AI Engineers Need to Think Beyond Engineering


Executive Summary

It is very, very easy for a well-intentioned AI practitioner to inadvertently do harm when they set out to do good — AI has the power to amplify unfair biases, making innate biases exponentially more harmful. Because AI often interacts with complex social systems, where correlation and causation might not be immediately clear — or even easily discernible — AI practitioners need to build partnerships with community members, stakeholders, and experts to help them better understand the world they’re interacting with and the implications of making mistakes. Community-based system dynamics (CBSD) is a promising participatory approach to understanding complex social systems that does just that.

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become one of the biggest drivers of technological change, impacting industries and creating entirely new opportunities. From an engineering standpoint, AI is just a more advanced form of data engineering. Most good AI projects function more like muddy pickup trucks than spotless race cars — they are a workhorse technology that humbly makes a production line 5% safer or movie recommendations a little more on point. However, more so than many other technologies, it is very, very easy for a well-intentioned AI practitioner to inadvertently do harm when they set out to do good. AI has the power to amplify unfair biases, making innate biases exponentially more harmful.

As Google AI practitioners, we understand that how AI technology is developed and used will have a significant impact on society for many years to come. As such, it’s crucial to formulate best practices. This starts with the responsible development of the technology and mitigating any potential unfair bias which may exist, both of which require technologists to look more than one step ahead: not “Will this delivery automation save 15% on the delivery cost?” but “How will this change affect the cities where we operate and the people — at-risk populations in particular — who live there?”

This has to be done the old-fashioned way: by human data scientists understanding the process that generates the variables that end up in datasets and models. What’s more, that understanding can only be achieved in partnership with the people represented by and impacted by these variables — community members and stakeholders, such as experts who understand the complex systems that AI will ultimately interact with.

Faulty causal assumptions can lead to unfair bias.

How do we actually implement this goal of building fairness into these new technologies — especially when they often work in ways we might not expect? As a first step, computer scientists need to do more to understand the contexts in which their technologies are being developed and deployed.

Despite our advances in measuring and detecting unfair bias, causation mistakes can still lead to harmful outcomes for marginalized communities. What’s a causation mistake? Take, for example, the observation during the Middle Ages that sick people attracted fewer lice, which led to an assumption that lice were good for you. In actual fact, lice don’t like living on people with fevers. Causation mistakes like this, where a correlation is wrongly thought to signal a cause and effect, can be extremely harmful in high-stakes domains such as health care and criminal justice. AI system developers — who usually do not have social science backgrounds — typically do not understand the underlying societal systems and structures that generate the problems their systems are intended to solve. This lack of understanding can lead to designs based on oversimplified, incorrect causal assumptions that exclude critical societal factors and can lead to unintended and harmful outcomes.

For instance, the researchers who discovered that a medical algorithm widely used in the U.S. health care was racially biased against Black patients identified that the root cause was the mistaken causal assumption, made by the algorithm designers, that people with more complex health needs will have spent more money on health care. This assumption ignores critical factors — such as lack of trust in the health care system and lack of access to affordable health care — that tend to decrease spending on health care by Black patients regardless of the complexity of their health care needs.

Researchers make this kind of causation/correlation mistake all the time. But things are worse for a deep learning computer, which searches billions of possible correlations in order to find the most accurate way to predict data, and thus has billions of opportunities to make causal mistakes. Complicating the issue further, it is very hard, even with modern tools, such as Shapely analysis, to understand why such a mistake was made — a human data scientist sitting in a lab with their supercomputer can never deduce from the data itself what the causation mistakes may be. This is why, among scientists, it is never acceptable to claim to have found a causal relationship in nature just by passively looking at data. You must formulate the hypothesis and then conduct an experiment in order to tease out the causation.

Addressing these causal mistakes requires taking a step back. Computer scientists need to do more to understand and account for the underlying societal contexts in which these technologies are developed and deployed.

Here at Google, we started to lay the foundations for what this approach might look like. In a recent paper co-written by DeepMind, Google AI, and our Trust & Safety team, we argue that considering these societal contexts requires embracing the fact that they are dynamic, complex, non-linear, adaptive systems governed by hard-to-see feedback mechanisms. We all participate in these systems, but no individual person or algorithm can see them in their entirety or fully understand them. So, to account for these inevitable blindspots and innovate responsibly, technologists must collaborate with stakeholders — representatives from sociology, behavioral science, and the humanities, as well as from vulnerable communities — to form a shared hypothesis of how they work. This process should happen at the earliest stages of product development — even before product design starts — and be done in full partnership with communities most vulnerable to algorithmic bias.

