Why democratizing AI is absolutely crucial

Without regulations, implicit bias could shape artificial intelligence into a nightmare for some.

KAREN PALMER: One of the key themes kind of in the subtext of the narratives of my work that I create is about democratizing artificial intelligence and kind of looking at the lack of AI governance and AI regulation. And the consequence and implications of that which is what my Perception iO project reflects for the user experience. This is a really big deal girls and boys out there. This is a really big deal. You know there was something called the, you may have heard of called email and the internet which was with the government and the military for decades before it came to us, the people. There's serious consequences if us, the people, don't have access or are not involved in the development of these networks with these really powerful forms of technology. There's something called implicit bias which basically means everybody basically has bias that they've had being brought up and their livelihood and their experiences in life.

And if you're a developer or a designer you tend to subconsciously program implicit bias into what you're doing. The consequences of implicit bias in technology like AI is basically catastrophic. So I'm going to give an example. There's a system called the Compass system which is a system which supports judges as they're sentencing a criminal. This is an AI system and it has been proven that this system has given longer sentences for people of color and black people than it does to white people. There's also a similar system in the UK which has been proven to give longer sentences to working class people. The artificial intelligence which supports the judges in these decisions is designed by private organizations and corporations. The data in this AI has no regulation governing it and basically a commercial entity has created this, given it to judges and it is affecting people's lives. People of color and black people for the worse on a daily basis.

As a black woman working in storytelling and technology this type of conversation is very important to bring to the fore. For other developers and academics in this area that's not a priority for them. They have other narratives that they want to bring. So part of democratizing, creating a regulation, a governance is to me essential and that's why when you experience my stories and my immersive experiences this is the context of them. Because maybe lots of people this is just too heavy for them. They want to watch The Voice, they want to watch X Factor. This is way too heavy shit. But if you're in an immersive experience and you're feeling it and you're feeling this emotion and you're seeing the consequences maybe viscerally it can connect with you in your gut in a different way. So that's why I created experiences to kind of show, bring these things to people in a way which is accessible to them in a language and experience which they understand.

  • Implicit biases are feelings and ideas subconsciously attributed to a group or culture based on learned associations and experiences. Everyone has them, but it can be dangerous when those biases are transferred to a powerful technology like AI.
  • By keeping the development of artificial intelligence private, we are risking building systems that are intrinsically biased against certain groups.
  • Governance and regulations are necessary to ensure that artificial intelligence remains as neutral as possible.


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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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