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World Economic Forum’s Kay Firth-Butterfield talks about the promise and problems of AI



Kay Firth-Butterfield, Head, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at World Economic Forum, seen outside the Hilton Hotel in downtown San Francisco on August 21, 2018 after her speech at the Singularity University Global Summit.
head of the World Economic Forum’s artificial-intelligence
project, Kay Firth-Butterfield is working with governments,
companies, and non-profits to understand and contend with the
issues AI poses to society.


  • Artificial intelligence poses both promise and perils
    for societies and their citizens.
  • Kay Firth-Butterfield, who heads the AI program at the
    World Economic Forum, is working with governments, companies,
    and non-profits to help them understand the issues surrounding
    the disruptive technology, and work through ways to maximize
    its benefits and minimize harms.
  • The most effective strategy for regulating AI will
    likely be through government and industry standard setting, she

If you ask Kay Firth-Butterfield about the promise and potential
perils of artificial intelligence, she might start talking about
toys, dolls, and action figures. 

Not the toys of today, necessarily, but those of the future,
that will be empowered with AI. Such toys have the promise to be
the quintessential educational tools, interacting with kids
daily, gaining intimate knowledge about how they think and
communicate, and using that information to help them learn.

“Personalized education using AI for kids is going to be a huge
game changer,” said Firth-Butterfield, who heads the artificial
intelligence and machine learning program at the World Economic
Forum, said in a conversation last week with Business Insider.

On the other hand, such toys raise a host of issues that
policymakers are only starting to get a handle on. The privacy
implications alone of potentially having a toy — or a succession
of them — collect a child’s every utterance from the time they
can talk until adulthood are tremendous, she said.

“That is an issue that we really have to solve,” she said.

And toys are just one of many areas where society will have to
wrestle with both the potential and perils of AI.

The technology promises improvements to everything from
industrial processes to agriculture to transportation,
Firth-Butterfield said. But it also could lead to a raft of
challenges and dangers, including massive job losses in a
relatively short period of time, the illegitimate denial of goods
or services thanks to flawed or biased algorithms, and citizens’
loss of control of what was previously personal data, she said.

Firth-Butterfield works with governments and companies to think
through AI issues

In her job with the World Economic Forum, Firth-Butterfield works
with representatives of governments, corporations, civil society
groups, and academic institutions to work through some of those
challenges. The projects she and her group lead are designed to
come up with ways to govern AI that will allow countries and
companies to reap its benefits while minimizing its harms.

“It’s really important that we know that there are all these
different tensions, because without addressing them, we are
really left with, I suspect, a failing trust in the technology,”
she said. “What I certainly don’t want to see are all the
benefits of AI somehow being lost because we haven’t put in the
ethical underpinnings to help the public know that we’re doing
something safe.”

It’s going to enable us to feed more people.

Firth-Butterfield, who has served as a lawyer and judge in the
United Kingdom, has been helping people and companies work
through the legal and ethical implications of AI for years now,
as a professor, corporate advisor, and consultant. She joined the
World Economic Forum last fall.

For her, AI has “enormous” potential. In education, it promises
to provide students personalized learning programs that are
tailored to their individual needs, learning styles, and

In industry and business, the technology could help companies
significantly reduce the amount of energy they use, she said.
Google, she noted, announced two years ago that its DeepMind
machine-learning technology helped it reduce the amount of energy
it uses to cool the servers in its data centers by 40%.

And in agriculture, AI could be used in tandem with Internet of
Things devices to make farmers and agribusinesses more productive
and efficient, she said. AI could take the data collected by
sensors in fields to help farmers determine how much fertilizers,
pesticides, or even just water needed by their crops. 

“It’s going to enable us to feed more people,” she said.

AI has plenty of potential pitfalls

But she’s equally concerned with the possible pitfalls of the
technology. Algorithms that are flawed in design or in the data
they rely on could lead to negative consequences for particular
groups of people.

There’s a
long history of US lenders denying home loans to black people

because of the color of their skin, for example. Software
designed to automate loans approvals could end up perpetuating
that prejudice if that bias is baked into the underlying
algorithms, Firth-Butterfield warned. The same is true for
discrimination in employment.

Harmful biases have already made themselves evident in
artificial-intelligence software and tools. Two years ago, for
example, the image recognition software built into Google Photos

infamously labeled African-Americans as gorillas
. Google also

scuttled a video conferencing service
intended for employees
after the service’s face-recognition software failed to detect
the faces of people of color, Business Insider reported recently.

We don’t have the luxury of a long time to actually even out the
effects on job loss with this revolution, because it’s happening
so quickly.

“It’s really important” that we make sure that we’re “not
encoding own prejudices and taking them forward with us, because
if do that, we will actually stultify the development of the
world,” she said.

Biased algorithms aren’t the only thing she’s worried about. AI
poses a big threat to employment worldwide.

The world had decades to adapt to the upheavals of the second
industrial revolution, the one that led to mass production of
everything from steel and automobiles, Firth-Butterfield said.
But artificial intelligence is developing and likely will be
adopted much more rapidly — and the impact on the job market will
likely be felt in short order too, she said.

“We don’t have the luxury of a long time to actually even out the
effects on job loss with this revolution, because it’s happening
so quickly,” she said.

And then there are the ways that AI could erode privacy and
potentially harm kids.

Firth-Butterfield favors standards, not regulation

The best way to maximize the benefits of AI while minimizing the
benefits is to have multiple stakeholders — governments,
corporations, non-profit groups, and more — work through the
issues and come up with ways to govern technology,
Firth-Butterfield said. That doesn’t have to be through laws and
formal government regulations, she said. In fact, the better way
to regulate AI will be to do it through government and industry
standards, she argued.

By setting standards that attempt to minimize harms and take
ethics into account, governments in particular can significantly
influence the development of artificial intelligence, thanks in
part to their huge purchasing power, she said. And setting
standards tends to be a lot quicker and more flexible than
crafting formal regulations or laws, so it can better respond to
changing developments, she said.

AI’s running fast, and we need to run as fast with governance

“AI’s running fast, and we need to run as fast with governance
mechanisms,” she said.

Those standards will need to focus on minimizing bias and
protecting privacy, she said. They’ll also need to make clear who
or what entities are legally accountable for any harms that take
place. And they’ll need to ensuring transparency, so citizens and
consumers understand how the AI algorithms work and what they’re

To be sure, there will be cases where governments will need to
put in place formal regulations, Firth-Butterfield acknowledged.
Those will likely be when they need to protect the most
vulnerable people in society, including kids, the disabled, and
the elderly, she said.

Already some countries are ahead of the game in thinking through
AI governance issues, Firth-Butterfield said. Among them: Brazil,
China, India, and the United Kingdom.

“There are a number of countries that are already stepping up to
the plate,” she said.

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