Aspen in the August of Artificial Intelligence

October 2, 2017  • Joy Buolamwini

Editor’s note: This blog was originally posted on Medium.

In early August, I arrived at the Aspen Institute anticipating stimulating discussions about artificial intelligence with distinguished scholars, business leaders, and long-serving civil servants. I had the great fortune of being selected as a guest scholar to attend the Institute’s second annual Roundtable on Artificial Intelligence. The gathering started with a dinner where I learned those donning titles like Director of the National Science Foundation and Executive Director of Ethical Considerations in AI for IEEE found sustenance through rock climbing and playing blues harmonica.

John Havens joins Blues Band for Impromptu Harp Solo

Artificial intelligence as it stands today also carries a series of impressive titles that promise prudence and organizational affiliations that lend credibility. Enterprising companies claim their AI enabled services put to rest unreliable decisions made by fallible humans. Research labs boast of ever increasing accuracy rates on tasks like translation and facial recognition that are no longer delegated to humans alone. However, the benefits of artificial intelligence must be continuously weighed against its costs. When we look beyond the titles and take time to get to know more about artificial intelligence, we soon discover it too has a multitude of identities, implications, and interpretations.

During the roundtable we interrogated the implications of artificial intelligence in regards to personal autonomy. What does it mean for our humanity when decisions from the profound to the mundane are automated? If brain machine interfaces augment bodies and alter our evolution which individuals will be excluded or can opt out? In between sessions, I received valuable career advice, explored future collaborations, and connected to the wider Aspen community.

I left Aspen with more clarity than I expected and fewer answers than I had hoped. Answering the challenges to personal autonomy and threats to equality posed by artificial intelligence is an ongoing conversation that must include diverse voices. I am grateful for not only having a seat at this roundtable but for also having a voice that was heard. I look forward to using my Algorithmic Justice League initiative to broaden participation in shaping the future of artificial intelligence. 

Expanding and Sharing Opportunity

I want to leave with one last reflection. I am often asked by other graduate students how I find opportunities for professional development. In this case, the opportunity found me. My colleague Dr. J. Nathan Matias shared an email encouraging me to apply.

“Hi Joy, I checked, and you’re eligible for this Guest Scholar program for the Aspen roundtable on artificial intelligence. May 1st deadline.” – April 2017

At the time, I learned there was only one spot available for this roundtable. I did not know if he would also apply, nor did I know he would also be selected. Attending the roundtable with Nathan as a result of his selflessness reminded me that seemingly irrational decisions can lead to unanticipated rewards. Our humanity is not defined by optimizing for individual outcomes but instead sharing collective experiences. The roundtable of opportunity can expand.

Joy Buolamwini is the 2017 Aspen Institute Roundtable on Artificial Intelligence Guest Scholar. The Communications and Society Program sponsors the guest scholarship initiative to give students of color the opportunity to foster their professional and academic career in the field of media and technology policy.

Buolamwini is currently a Ph.D. student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the view of the Aspen Institute.