BusinessDay: AI whistle-blowers must be protected as tech giants loom over society

By Johan Steyn, 19 October 2021

Published by Business Day:

A shy orphan boy, living with his uncle, receives supernatural powers. Thinking his newfound abilities are for his own benefit, Peter Parker refrains from stopping a robber, only to find that his beloved uncle was murdered by the criminal. Inspired by his uncle’s life to do good and adapting the motto “with great power comes great responsibility”, Peter becomes Spider-Man.

Long before the web-slinger entered our collective consciousness the idea of doing good with great power appeared in sacred writ: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.” After the French Revolution, at the National Convention, it was stressed that representatives “must contemplate that a great responsibility is the inseparable result of a great power”.

The book that perhaps had the greatest effects on me as a young man was Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Investigating human nature and the psychology that leads to atrocities, Glover uncovers how ideology and tribalism led to the horrors in Auschwitz, Stalingrad, Hiroshima, and Rwanda. Given the right set of circumstances, humans — that is you and me — are capable of evils we would never have imagined.

Swinging between buildings, Peter Parker may have said it differently: “Don’t be evil.” Those words were Google’s unofficial motto morphed into its official code of conduct since 2000. Early on, the bright-eyed youngsters realised they were tapping into unthinkable power. Later, in 2018, the phrase was removed from the code’s preface and moved to the obscurity of the last sentence. As their power and influence over humanity grew, I wonder if the Googlers realised that doing good is difficult to maintain. I also wonder if the large tech firms have become techno-dictatorships.

History teaches us that those who stand up against dictators will soon face their end. What will happen to those, who in this “more civilised century”, stand up to the masters of technology?

Ethiopian-born Timnit Gebru rose through the ranks at Google to co-lead a team focusing on the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI). She realised there were a vast number of biases in the algorithms used at Google, especially related to facial recognition. This technology does not accurately identify the faces of females or people with darker skin tones. The implications are vast, especially as it relates to policing.

Gebru famously wrote a paper to highlight these problems and was forced by her employer to withdraw it. She refused and was fired (though Google claims she resigned). She has since become a champion of AI ethical issues and appeared in the celebrated Netflix documentary Coded Bias.

Recently we witnessed the US Senate hearing where Frances Haugen testified about the flaws in Facebook’s algorithms and gave evidence that the firm wilfully refuses to make the needed changes. “I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy,” Haugen said at the start of her testimony.

Global tech giants have grown to have unprecedented influence over humankind. The very foundations of democracy and human freedom are at stake if these firms are allowed to operate unregulated. Whistleblowers are needed and should be protected at all costs.

• Steyn is the chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA. He writes in his personal capacity.