Artificial Intelligence Needs Both Pragmatists and Blue-Sky Visionaries

Essay by Ben Shneiderman: “Artificial intelligence thinkers seem to emerge from two communities. One is what I call blue-sky visionaries who speculate about the future possibilities of the technology, invoking utopian fantasies to generate excitement. Blue-sky ideas are compelling but are often clouded over by unrealistic visions and the ethical challenges of what can and should be built.

In contrast, what I call muddy-boots pragmatists are problem- and solution-focused. They want to reduce the harms that widely used AI-infused systems can create. They focus on fixing biased and flawed systems, such as in facial recognition systems that often mistakenly identify people as criminals or violate privacy. The pragmatists want to reduce deadly medical mistakes that AI can make, and steer self-driving cars to be safe-driving cars. Their goal is also to improve AI-based decisions about mortgage loans, college admissions, job hiring and parole granting.

As a computer science professor with a long history of designing innovative applications that have been widely implemented, I believe that the blue-sky visionaries would benefit by taking the thoughtful messages of the muddy-boots realists. Combining the work of both camps is more likely to produce the beneficial outcomes that will lead to successful next-generation technologies.

While the futuristic thinking of the blue-sky speculators sparks our awe and earns much of the funding, muddy-boots thinking reminds us that some AI applications threaten privacy, spread misinformation and are decidedly racistsexist and otherwise ethically dubious. Machines are undeniably part of our future, but will they serve all future humans equally? I think the caution and practicality of the muddy-boots camp will benefit humanity in the short and long run by ensuring diversity and equality in the development of the algorithms that increasingly run our day-to-day lives. If blue-sky thinkers integrate the concerns of muddy-boots realists into their designs, they can create future technologies that are more likely to advance human values, rights and dignity…(More)”.