Non-artificial intelligence confers about ethical issues in AI

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor

On April 9 and 10, the inaugural K&L Gates Conference on Ethics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) sought to bring to light some of the prevailing issues that surround artificial intelligence, including “effects on the workforce, social justice, fairness, privacy and many other sectors of society,” as the conference website states.

In 2016, a $10 million donation from Pittsburgh-headquartered international law firm K&L Gates funded the establishment of the K&L Gates Endowment for Ethics and Computational Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University.
The conference utilized this endowment to bring together some of the most important thought leaders, academics, industry heads, and others to discuss the boundless implications that come out of technological advances.

David Danks, philosophy department head and co-chair of the Steering Committee for the K&L Gates Endowment for Ethics & Computational Technologies explained in a university press release that “computational technologies, particularly AI and robotics, are often developed and deployed without enough public engagement or discussion about their impacts.” Because of this, the conference attempts to discuss issues that have a public stake, with the collective good in mind.

His efforts, along with those of Professor Illah Nourbakhsh of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, co-chair of the Steering Committee, and others on the committee, had the job to “identify key topics, develop a list of speakers, assemble the panels, and generally produce the content side of the conference,” Danks told The Tartan.

On this content side of the conference, speakers included 12 university-affiliated academics, members of the press Natasha Singer, a Technology Reporter at The New York Times and Tom Simonite, a Senior Writer for WIRED, as well as other influential players like Kerstin Vignard, the Deputy Director at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research, and Rasu Shrestha, the Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Vice President of UPMC, among many others.

The keynote speaker Eric Horvitz, the Technical Fellow & Director at Microsoft Research Labs, spoke of the potential dangers of AI to serve as a form of “tyranny” if given to a government or corporation that doesn’t have the best interest of its populace, and on the issue of an “adversarial attack on attention” given by AI applications online and in social media.

He also presented potential guidelines: that moving forward, we need to “collaborate widely” to create and utilize technology, and continue to “address costs, influences...and ethical and human rights challenges” of AI technologies to better understand intelligence and to ensure that technology isn’t used as a form of active oppression.

The last section of the panel discussion looked at the issue of "Agency and Empowerment" and how such concepts will be affected in an AI-rich world. Questions of how to use AI technologies effectively were raised, as Chad Jenkins, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, noted that it is a “vicious or virtuous cycle,” depending on who you ask, that turns students of AI into people who work for capital gains.

Other panelists discussed how to use AI for things that benefit society, how to make sure disenfranchisement isn’t furthered by technological growth, and other big questions: as Wendell Wallach, Senior Advisor at Yale University’s Hastings Center, put it, “what kind of world are we trying to create here.”

Other events of the conference included panels on the topics of "Equity of Access & Equity of Impact," "Trust," and "Policy and Governance," as well as a Professorship Spotlight Talk and sections to allow the inaugural K&L Gates Presidential Fellows, four Carnegie Mellon University doctoral students, to present their research.

The conference concluded with a speech by Jeffrey Sachs, economist, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and special advisor to the U.N., who spoke not on the technological aspects of AI technology, but the societal impact and economic side of things. He presented the claim that “work is not replaced when automation [occurs]” but continues, “what smart machines allow us to do is take a little time off.”

He added to this argument for increased leisure time critiques of America’s lack of wealth redistribution and presented policy recommendations including the aforementioned, as well as worker retraining, shared labor, promotion of human-machine complementarities, and intellectual property governance.

Conferences like this one serve three main roles, David Danks told The Tartan, that “they can serve to break down accidental barriers between different communities,” allowing interdisciplinary stakeholders to share ideas and connect, they can “help raise public awareness and engagement on issues around ethics & AI,” and can “promote CMU’s leadership in the area of ethics and AI/robotics.”

Despite having “over 40 faculty [members] at Carnegie Mellon University working in this broad area,” Danks explains, Carnegie Mellon University has “never before held a major multidisciplinary event such as this one.” The conference is the first of hopefully many future events that serve an important role in keeping this massively important issue discussed and out of the shadows.

If you were not able to attend the conference and have interest in the contents, the conference website is archival, containing all of the presentations from the conference, including the panel discussions, the keynote speech, and more. It is located at

The 2020 conference does not have a published, confirmed date, but is the next scheduled year for the K&L Gates conference according to the closing remarks of the 2018 conference. The conferences focus on subject matter that is sure to become only more impactful in our lives, so the goals of the conference and its importance will remain fitting in coming years.