How did you become a physicist interested in AI and its
Nord: My Ph.d is
in cosmology, and when I moved to Fermilab in 2012, I moved into
the subfield of strong gravitational lensing.
note: Gravitational lenses are places in the night sky where
light from distant objects has been bent by the gravitational
field of heavy objects in the foreground, making the background
objects appear warped and larger.)
I spent a few
years doing strong lensing science in the traditional way, where
we would visually search through terabytes of images, through
thousands of candidates of these strong gravitational lenses,
because they're so weird, and no one had figured out a more
conventional algorithm to identify them.
Around 2015, I
got kind of sad at the prospect of only finding these things
with my eyes, so I started looking around and found
Here we are a
few years later - myself and a few other people popularized this
idea of using deep learning - and now it's the standard
way to find these objects.
unlikely to go back to using methods that aren't deep learning
to do galaxy recognition.
We got to this
point where we saw that deep learning is the thing, and really
quickly saw the potential impact of it across astronomy and the
every science now. That is a testament to the promise and peril
of this technology, with such a relatively simple tool.
Once you have
the pieces put together right, you can do a lot of different
things easily, without necessarily thinking through the
So what is deep learning? Why is it good and why is it bad?
Traditional mathematical models (like the F=ma of Newton's laws)
are built by humans to describe patterns in data:
We use our
current understanding of nature, also known as intuition,
to choose the pieces, the shape of these models.
This means that
they are often limited by what we know or can imagine about a
are also typically smaller and are less generally applicable for
On the other
hand, artificial intelligence models can be very large, with
many, many degrees of freedom, so they can be made very general
and able to describe lots of different data sets.
importantly, they are primarily sculpted by the data that they
are exposed to - AI models are shaped by the data with which
they are trained.
what goes into the training set, which is then limited again by
what we know or can imagine about that data. It's not a big jump
to see that if you don't have the right training data, you can
fall off the cliff really quickly.
The promise and
peril are highly related.
In the case of
AI, the promise is in the ability to describe data that humans
don't yet know how to describe with our 'intuitive' models.
perilously, the data sets used to train them incorporate our own
comes to AI recognizing galaxies, we're risking biased
measurements of the universe.
comes to AI recognizing human faces, when our data sets are
biased against Black and Brown faces for example, we risk
discrimination that prevents people from using services,
that intensifies surveillance apparatus, that jeopardizes
that we weigh and address these consequences before we imperil
people's lives with our research.
When did the light bulb go off in your head that AI could be
I gotta say that
it was with the
Machine Bias article from
ProPublica in 2016, where they discuss recidivism and
sentencing procedure in courts.
At the time of
that article, there was a closed-source algorithm used to make
recommendations for sentencing, and judges were allowed to use
There was no
public oversight of this algorithm, which ProPublica
found was biased against Black people; people could use
algorithms like this willy nilly without accountability.
I realized that
as a Black man, I had spent the last few years getting excited
about neural networks, then saw it quite clearly that these
applications that could harm me were already out there, already
being used, and we're already starting to become embedded in our
social structure through the criminal justice system.
Then I started
paying attention more and more.
countries across the world were using surveillance technology,
incorporating machine learning algorithms, for widespread
How did you react? What did you do?
I didn't want to
reinvent the wheel; I wanted to build a coalition.
looking into groups like
Fairness, Accountability and Transparency
in Machine Learning, plus
Black in AI, who is focused
on building communities of Black researchers in the AI field,
but who also has the unique awareness of the problem because we
are the people who are affected.
paying attention to the news and saw that Meredith Whittaker had
started a think tank to combat these things, and Joy
Buolamwini had helped found the
Algorithmic Justice League.
I brushed up on
what computer scientists were doing and started to look at what
physicists were doing, because that's my principal community.
It became clear
to folks like me and
Savannah Thais that
physicists needed to realize that they have a stake in this
game. We get government funding, and we tend to take a
fundamental approach to research.
If we bring
that approach to AI, then we have the potential to affect the
foundations of how these algorithms work and impact a broader
set of applications.
I asked myself
and my colleagues what our responsibility in developing these
algorithms was and in having some say in how they're being used
down the line.
How is it going so far?
going to write a white paper for
SNOWMASS, this high-energy
process determines the vision that guides the community for
about a decade.
I started to
identify individuals to work with, fellow physicists, and
experts who care about the issues, and develop a set of
arguments for why physicists from institutions, individuals, and
funding agencies should care deeply about these algorithms
they're building and implementing so quickly.