This participatory approach to understanding complex social systems — called community-based system dynamics (CBSD) — requires building new networks to bring these stakeholders into the process. CBSD is grounded in systems thinking and incorporates rigorous qualitative and quantitative methods for collaboratively describing and understanding complex problem domains, and we’ve identified it as a promising practice in our research. Building the capacity to partner with communities in fair and ethical ways that provide benefits to all participants needs to be a top priority. It won’t be easy. But the societal insights gained from a deep understanding of the problems that matter most to the most vulnerable in society can lead to technological innovations that are safer and more beneficial for everyone.

Shifting from a mindset of “building because we can” to “building what we should.”

When communities are underrepresented in the product development design process, they are underserved by the products that result. Right now, we’re designing what the future of AI will look like. Will it be inclusive and equitable? Or will it reflect the most unfair and unjust elements of our society? The more just option isn’t a foregone conclusion — we have to work towards it. Our vision for the technology is one where a full range of perspectives, experiences and structural inequities are accounted for. We work to seek out and include these perspectives in a range of ways, including human rights diligence processes, research sprints, direct input from vulnerable communities and organizations focused on inclusion, diversity, and equity such as WiML (Women in ML) and Latinx in AI; many of these organizations are also co-founded and co-led by Googler researchers, such as Black in AI and Queer in AI.

If we, as a field, want this technology to live up to our ideals, then we need to change how we think about what we’re building — to shift to our mindset from “building because we can” to “building what we should.” This means fundamentally shifting our focus to understanding deep problems and working to ethically partner and collaborate with marginalized communities. This will give us a more reliable view of both the data that fuels our algorithms and the problems we seek to solve. This deeper understanding could allow organizations in every sector to unlock new possibilities of what they have to offer while being inclusive, equitable and socially beneficial.



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Bowhill town engineering company wins major SA roadbuilding contract


A small South Australian town has been put on the map, with Bowhill Engineering winning one of the contracts for a $354 million infrastructure project.

The river town of Bowhill is located just over 140 kilometres east of Adelaide and is just a short drive from the historical river town of Mannum.

It has a population of just over 130 people and while it only has two major businesses in town, one of them, Bowhill Engineering, has made a big impact.

The South Australian Government has announced the company will carry out work as part of the $354 million Regency Road to Pym Street project.

A Regency Road overpass bridge artist impression shows the size of the project.(Supplied: Department for Infrastructure and Transport)

Bowhill Engineering will contribute to the build of the Regency Road overpass bridge.

Managing Director Jeremy Hawkes said it was “humbling” for his small family business to be involved in such a big project.

Creating a ‘thriving community’

The Regency Road to Pym Street project was not the first Bowhill Engineering has worked on.

It has also been involved in the build of the Southern Expressway and the Regency Road project among others.

Bowhill Engineering said it had enabled the company to grow its workforce from just 18 employees in 2016 to more than 40 — a further 10 people will be employed as a result of the latest contract.

A group of people stand in front of large metal beams
Contributing to large projects in South Australia has allowed the regional business to employ more locals.(Supplied: Bowhill Engineering)

“Our staff do a great job and they work very hard and just having a long term government project means security for our staff and the ongoing upskilling, growth and job opportunities, including apprenticeships,” he said.

“We’ve got a great team full of really good people, but we’re always looking out the next generation of fabricators and boiler-makers.

“We really want to see Bowhill thrive and the Murraylands as well, our community is very important to us.”

Bowhill Engineering will also contribute steel for the pedestrian and cyclist overpass, which is being installed near Pym Street.

Infrastructure and Transport Minister Corey Wingard said it was companies like Bowhill Engineering that were helping support the state at a time when it needed it most.

Once complete, the $354 million Regency Road to Pym Street will deliver travel time savings of up to eight minutes during peak periods, or 4.5 minutes on average, on South Road between Regency Road and Pym Street.



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Sebi slaps Rs 7 lakh fine on Suprajit Engineering, three individuals


NEW DELHI: Markets regulator Sebi on Wednesday imposed a total fine of Rs 7 lakh on Suprajit Engineering Ltd and three individuals for violating insider trading norms.

