Why AI + consumer tech?

In my last post, I shared some early thoughts on how Mozilla is thinking about AI as part of our overall internet health agenda. I noted in that post that we’re leaning towards consumer tech as the focus and backdrop for whatever goals we take on in AI. In our draft issue brief we say:

Mozilla is particularly interested in how automated decision making is being used in consumer products and services. We want to make sure the interests of all users are designed into these products and services. Where they aren’t, we want to call that out.

After talking to nearly 100 AI experts and activists, this consumer tech focus feels right for Mozilla. But it also raises a number of questions: what do we mean by consumer tech? What is in scope for this work? And what is not? Are we missing something important with this focus?

At its simplest, the consumer tech platforms that we are talking about are general purpose internet products and services aimed at a wide audience for personal use. These include things like social networks, search engines, retail e-commerce, home assistants, computers, smartphones, fitness trackers, self-driving cars, etc. — almost all of which are connected to the internet and are fueled by our personal data. The leading players in these areas are companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple in the US as well as companies like Baidu, TenCent, and AliBaba in China. These companies are also amongst the biggest developers and users of AI, setting trends and shipping technology that shapes the whole of the tech industry. And, as long as we remain in the era of machine learning, these companies have a disproportionate advantage in AI development as they control huge amounts for data and computing power that can be used to train automated systems.

Given the power of the big tech companies in shaping the AI agenda — and the growing pervasiveness of automated decision making in the tech we all use everyday — we believe we need to set a higher bar for the development, use and impact of AI in consumer products and services. We need a way to reward companies who reach that bar. And push back and hold to account those who do not.

Of course, AI isn’t bad or good on it’s own — it is just another tool in the toolbox of computer engineering. Benefits, harms and side effects come from how systems are designed, what data is selected to train them and what business rules they are given. For example, search for ‘doctor’ on Google, you mostly see white doctors because that bias is in the training data. Similarly, content algorithms on sites like YouTube often recommend increasingly extreme content because the main business rule they are optimized for is to keep people on the site or app for as long as possible. Humans — and the companies they work in — can avoid or fix problems like these. Helping them do so is important work. It’s worth doing.

Of course, there are important issues related to AI and the health of the internet that go beyond consumer technology. The use of biased facial recognition software by police and immigration authorities. Similarly biased and unfair resume sorting algorithms used by human resource departments as part of hiring processes. The use of AI by the military to automate and add precision to killing from a distance. Ensuring that human rights and dignity are protected as the use of machine decision making grows within government and the back offices of big business is critical. Luckily, there is an amazing crew of organizations stepping up to address these issues such as AI Now in the US and Algorithm Watch in Europe. Mozilla taking a lead in these areas wouldn’t add much. Here, we should play a supporting role.

In contrast, there are few players focused squarely on how AI is showing up in consumer products and services. Yet this is one of the places where the power and the impact of AI is moving most rapidly. Also, importantly, consumer tech is the field on which Mozilla has always played. As we try to shape where AI is headed, it makes sense to do so here. We’re already doing so in small ways with technology, showing a more open way to approach machine learning with projects like Deep Speech and Common Voice. However, we have a chance to do much more by using our community, brand and credibility to push the development and use of AI in consumer tech in the right direction. We might do this as a watchdog. Or by collecting a brain trust of fellows with new ideas about privacy in AI. Or by helping to push for policies that lead to real accountability. There are many options. Whatever we pick, it feels like the consumer tech space is both in need of attention and well suited to the strengths that Mozilla brings to the table.

I would say that we’re 90% decided that consumer tech is the right place to focus Mozilla’s internet health movement building work around AI. That means there is a 9/10 chance that this is where we will go — but there is a chance that we hear something at this stage that changes this thinking in a meaningful way. As we zero in on this decision, I’d be interested to know what others think: If we go in this direction, what are the most important things to be thinking about? Where are the big opportunities? On the flip side, are there important things we’ll be missing if we go down this path? Feel free to comment on this post, tweet or email me if you have thoughts.

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