Turing-winning AI researcher warns against secretive research and fake ‘self-regulation’

Yoshua Bengio, who last month won the prestigious Turing award, alongside Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun, for his work on AI, is worried about what the technology is being made into behind closed doors. In an interview with Nature, he explains his concerns, but takes care to avoid sounding like a doomsayer.

A professor at the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, his main concern is not a particular nightmare scenario but simply that AI is being pursued by people who have few controls in place.

“A lot of what is most concerning is not happening in broad daylight,” he said. “It’s happening in military labs, in security organizations, in private companies providing services to governments or the police.”

This we have certainly seen, with all the major tech companies in one way or another providing or considering government and military work, from the benign to the clearly conflict-oriented. “Killer drones are a big concern,” Bengio said bluntly. It may be that AI being researched in this way could save or better many lives — but how can we know unless that research is performed in the open?

Even models and ideas invented with good intentions can be subverted by a bad actor, he said. “The dangers of abuse, especially by authoritarian governments, are very real. Essentially, AI is a tool that can be used by those in power to keep that power, and to increase it.” So it is not enough for one organization or government to promise ethical use or abide by best practices. The next one (or the next leader in the same one) may not.

The solution, he believes, is open and structured discussion, followed by strong, clear regulation enacted internationally.

“Self-regulation is not going to work. Do you think that voluntary taxation works? It doesn’t,” he said. “Companies that follow ethical guidelines would be disadvantaged with respect to the companies that do not. It’s like driving. Whether it’s on the left or the right side, everybody needs to drive in the same way; otherwise, we’re in trouble.”

For a start, he recommends researchers and others study and sign the Montreal Declaration, a set of principles such as respect for autonomy, privacy and diversity.

Despite all this, Bengio is sanguine as to the future of the technology — it’s hard to imagine someone being so deeply and continuously involved in it without being so. The rest of the interview is similarly interesting, as he has a straightforward and realistic yet optimistic view of other issues facing the AI community. Read it here.