A fine of Rs 2 lakh has been slapped on Suprajit Engineering Ltd (SEL), Rs 3 lakh on Jayarama Shetty Mundaje, and Rs 1 lakh each on Mohan Srinivasan Nagamangala and Meddapa Gowda J, respectively.

Mundaje was a director, Nagamangala was a president and Gowda is compliance officer at SEL.

An investigation into the scrip of Suprajit Engineering, the watchdog found instances of violations during the October 2014 to June 2016 period.

Among others, it was found that Mundaje and Srinivasan had not obtained pre-clearance for trading in the company’s shares. This was in violation of minimum standards for code of conduct to regulate, monitor and report trading by insiders under PIT (Prohibition of Insider Trading) norms, as per an order.

Sebi also said that several designated employees and their related entities had also traded in the company’s shares without pre-clearances.

SEL and Gowda failed to implement/ administer and monitor code of conduct and did not comply with the provisions of PIT norms, according to the order.

“I am of the view that the object and spirit of the PIT Regulations, 2015 would get defeated if the violators… are not dealt as per the spirit of PIT Regulations, 2015.

“Therefore, I am not inclined to view the lapse on the part of the noticees leniently and consider it necessary to impose monetary penalty on the noticees,” Sebi’s Adjudicating Officer G Ramar said in the order.





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Tasmanian industrial engineering firm turns from making copper stills to whisky production


A Tasmanian business that manufactures tanks for wine, whisky and milk, now plans to fill them with its own spirit.

Kolmark, a metal fabrication firm, branched out into building copper pot stills about four years ago.

Its Westbury workshop in northern Tasmania has been flat out building equipment for the state’s rapidly expanding whisky industry.

Operations manager Tim Freeman said the stills they were working on currently could hold up to 6,000 litres of spirit.

“From the flat sheets, we put it through a set of rolls to form it up into the cone.

“Then into a radius-forming machine, where we form the edges into nice round beautiful pieces of art.”

Mr Freeman was in charge of managing Kolmark’s new Western Tiers Distillery in the Meander Valley.

The company planned to use the business to showcase its stills in production.

“The opportunities in the whisky industry have really made us change the way we think about our business,” said Kolmark managing director Mark Kolodziej.

“It’s also given us an insight into different production techniques, which we’ve had to develop for manufacturing with copper.

Mark Kolodziej and Tim Freeman with the stills for their new business Western Tiers Distillery(ABC Rural: Laurissa Smith)

Scaling up whisky production

Kolmark’s biggest project for the Tasmanian whisky industry was fitting out the new Callington Mill Distillery at Oatlands, about 80 kilometres north of Hobart.

Sydney developer John Ibrahim had so far poured about $17 million into the project.

He said it was a long-held vision to build a fully automated distillery of this scale, which will open in March next year.

“Callington Mill’s output would normally be 200,000L a year,” Mr Ibrahim said.

“But if we do two shifts, which is seven days a week, it’ll be 400,000L.

Callington Mill’s output equated to around 400 casks a year housed in its 12 bond rooms, with capacity to build another six of warehouses.

People mingle outside two large buildings with a windmill in the foreground
An artist’s impression of the new Callington Mill Distillery at Oatlands in southern Tasmania.(Supplied: Callington Mill Distillery)

The barley for the whisky would be grown locally at Oatlands, malted commercially, processed at the mill, and then returned to the farm for livestock feed.

The whisky would be matured in barrels sourced from one of the main fortified wine regions in Spain.

Mr Ibrahim said, financially, the business was unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic because it was still under construction.

But he admitted that could change.

“If it’s prolonged for years then, yes, our ability to go to market will be severely impacted,” Mr Ibrahim said.



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Fears university fees overhaul will lead to glut of WA engineering and nursing graduates


Western Australia could be heading for an oversupply of university graduates in areas like engineering and nursing as a result of a university fees overhaul, according to a labour market economist.

The Federal Government is altering its student fee contributions in an attempt to increase the uptake of study in areas of expected employment growth and demand.

Those costs are proposed to drop up to 62 per cent in agriculture and maths, 46 per cent in teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages, and 20 per cent in science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering from next year.

Economist Conrad Liveris said WA already had a strong presence in a number of the Government’s target disciplines.

“There is definitely going to be an awkward period where there is an oversupply [of graduates], that will naturally happen,” he said.

