The holidays are the time of year when I typically field a lot of questions from relatives about technology or the tech industry, and this year my favorite questions were around AI. (insert your own scary music) Machine-learning (ML) or Artificial Intelligence (AI) are being widely deployed and I have some Problems™ with that. Machine learning is not necessarily a new domain, the practices commonly accepted as “ML” have been used for quite a while to support search and recommendations use-cases. In fact, my day job includes supporting data scientists and those who are actively creating models and deploying them to production. However, many of my relatives outside of the tech industry believe that “AI” is going to replace people, their jobs, and/or run the future. I genuinely hope AI/ML comes nowhere close to this future imagined by members of my family.

Like many pieces of technology, it is not inherently good or bad, but the problem with ML as it is applied today is that its application is far outpacing our understanding of its consequences.

Brian Kernighan, co-creator of the C programming language and UNIX, said:

Everyone knows that debugging is twice as hard as writing a program in the first place. So if you’re as clever as you can be when you write it, how will you ever debug it?

Setting aside the mountain of ethical concerns around the application of ML which have and should continue to be discussed in the technology industry, there’s a fundamental challenge with ML-based systems: I don’t think their creators understand how they work, how their conclusions are determined, or how to consistently improve them over time. Imagine you are a data scientist or ML developer, how confident are you in what your models will predict between experiments or evolutions of the model? Would you be willing to testify in a court of law about the veracity of your model’s output?

Imagine you are a developer working on the models that Tesla’s “full self-driving” (FSD) mode relies upon. Your model has been implicated in a Tesla killing the driver and/or pedestrians (which has happened). Do you think it would be possible to convince a judge and jury that your model is not programmed to mow down pedestrians outside of a crosswalk? How do you prove what a model is or is not supposed to do given never before seen inputs?

Traditional software does have a variation of this problem but source code lends itself to scrutiny far better than the ML models. Many of which have come from successive evolutions of public training data, proprietary model changes, and integrations with new data sources.

These problems may be solvable in the ML ecosystem, but problem is that the application of ML is outpacing our ability to understand, monitor, and diagnose models when they do harm.

That model your startup is working on to help accelerate home loan approvals based on historical mortgages, how do you assert that your models are not re-introducing racist policies like redlining. (forms of this have happened).

How about that fun image generation (AI art!) project you have been tinkering with uses a publicly available model that was trained on millions of images from the internet, and as a result in some cases unintentionally outputs explicit images, or even what some jurisdictions might consider bordering on child pornography. (forms of this have happened).

Really anything you teach based on the data “from the internet” is asking for racist, pornographic, or otherwise offensive results, as the Microsoft Tay example should have taught us.

Can you imagine the human-rights nightmare that could ensue from shoddy ML models being brought into a healthcare setting? Law-enforcement? Or even military settings?

Machine-learning encompasses a very powerful set of tools and patterns, but our ability to predict how those models will be used, what they will output, or how to prevent negative outcomes are dangerously insufficient for the use outside of search and recommendation systems.

I understand how models are developed, how they are utilized, and what I think they’re supposed to do.

Fundamentally the challenge with AI/ML is that we understand how to “make it work”, but we don’t understand why it works.

Nonetheless we keep deploying “AI” anywhere there’s funding, consequences be damned.

And that’s a problem.