What opportunities have we missed by not having these procedures in place?

It’s easy to overhype what’s possible, and AI was probably never going to play a huge role in this crisis. Machine-learning systems are not mature enough.

But there are a handful of cases in which AI is being tested for medical diagnosis or for resource allocation across hospitals. We might have been able to use those sorts of systems more widely, reducing some of the load on health care, had they been designed from the start with ethics in mind.

With resource allocation in particular, you are deciding which patients are highest priority. You need an ethical framework built in before you use AI to help with those kinds of decisions.

So is ethics for urgency simply a call to make existing AI ethics better?

That’s part of it. The fact that we don’t have robust, practical processes for AI ethics makes things more difficult in a crisis scenario. But in times like this you also have greater need for transparency. People talk a lot about the lack of transparency with machine-learning systems as black boxes. But there is another kind of transparency, concerning how the systems are used.

This is especially important in a crisis, when governments and organizations are making urgent decisions that involve trade-offs. Whose health do you prioritize? How do you save lives without destroying the economy? If an AI is being used in public decision-making, transparency is more important than ever.

What needs to change?

We need to think about ethics differently. It shouldn’t be something that happens on the side or afterwards—something that slows you down. It should simply be part of how we build these systems in the first place: ethics by design.

I sometimes feel “ethics” is the wrong word. What we’re saying is that machine-learning researchers and engineers need to be trained to think through the implications of what they’re building, whether they’re doing fundamental research like designing a new reinforcement-learning algorithm or something more practical like developing a health-care application. If their work finds its way into real-world products and services, what might that look like? What kinds of issues might it raise?

Some of this has started already. We are working with some early-career AI researchers, talking to them about how to bring this way of thinking to their work. It’s a bit of an experiment, to see what happens. But even NeurIPS [a leading AI conference] now asks researchers to include a statement at the end of their papers outlining potential societal impacts of their work.

You’ve said that we need people with technical expertise at all levels of AI design and use. Why is that?

I’m not saying that technical expertise is the be-all and end-all of ethics, but it’s a perspective that needs to be represented. And I don’t want to sound like I’m saying all the responsibility is on researchers, because a lot of the important decisions about how AI gets used are made further up the chain, by industry or by governments.

But I worry that the people who are making those decisions don’t always fully understand the ways it might go wrong. So you need to involve people with technical expertise. Our intuitions about what AI can and can’t do are not very reliable.

What you need at all levels of AI development are people who really understand the details of machine learning to work with people who really understand ethics. Interdisciplinary collaboration is hard, however. People with different areas of expertise often talk about things in different ways. What a machine-learning researcher means by privacy may be very different from what a lawyer means by privacy, and you can end up with people talking past each other. That’s why it’s important for these different groups to get used to working together.

You’re pushing for a pretty big institutional and cultural overhaul. What makes you think people will want to do this rather than set up ethics boards or oversight committees—which always make me sigh a bit because they tend to be toothless?

Yeah, I also sigh. But I think this crisis is forcing people to see the importance of practical solutions. Maybe instead of saying, “Oh, let’s have this oversight board and that oversight board,” people will be saying, “We need to get this done, and we need to get it done properly.”