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Real Stories

Liz

I’m Liz O’Sullivan, AI Activist and the new CEO of Dr. Rumman Chowdhury’s Parity. I have worked on the business side of the AI industry for my whole career of 10+ years in technology, including two years managing data acquisition and operations at a computer vision company with military ties. I quit my job over the controversial Project Maven after realizing its potential to be included as a targeting system in lethal autonomous weapons systems. That’s when I got hooked up with Stop Killer Robots, and I haven’t looked back since!

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Targeted advertising, bank loan approvals, predictive policing… autonomy in weapons, automation is increasingly becoming part of our lives. What types of digital dehumanisation are you most worried about and why?

One of the major benefits of this recent “tech-lash” and criticism of the industry is that it has opened a door to many who may not realize the degree that models play in governing their lives. Even non-machine learning automation, like a credit score, has the potential to discriminate against people unintentionally. But when machine learning gets involved, that potential becomes a near-guarantee. In particular, I’m worried about lending, hiring, and healthcare. But the most pressing concerns revolve around applications in criminal justice. Any use of a technology that is by its very nature “conservative”, in that it preserves the conditions of the past into the future, is likely to repeat our discriminatory past. Police and military use of this kind of technology is currently highly unregulated, leaving departments and police unions to decide what is right for the public, often without our knowledge or consent.

Tell us about a time when you saw or experienced discrimination, risk, or oppression resulting from the use of a technology, program, or algorithm.

I’ll never forget when, at a computer vision startup, I was asked to create a moderation dataset that would become a model that detects pornographic material. This is a common application of AI for big platforms who wish to automate some degree of user content. We sent a large dataset to India for labelling and when it came back all of the homosexual couples – though fully clothed – were deemed “explicit” due to the illegality of LGBTQ+ lifestyle in that region at the time. Had we trained this model and put it into production, suddenly all safe images that expressed loving same-sex couples would have been automatically rejected by the platform. This is just one small example of the many ways that discriminatory bias can show up in datasets, and we’ve seen so many!

Do you believe that individuals can make a difference?

If the last few years have shown us anything, it’s that individuals CAN make a difference, and you don’t have to risk your career to do it.

For me personally, I came forward with my story because I realized that "killer robots" were not a future, science fiction problem but one that exists in reality today.

Since coming forward, I’ve met so many incredible organizations and people who’ve devoted their lives to fighting to preserve human dignity on the battlefield. They don’t need you to blow the whistle on your company or take any personal risks, they just need you to support their work!

When did you first learn about killer robots, and what did you think?

I’ve been a science fiction fanatic since my mother and I devoured Star Trek: TNG all throughout my childhood, so the notion of robots who kill was not new to me. I’ve long admired Asimov’s principles, mainly the idea that robots should never be programmed to kill humans. It always seemed like such an easy and consequential design detail that has the potential to save lives and our planet. “Don’t give guns to robots”… just makes sense!

Until around 2018, I thought the problem was so far out that we could kick the can down the road a little further and continue not to worry about the potential for a science fiction machine apocalypse. I was wrong! My research in the last two years has shown conclusively that these weapons already exist, and nations are driving forward in a global arms race to the bottom, building autonomous weapons systems without any international accords to govern them in place. I truly hope that nations can work together to create strict limits on autonomy in battle.

The 2020’s have been a little rough so far. What gives you hope?

In particular, the movement in support of privacy and against automation has gained so much traction through the last few years. We’re even beginning to see hope in the form of antitrust litigation, something that is very rare in the United States! The people behind this movement are so inspiring, they give me life. I’m blessed to have met the members of Stop Killer Robots and the folks working on the front lines at the United Nations and beyond. They rock!!!

Why are you part of the Stop Killer Robots movement?

I’m part of this movement because I’ve personally seen all the ways that computer vision can fail. Computer vision is a vital part of the killer robot technology stack, and seeing state of the art models fail in crazy, wild, and unpredictable ways was impactful in my decision to come forward. It’s not simply that these models fail, it’s HOW they fail that is the problem.

When you add unpredictable elements to the model equation, they don't know how to handle them. Models and robots are not smart, they're brittle, and only work the way they were trained to work in lab conditions. But "lab conditions" reliably differ from battlefield scenarios, which can never truly be predicted accurately without a crystal ball.

Things like image resolution, lighting conditions, the angle of capture, and invisible adversarial attacks make me worry for a future where dictators and authoritarians (or even major powers) can buy, create, and deploy these weapons cheaply, even if they don’t work well.

It’s not too late to prevent our governments from bringing this science fiction dystopia to life!

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