It's a piece
that's asking people to think about how much they are
considering the ethical implications of what they're doing.
a workshop at the University of
Chicago where we've begun discussing these issues, and at
Fermilab we've had some initial discussions.
But we don't
yet have the critical mass across the field to develop policy.
We can't do it ourselves as physicists; we don't have
backgrounds in social science or technology studies.
The right way
to do this is to bring physicists together from Fermilab and
other institutions with social scientists and ethicists and
science and technology studies folks and professionals, and
build something from there.
The key is
going to be through partnership with these other disciplines.
Why haven't we reached that critical mass yet?
I think we need to show people, as Angela Davis has said,
that our struggle is also their struggle.
That's why I'm
talking about coalition building. The thing that affects us also
One way to do
this is to clearly lay out the potential harm beyond just race
and ethnicity. Recently, there was this discussion of a paper
that used neural networks to try and speed up the selection of
candidates for Ph.D programs.
the algorithm on historical data.
So let me be
clear, they said here's a neural network, here's data on
applicants who were denied and accepted to universities. Those
applicants were chosen by faculty and people with biases.
It should be
obvious to anyone developing that algorithm that you're going to
bake in the biases in that context. I hope people will see these
things as problems and help build our coalition.
What is your vision for a future of ethical AI?
What if there were an agency or agencies for algorithmic
I could see
these existing at the local level, the national level, and the
institutional level. We can't predict all of the future uses of
technology, but we need to be asking questions at the beginning
of the processes, not as an afterthought.
An agency would
help ask these questions and still allow the science to get
done, but without endangering people's lives.
agencies, we need policies at various levels that make a clear
decision about how safe the algorithms have to be before they
are used on humans or other living things.
If I had my
druthers, these agencies and policies would be built by an
incredibly diverse group of people.
instances where a homogeneous group develops an app or
technology and didn't see the things that another group who's
not there would have seen.
We need people
across the spectrum of experience to participate in designing
policies for ethical AI.
What are your biggest fears about all of this?
My biggest fear is that people who already have access to
technology resources will continue to use them to subjugate
people who are already oppressed; Pratyusha Kalluri has
also advanced this idea of
we're seeing across the globe.
Sure, there are
cities that are trying to ban facial recognition, but unless we
have a broader coalition, unless we have more cities and
institutions willing to take on this thing directly, we're not
going to be able to keep this tool from exacerbating white
supremacy, racism, and misogyny that that already exists inside
If we don't
push policy that puts the lives of marginalized people first,
then they're going to continue being oppressed, and it's going
How has thinking about AI ethics affected your own research?
I have to question whether I want to do AI work and how I'm
going to do it; whether or not it's the right thing to do to
build a certain algorithm. That's something I have to keep
Before, it was
like, how fast can I discover new things and build technology
that can help the world learn something? Now there's a
significant piece of nuance to that.
Even the best
things for humanity could be used in some of the worst ways.
It's a fundamental rethinking of the order of operations when it
comes to my research.
I don't think
it's weird to think about safety first. We have OSHA and safety
groups at institutions who write down lists of things you have
to check off before you're allowed to take out a ladder, for
Why are we not
doing the same thing in AI?
A part of the
answer is obvious:
Not all of
us are people who experience the negative effects of these
But as one of
the few Black people at the institutions I work in, I'm aware of
it, I'm worried about it, and the scientific community needs to
appreciate that my safety matters too, and that my safety
concerns don't end when I walk out of work.
I'd like to re-emphasize that when you look at some of the
research that has come out, like vetting candidates for graduate
school, or when you look at the biases of the algorithms used in
criminal justice, these are problems being repeated over and
over again, with the same biases.
It doesn't take
a lot of investigation to see that bias enters these algorithms
very quickly. The people developing them should really know
needs to be more educational requirements for algorithm
developers to think about these issues before they have the
opportunity to unleash them on the world.
conversation needs to be raised to the level where individuals
and institutions consider these issues a priority. Once you're
there, you need people to see that this is an opportunity for
If we can get a
grassroots community to help an institution to take the lead on
this, it incentivizes a lot of people to start to take action.
people who have expertise in these areas need to be allowed to
speak their minds. We can't allow our institutions to quiet us
so we can't talk about the issues we're bringing up.
The fact that I
have experience as a Black man doing science in America, and the
fact that I do AI - that should be appreciated by institutions.
It gives them
an opportunity to have a unique perspective and take a unique
leadership position. I would be worried if individuals felt like
they couldn't speak their mind.
If we can't get
these issues out into the sunlight, how will we be able to build
out of the darkness?