High-Stakes AI Decisions Need to Be Automatically Audited

Today’s AI systems make weighty decisions regarding loans, medical diagnoses, parole, and more. They’re also opaque systems, which makes them susceptible to bias. In the absence of transparency, we will never know why a 41-year-old white male and an 18-year-old black woman who commit similar crimes are assessed as “low risk” versus “high risk” by AI software.



Oren Etzioni is CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and a professor in the Allen School of Computer Science at the University of Washington. Tianhui Michael Li is founder and president of Pragmatic Data, a data science and AI training company. He formerly headed monetization data science at Foursquare and has worked at Google, Andreessen Horowitz, J.P. Morgan, and D.E. Shaw.

For both business and technical reasons, automatically generated, high-fidelity explanations of most AI decisions are not currently possible. That’s why we should be pushing for the external audit of AI [...]  read more

What Happens When Reproductive Tech Like IVF Goes Awry?

It sounds like the setup to a bad joke: Three couples walk into a fertility clinic. But the punch line—what happened to those families at one Los Angeles medical facility in August 2018—is no laughing matter. The embryos from two couples hoping to conceive were mistakenly implanted into a third patient. That third woman and her husband, both of Korean descent, suspected that something was amiss when their two newborns didn’t look anything like them.

DNA testing confirmed that Baby A and Baby B (as court documents called them) weren’t genetically related to either of the birth parents, or to each other—they were related to two other couples who had been seeking fertility treatments at the same clinic. The birth parents were forced to give up their “twins” to their respective genetic parents.

The other two couples, while granted the surprise of children they thought they’d never have, missed out on the experience of pregnancy and early bonding. One of the [...]  read more

The Toxic Potential of YouTube’s Feedback Loop

From 2010 to 2011, I worked on YouTube’s artificial intelligence recommendation engine—the algorithm that directs what you see next based on your previous viewing habits and searches. One of my main tasks was to increase the amount of time people spent on YouTube. At the time, this pursuit seemed harmless. But nearly a decade later, I can see that our work had unintended—but not unpredictable—consequences. In some cases, the AI went terribly wrong.

Artificial intelligence controls a large part of how we consume information today. In YouTube’s case, users spend 700,000,000 hours each day watching videos recommended by the algorithm. Likewise, the recommendation engine for Facebook’s news feed drives around 950,000,000 hours of watch time per day.

In February, a YouTube user named Matt Watson found that the site’s recommendation algorithm was making it easier for pedophiles to connect and share child porn in the comments sections of certain videos. The discovery was horrifying for numerous reasons. Not only was YouTube monetizing these videos, its recommendation algorithm was actively pushing thousands of users toward suggestive videos of children.

When the news broke, Disney and Nestlé pulled their ads off the platform. YouTube removed thousands of videos and blocked commenting capabilities on many more.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first scandal to strike YouTube in recent years. The platform has promoted terrorist [...]  read more

How to Protect Our Kids’ Data and Privacy

YouTube is currently under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission following complaints that the platform improperly collected data from young users. It’s unclear how much data this might be, but there’s reason to believe it could be a lot. For many kids, YouTube has replaced television; depending on how parents use online platforms, children could begin to amass data even before birth.



Sophie Allaert is a French attorney at law; Mélina Cardinal-Bradette works in human rights law; and Elif Sert is a research affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. They are graduates of the UC Berkeley School of Law.

Eighty-one percent of the world’s children and 92 percent of US children now have an online presence before they turn 2. In addition, 95 percent of US teens report having (or having access to) a smartphone. And 45 percent of those teens are online on a near-constant basis, an average of nine hours each day.

Some preeminent [...]  read more

NASA Needs to Out-Crazy Elon Musk

On July 20, I will celebrate the 50th anniversary of NASA’s moon landing with my mother, an astronomer at Princeton University and the former chief scientist of NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute. Our family’s ties to NASA run deep. My father, also an astronomer, helped start the Hubble Space Telescope program and protected it over the years from congressional budget-cutters. He lived long enough to help ensure funding for the final Hubble service mission, STS-125, which has kept the telescope going to this day, but not long enough to see that mission.


p class=”paywall”>As a tribute to my father, the astronaut John Grunsfeld brought my parents’ weddings rings with him on STS-125. To this day, my mother wears those fused wedding rings—which traveled 5 million miles in space, orbiting Earth 197 times—on a light gold chain around her neck.

