The pioneering AI researcher and activist shares her personal journey in a new book, and explains her concerns about today’s AI systems. MIT Review
A particular concern, says Buolamwini, is the basis upon which we are building today’s sparkliest AI toys, so-called foundation models. Technologists envision these multifunctional models serving as a springboard for many other AI applications, from chatbots to automated movie-making. They are built by scraping masses of data from the internet, inevitably including copyrighted content and personal information. Many AI companies are now being sued by artists, music companies, and writers, who claim their intellectual property was taken without consent.
The current modus operandi of today’s AI companies is unethical—a form of “data colonialism,” Buolamwini says, with a “full disregard for consent.”
“What’s out there for the taking, if there aren’t laws—it’s just pillaged,” she says. As an author, Buolamwini says, she fully expects her book, her poems, her voice, and her op-eds—even her PhD dissertation—to be scraped into AI models.
Big risk, big reward
Buolamwini also describes an episode in which she went up against a tech “Goliath,” Amazon. Her PhD research about auditing facial recognition systems elicited public attacks from senior executives at the company, which was at the time—in 2019—competing with Microsoft for a $10 billion contract to provide AI services to the Pentagon. After research by Buolamwini and Inioluwa Deborah Raji, another AI researcher, showed that Amazon’s facial recognition technology was biased, an Amazon vice president, Matt Wood, claimed that her paper and press coverage about it were “misleading” and drew “false conclusions.”