By MIKE MAGEE
His biography states, “He speaks to philosophical questions about the fears and possibilities of new technology and how we can be empowered to shape our future. His work to bridge cultures spans artificial intelligence, cognition, language, music, creativity, ethics, society, and policy.”
He embraces the title “cross-disciplinary,” and yet his PhD thesis at UC Berkeley in 1980 “was one of the first to spur the paradigm shift toward machine learning based natural language processing technologies.” Credited with inventing and building “the world’s first global-scale online language translator that spawned Google Translate, Yahoo Translate, and Microsoft Bing Translator,” he is clearly a “connector” in a world currently consumed by “dividers.” In 2019, Google named De Kai as “one of eight inaugural members of its AI Ethics Council.”
The all encompassing challenge of our day, as he sees it, is relating to each other. As he says, “The biggest fear is fear itself – the way AI amplifies human fear exponentially…turning us upon ourselves through AI powered social media driving misinformation, divisiveness, polarization, hatred and paranoia.” The value system he embraces “stems from a liberal arts perspective emphasizing creativity in both technical and humanistic dimensions.”
Dr. De Kai is feeling especially urgent these days, which is a bit out of character.
As a 7 year old child of Chinese immigrants in St. Louis, he spoke little English, saying what needed to be said on the family’s piano. Summers were spent back and forth between Hong Kong and the states. Others noticed he’d sneak in some blues to the classical pieces, causing his grandfather to remark the synthesis pieces sounded “Chinese” to him. This led the budding linguist/musicologist to later reflect that “That got me thinking. I realized that the way we understand music is really dependent on the cultural frame of reference we adopt.”
Music and technology married during his PhD work at UC Berkeley, and eventually grounded four decades of research in “natural language processing and computational creativity.” He has earned the right to chill, but is anything but at ease these days, and the cause of his anguish is existential artificial intelligence.
As he said recently, “We are on the verge of breaking all our social, cultural and governmental norms…Our social norms were not designed to handle this level of stress.”
De Kai has morphed into an AI Ethicist. He is on a personal quest and anxious to bare his soul. The questions that keep him up at night all consider whether he is parenting his “AI children” properly. “Am I setting a good example? Am I a good role model? Do I speak respectfully to AI and teach them to respect diversity, or do I show them that it’s okay to insult people online?”
His focus is solidly on the here and now, because he doesn’t believe time is on our side. “We have more AIs today that are part of our society. These are functioning, integral, active, imitative, learning, influential members of society more than most — probably more influential than 90 percent of human society — in shaping culture…. Even though these are really weak AI’s, the culture that we are jointly shaping with our artificial members of society is the one under which every successive stronger generation of AI’s will be learning and spreading their culture. We are already in that cycle and we don’t realize it because we don’t look at machines from a sociological standpoint… This is unprecedented, given the ways we have created to develop and relate, both good and bad, will be exponentially increased by AI. In this way, the impact it will have on society and culture will be unimaginable.”
Raising “mindful AI’s” in the age of Trump is no small feat. It demands that AI children be “mindful of their ethical responsibilities.” Pulling this off in the developed world with an increasingly fractured educational system that pits science/technology against humanities will be a remarkable challenge. As De Kai puts it, “It is the single worst possible time in history to have an education system that cripples people to be unable to think deeply across these boundaries, about what humanity is in the face of technology.
To accomplish “A.I. alignment with the goals of humanity,” may require Americans to examine their own health and wellness in a manner that could be profoundly uncomfortable. Population welfare, philosophical treatises, and political compromise are not exactly our cultural strong suits.
How will we do with these competing priorities, wonders De Kai in a recent New York Times Op-Ed: “Short-term instant gratification? Long-term happiness? Avoidance of extinction? Individual liberties? Collective good? Bounds on inequality? Equal opportunity? Degree of governance? Free speech? Safety from harmful speech? Allowable degree of manipulation? Tolerance of diversity? Permissible recklessness? Rights versus responsibilities?”
“Culture matters. A.I.s are now an everyday part of our society”,says De Kai. Changing culture, as health professionals know, is a tall order. It is about compassion, understanding and partnerships. It is about healing, providing health, and keeping individuals, families and communities whole. And – most importantly – it is about managing population-wide fear, worry and anxiety.
What De Kai is setting out to do is to change our historic culture (one built on self-interest, hyper-competitiveness, and distrust of good government). This is a tall order – something that parents, pastors, politicians and physicians equally recognize. Things evolve, and difficult things take time.
Mike Magee MD is a Medical Historian and regular contributor to THCB. He is the author of CODE BLUE: Inside America’s Medical-Industrial Complex.