth discussing). For example, “you were shown this job posting;
had you lived ten miles west, you would have seen this one instead”
may be interesting in some context, but “you were shown this job
posting; had you been an emu, you would instead have been shown a
container of mulga seeds” is not.

This information is particularly useful when it’s also provided as an axis

for providing feedback to ML systems: for example, by showing people
a few salient and mutable items, they may o�er corrections to those
items, and provide updated data.

Mathematical techniques for producing this kind of explanation are in

active development, but you should be aware that there are nontrivial
challenges in them. For example, most of these techniques are based on
building a second “explanatory” ML model which is less accurate, only
useful for inputs which are small variations on some given input (your
own), more comprehensible, but based on entirely di�erent principles
than the “main” ML model being described. (This is because only a few
kinds of ML model, like decision trees, are at all comprehensible by
people, while the models most useful in many real applications, like
neural nets, decidedly are not.) This means that if you try to give the
system feedback saying “no, change this variable!” in terms of the
explanatory model, there may be no obvious way to translate that into
inputs for the main model at all. Yet if you give people an explanation
tool, they’ll also demand the right to change it in the same language—
reasonably, but not feasibly.

Humans deal with this by having an extremely general intelligence in

their brains, which can handle all sorts of concepts. You can tell it that
it should be careful with its image recognition when it touches on racial
history, because the same system can understand both of those
concepts. We are not yet anywhere close to being able to do that in AI’s.

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6. AI is, ultimately, a tool

It’s hard to discuss AI ethics without bringing up everybody’s favorite
example: arti�cially intelligent killer drones. These aircraft �y high in
the sky, guided only by a computer which helps them achieve their
mission of killing enemy insurgents while preserving civilian life…
except when they decide that the mission calls for some “collateral
damage,” as the euphemism goes.

People are rightly terri�ed of such devices, and would be even more
terri�ed if they heard more of the stories of people who already live
under the perpetual threat of death coming suddenly out of a clear sky.

AI is part of this conversation, but it’s less central to it than we think.

Large drones di�er from manned aircraft in that their pilots can be
thousands of miles away, out of harm’s way. Improvements in autopilot
AI’s mean that a single drone operator could soon �y not one aircraft,
but a small �ight of them. Ultimately, large �eets of drones could be
entirely self-piloting 99% of the time, calling in a human only when
they needed to make an important decision. This would open up the
possibility of much larger �eets of drones, or drone air forces at much
lower cost—democratizing the power to bomb people from the sky.

In another version of this story, humans might be taken entirely out of

the “kill chain”—the decision process about whether to �re a weapon.
(Most Western armies have made quite clear that they have no
intention of doing any such thing, because it would be obviously
stupid. But an army in extremis may easily do so, if nothing else for the
terror it could create—unknown numbers of aircraft �ying around,
killing at will—and we may expect far more armies to have drones in
the future.) Now we might ask, who is morally responsible for a killing
decided on entirely by a robot?

The question is both simpler and more complicated than we at �rst

imagine. If someone hits another person over the head with a rock, we
blame the person, not the rock. If they throw a spear, even though the
spear is “under its own power” for some period of �ight, we would
never think of blaming it. Even if they construct a complex deathtrap,
Indiana Jones-style, the volitional act is the human’s. This question
only becomes ambiguous to the extent that the intermediate actor can
decide on their own.

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The simplicity comes because this question is far from new. Much of the
point of military discipline is to create a �ghting force which does not
try to think too autonomously during battle. In countries whose
militaries are descended from European systems, the role of enlisted
and noncommissioned o�cers is to execute on plans; the role of
commissioned o�cers is to decide on which plans to execute. Thus, in
theory, the decision responsibility is entirely on the shoulders of the
o�cers, and the clear demarcation of areas of responsibility between
o�cers based on rank, area of command, and so on, determines who is
ultimately responsible for any given order.

While in practice, this is often considerably more fuzzy, the principles

are ones we’ve understood for millennia, and AI’s add nothing new to
the picture. Even at their greatest decision-making capability and
autonomy, they would still �t into this discussion—and we’re decades
away from them actually having enough autonomy for the conversation
to even start to approach the levels we have long had established for
these discussions around people.

Perhaps this is the last important lesson of the ethics of AI: many of the
problems we face with AI are simply the problems we have faced in the
past, brought to the fore by some change in technology. It’s often
valuable to look for similar problems in our existing world, to help us
understand how we might approach seemingly new ones.

4 -

Where do we go from here?

There are many other problems that we could discuss—many of which
are very urgent for us as a society right now. But I hope that the
examples and explanations above have given you some context for
understanding the kinds of ways in which things can go right and
wrong, and where many of the ethical risks in AI systems come from.

These are rarely new problems; rather, the formal process of explaining
our desires to a computer—the ultimate case of someone with no
cultural context or ability to infer what we don’t say—forces us to be
explicit in ways we generally aren’t used to. Whether this involves
making a life-or-death decision years ahead of time, rather than
delaying it until the heat of the moment, or whether it involves taking a
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long, hard look at the way our society actually is, and being very
explicit about which parts of that we want to keep and which parts we
want to change, AI pushes us outside of our comfort zone of polite
�ctions and into a world where we have to discuss things very

Every one of these problems existed long before AI; AI just made us talk
about them in a new way. That might not be easy, but the honesty it
forces on us may be the most valuable gift our new technology can give

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