Podcast host Krista Tippett addresses artificial intelligence and the human condition

Feb. 15, 2019, 12:03 a.m.

Krista Tippett, award-winning host of the podcast “On Being,” spoke Thursday on the role of artificial intelligence in the modern human condition in conversation with computer science professor Mehran Sahami and lecturer Jerry Kaplan.

Hosted by the Stanford Haas Center for Public Service, Tippett was invited as the 2019 Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor in a residency program that hosts prominent public figures on Stanford’s campus.

Thursday’s discussion centered on Tippett’s observation that “we are all consuming and living with these technologies,” regardless of whether or not someone is a practitioner in a field that works with artificial intelligence.

Tippett noted that the term artificial intelligence (AI) — often used interchangeably with robots or autonomous vehicles — is loaded with speculations that it will “steal our jobs, make us their slaves … kill us, or on the more optimistic side, they will just do everything better than we can.”

These fears are in part prompted by media and the general population that tends to “throw the words artificial intelligence around,” but Tippett hopes to think more deeply and complexly about how artificial intelligence could shape human consciousness.

However, Tippett, Sahami and Kaplan did discuss more grounded fears of AI as a potential threat to humanity, including issues of racial and ethnic discrimination that could emerge as a result of AI algorithms.

In Sahami’s computer science classes, students have explored AI algorithm data samples gathered from neighborhoods where crime was at a high.

“One of the things we find is … when the algorithm makes mistakes it’s more likely to detain someone who is African American who is not likely to recidivate, or commit a crime again, at twice the rate,” he said.

Tippett encouraged audience members to consider and develop technologies “more consciously” with respect to their impact.

A member of the audience asked a question about the regulation of autonomous vehicles, leading to a discussion of the role of government in artificial intelligence technologies. A vehicle, the audience member said, might have to decide between risking its occupant’s life or that of a pedestrian.

“The government should play a very important role in setting that kind of policy,” Kaplan said. “Absolutely it’s the prerogative of the government to make those decisions, just like they decide should we be required to wear seat belts.”

“But what if, hypothetically, government was kind of dysfunctional right now?” Tippett asked, prompting laughter from the audience. “It feels very hypothetical to me … [that] the government should step in and take care of it. But that’s not actually the interim reality, the reality of government we have right now.”

Tippett closed the event by asking the panelists about the relationship between humanity and technology and the role that it plays in modern society.

From machines and computers, Kaplan answered, “we get answers, not meaning. Machines are just a means to an end.”


Contact Yusra Arub at yusraarub19 ‘at’ mittymonarch.com.

Yusra Arub is a high school senior writing for the University beat. She is interested in sociology and digital humanities. When she is not writing poetry or reading, she is baking for friends and family or playing soccer. Contact her at yusraarub19 ‘at’ mittymonarch.com.

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