I am, by heritage and personal commitment, a friend of NASA. So it is painful to witness the agency in decline.

 [...]  read more

Greed Is to Blame for the Radicalization of YouTube and Facebook

Last week, Reddit quarantined “r/The_Donald,” a pro-Trump message board, after the company determined that the subgroup had encouraged and threatened violence. Likewise, Twitter is signaling that it will flag—but not remove—posts by government officials who violate its rules. As with YouTube’s demonetization (rather than deletion) of anti-gay videos, these are welcome, but insufficient measures.


p class=”paywall”>Until recently, social media platforms could feign ignorance about the scope and impact of harmful content on their sites. Now bigotry and conspiracy theorizing, which could once be dismissed as the rants of outliers, have hijacked mainstream discourse—including on media produced by President Trump and his allies. As such posts have become some of the most popular, moneymaking content being viewed and shared, social media executives simply cannot excuse their indifference.

Growing up, your parents most likely diverted your [...]  read more

How the iPhone Helped Save the Planet

The more than 2 billion iPhones sold since Apple first launched it exactly 12 years ago have done a lot of good for their owners, but it seems like they’ve been bad news for the planet. Building that many devices requires a lot of metal, plastic, glass, and other natural resources. Some of them, including cobalt, are mined by hand, reportedly sometimes by children, in desperately poor countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Others, like rare earth elements, are in comparatively short supply. A project of the European Chemical Society found a “serious threat” that humanity could run out of many of these elements within a century.


p class=”paywall”>All those phones also require a lot of electricity, most of which is generated by burning fossil fuels around the world. By one estimate, a data-hungry user’s [...]  read more

A New Approach to Treat Mental Illness: Electrical Engineering

Brain disorders impact more than 25 percent of Americans, and such disorders are projected to cost more than one trillion dollars annually by 2050. In response, the federal government launched the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Nanotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative in 2013 to uncover how the human brain works as an electrical machine. This group of researchers has been tasked with answering the following question: What if mental illness could be treated with electrical engineering?



Kafui Dzirasa is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, neurobiology, biomedical engineering, and neurosurgery at Duke University. He is a member of the NIH BRAIN 2.0 workgroup.

While the human brain contains nearly 100 billion cells that create and process electricity, human brain augmentation has largely been limited to drugs that target brain chemicals. By discovering [...]  read more

I Scraped Millions of Venmo Payments. Your Data Is at Risk

Like many people, I use Venmo to pay for stuff: to split the check at dinner, to send my roommate my portion of the utility bills each month, to reimburse friends for concert tickets. It’s a useful app for sending and receiving money, regardless of who you bank with.



Dan Salmon is a masters graduate from Minnesota State University who specializes in information security.

Last summer, after paying my portion of the electric bill via Venmo, I started to wonder if there were holes I could poke in the app. I was a grad student studying information security at the time, and I thought I might make some extra cash. Venmo is owned by PayPal, which has a public bug bounty program—that is, it pays hackers to report security vulnerabilities in its products.

After proxying my phone traffic through my laptop, I watched the network traffic as I navigated through the app. I noticed that when you open the Venmo home page, you’re shown a live feed of transactions being made by [...]  read more

Planet-Saving Robots? Robert Downey Jr. Is on to Something

Earlier this month, Robert Downey Jr. announced that he was forming a new organization, the Footprint Coalition, to apply technology to “clean up” the planet.  The coalition’s website is still scant on details, just a teaser for news to come. But regardless of how Downey Jr.’s grand plan shapes up, the idea is notable for its premise: New tools can and should be developed to understand and protect the natural world. I, for one, welcome these new conservation technologists.


p class=”paywall”>The moment demands it. There is a growing sense, which I first heard articulated by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, that writing scientific papers about wildlife and wild places feels like writing the obituary for the planet. A recent  [...]  read more