NeurIPS 2018: How machine learning experts can work with policymakers to make good tech decisions [Invited Talk]

5 min read

At the 32nd annual  NeurIPS conference held earlier this month, Edward William Felten, a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University spoke about how decision makers and tech experts can work together to make better policies. The talk was aimed at answering questions such as why should public policy matter to AI researchers, what role can researchers play in policy debates, and how can researchers help bridge divides between the research and policy communities.

While AI and machine learning are being used in high impact areas and have seen heavy adoption in every field, in recent years, they have also gained a lot of attention from the policymakers. Technology has become a huge topic of discussion among policymakers mainly because of its cases of failure and how it is being used or misused. They have now started formulating laws and regulations and holding discussions about how society will govern the development of these technologies. Prof. Felten explained how having constructive engagement with policymakers will lead to better outcomes for technology, government, and society.

Why tech should be regulated?

Regulating tech is important, and for that researchers, data scientists, and other people in tech fields have to close the gap between their research labs, cubicles, and society. Prof. Felten emphasizes that it is up to the tech people to bridge this gap as we not only have the opportunity but also a duty to be more active and productive in participating in public life. There are many people coming to the conclusion that tech should be regulated before it is too late.

In a piece published by the Wall Street Journal, three experts debated about whether the government should regulate AI. One of them, Ryan Calo explains, “One of the ironies of artificial intelligence is that proponents often make two contradictory claims. They say AI is going to change everything, but there should be no changes to the law or legal institutions in response.” Prof. Felten points out that law and policies are meant to change in order to adapt according to the current conditions. They are not just written once and for all for the cases of today and the future, rather law is a living system that adapts to what is going on in the society. And, if we believe that technology is going to change everything, we can expect that law will change.

Prof. Felten also said that not only the tech researchers and policymakers but the society also should also have some say in how the technology is developed, “After all the people who are affected by the change that we are going to cause deserve some say in how that change happens, how it is used. If we believe in a society which is fundamentally democratic in which everyone has a stake and everyone has a voice then it is only fair that those lives we are going to change have some say in how that change come about and what kind of changes are going to happen and which are not.

How experts can work with decision makers to make good tech decisions

The three key approaches that we can take to engage with policymakers to take a decision about technology:

Engage in a two-way dialogue with policymakers

As a researcher, we might think that we are tech experts/scientists and we do not need to get involved in politics. We need to just share the facts we know and our job is done. But if researchers really want to maximize their impact in policy debates, they need to combine the knowledge and preferences of policymakers with their knowledge and preferences. Which means, they need to take into account what policymakers might already have heard about a particular subject and the issues or approaches that resonate with them.

Prof. Felten explains that this type of understanding and exchange of ideas can be done in two stages. Researchers need to ask several questions to policymakers, which is not a one-time thing, rather a multi-round protocol. They have to go back and forth with the person and need to build engagement over time and mutual trust. And, then they need to put themselves into the shoes of a decision maker and understand how to structure the decision space for them.

Be present in the room when the decisions are being made

To have their influence on the decisions that get made, researchers need to have “boots on the ground.” Though not everyone has to engage in this deep and long-term process of decision making, we need some people from the community to engage on behalf of the community. Researchers need to be present in the room when the decisions are being made. This means taking posts as advisers or civil servants. We already have a range of such posts at both local and national government levels, alongside a range of opportunities to engage less formally in policy development and consultations.

Creating a career path and rewarding policy engagement

To drive this engagement, we need to create a career path which rewards policy engagement. We should have a way through which researchers can move between policy and research careers. Prof. Felten pointed to a range of US-based initiatives that seek to bring those with technical expertise into policy-oriented roles, such as the US Digital Service.

He adds that if we do not create these career paths and if this becomes something that people can do only after sacrificing their careers then very few people will do it. This needs to be an activity that we learn to respect when people in the community do it well. We need to build incentives whether it is in career incentives in academia, whether it is understanding that working in government or on policy issues is a valuable part of one kind of academic career and not thinking of it as deter or a stop.

To watch the full talk, check out NeurIPS Facebook page.

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