“A lot of them, especially at the moment but also over the past few years, haven’t exactly found it super easy to find a job.”

Fears people will choose not to study

Communications is one of the areas facing a fee hike, along with law, commerce and other humanities courses.

The student contribution for communications study is proposed to rise from $6,804 annually to $14,500 for people starting in 2021.

Current students in the disciplines with fees rising would be grandfathered in.

Mr Pauletto says he may have decided against higher education if the fee hikes happened earlier.(ABC News: Jessica Warriner)

Third-year communications and media student at the University of Western Australia Kyle Pauletto said he was relieved he chose to start his degree when he did.

“I feel bad for all the kids who’ve always wanted to study in certain fields, but now it’s going to cost them significantly more just because of when they’re graduating,” he said.

Mr Pauletto said the push for students to make “job-relevant” decisions about their education with reduced or increased fees would not have changed his area of interest.

“If there was a change, it would perhaps maybe convince me not to study at all and pursue other avenues, but it wasn’t going to convince me to take up a completely different field.”

Nursing students nervous

Joey McAuley is studying nursing, one of the areas where the proposed university fee changes will see prices cut by thousands of dollars.

A woman wearing a sweater and carrying books smiles at a camera
Student Joey McAuley is worried cheaper courses will mean an influx of people wanting to do nursing.(ABC News: Jessica Warriner)

The student contribution for nursing students is currently $6,804 annually, and under new proposed costs, will drop to $3,700.

The changes would mean the third-year Curtin University student gets her final semester of study in 2021 at the cheaper rate.

“It’s a hard one, you’d think we’d be jumping up and down going ‘Yes, nursing degrees, the price is being slashed,'” Ms McAuley said.

Along with concerns about placements and jobs, Ms McAuley said she was worried the changes would mean people would select a career path they did not have enthusiasm for.

“I was talking to a few nursing friends and one of them brought up a really good point. If this is going to draw a lot of people in because of the prices dropping, are people coming in because it’s a passion or because it’s cheap?” she said.

Would cost change people’s minds?

Career counsellor Anna Black agreed the proposed university fee changes could increase the risk of mismatches between people and courses.

“My main concern with these changes is if people are influenced to do a course because it’s cheaper, or there’s a perception that it’s going to be easier to get a job at the end, that’s not the best basis for making that decision,” she said.

But Ms Black said it would be just one of a number of factors at play for different students in various scenarios.

A woman wearing a coloured scarf smiles at a camera
Counsellor Anna Black says people choosing a course based on cost may end up switching career paths.(ABC News: Jessica Warriner)

“People make a decision based on a few different things — I think some people genuinely follow their interests, things they’ve enjoyed in school,” she said.

“Some people are absolutely influenced by their parents or other family members, and that can be around what’s considered a ‘good job’ or a secure job.”

Mr Liveris said the fee cuts and rises would spur more people to at least investigate the incentivised courses.

“Students are very sensitive to market indications, they understand where the pressure is and where the opportunities are,” he said.

“But whether they continue with that is another thing.”

Heading into the future

The Federal Government said around 60 per cent of students would see a reduction or no change in their student fee contributions.

“We are facing the biggest employment challenge Australia has faced since the Great Depression and the biggest impact will be felt by young Australians,” Education minister Dan Tehan said.

“They are relying on us to give them the opportunity to succeed in the jobs of the future.”

A person flicks through textbooks on a wooden table
Labour market economist Conrad Liveris says fields like nursing already supply a lot of WA graduates.(ABC News: Jessica Warriner)

Mr Liveris said Western Australian industries, universities and students would all need to adapt to the pressures from the changes if the incentivised courses acted as designed, and funnelled students into the Federal Government’s areas of predicted future growth.

“The legal profession went through this a few years ago, and it’s really just figuring it out — the market gets oversaturated,” he said.

“We know science and engineering matter, but we need other graduates.”



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‘No-one is engineering viruses to release to wipe out the global population’ – diseases expert Peter Daszak – Channel 4 News


From the United States, a stark warning from a former top administration official that the country faces its darkest winter in modern history. To talk about that and much more I’m joined by Peter Daszak – a scientist working in the US to help find a cure for Covid-19. He’s an expert in how diseases can jump from wildlife to humans and even warned a pandemic was coming back in 2003.

But now the British-born scientist has had his US funding cut because of his links with Chinese scientists.



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