Episode 97: Francesca Rossi talks about AI ethics and the development of new AI systems

// Oct 15, 2019

Our guest today is Francesca Rossi,  who for the past three years has been an AI Ethics Global Leader at IBM Research as well as an IBM Distinguished Research Staff Member. Prior to her time at IBM, she was a professor of computer science at the University of Padova, Italy.

Francesca’s AI research interests include constraint reasoning, preferences, multi-agent systems, computational social choice, and collective decision making. Much of her research today is focused on the future of artificial intelligence and the ethical issues surrounding the development and behavior of AI systems.

She is a fellow of both the worldwide association of AI (AAAI) and of the European Association of AI. She also has been president of the International Joint Conference on AI and the editor in chief of the Journal of AI Research.

Sitting in for Dawn during today’s interview is IHMC colleague Brent Venable, who recently was named the inaugural director of a new Ph.D. program in Intelligent Systems and Robotics that is a partnership between IHMC and the University of West Florida.

Brent is a graduate of the University of Padova and had Francesca as her academic advisor.

Show notes:

[00:03:25] Brent opens the interview asking Francesca where she grew up in Italy.

[00:03:51] Brent mentions that Francesca was a curious child, who was fascinated with the moon landing. Brent asks what else Francesca was interested in as a child.

[00:05:01] Francesca explains that if she were to stumble across a time machine she would be interested in going forward in time rather than backwards.

[00:05:41] Ken asks why Francesca decided to study computer science in 1981when the field was relatively new.

[00:07:22] Francesca discusses the one class in her academic career that stumped her, despite her good grades in every other subject.

[00:08:36] Ken mentions that Francesca ended up in Austin, Texas after obtaining her degree in computer science, and asks what it was that lead her to the University of Texas and what research she did there.

[00:11:40] Brent asks why Francesca decided to go back to Pisa after Texas to work on her Ph.D.

[00:13:23] Brent mentions that after Francesca’s Ph.D., she moved to the University of Padova, where she worked for the next 20 years. Brent asks about the work that Francesca did in this period, particularly her seminal work on preferences for intelligent systems.

[00:15:17] Ken discusses how Francesca became Brent’s academic advisor at Padova. Ken mentions that he has heard that the two of them had so much fun working together, that they did as much laughing as research during their time at Padova. He asks the two of them if that could possibly be true.

[00:17:41] Francesca talks about the sabbatical she took to the Radcliff Institute.

[00:22:00] Brent asks about an article in the Wall Street Journal that featured Francesca as well as a senior manager at IBM and one of the founders of Skype and how the article played a role in Francesca’s decision to move to the United States.

[00:23:41] Francesca’s title at IBM is “Global Ethics Leader.” Brent asks Francesca to describe what the job entails.

[00:30:00] Ken asks what Francesca envisions as the likely future of AI, and what she hopes for the future of AI.

[00:31:54] Francesca discusses how we sometimes craft our visions for the future around our current technology, and that she believes that the proper approach should be to build our technologies around our visions for the future.

[00:34:37] Brent asks Francesca for her thoughts on whether or not the fear of robots and AI going rogue and hurting people is a legitimate one, and what she thinks about the government adopting AI legislation.

[00:38:23] Francesca gives her thoughts on the fears that AI will one day replace human workers.

[00:41:43] Brent mentions that Matt Johnson, interviewed on episode 86 of STEM-Talk, had an article in AI magazine where he discussed human machine teaming, and said that humans and AI should work together the way two musicians do when playing a duet.

[00:44:11] Ken asks about the current predominance of machine learning as opposed to traditional AI, otherwise known as symbolic AI, and if the area of preferences that Francesca has pioneered could be a potential candidate for bringing these two areas of AI together.

[00:47:55] Brent asks if we ever decided to one day replace a judge with a deep learning algorithm, would AI be prone to discrimination based on the dataset that the deep-learning algorithm has been given to learn from.

[00:52:35] Ken asks if there are ways to hold the people and the companies that design intelligent systems accountable for the decisions that they make?

[00:55:29] Ken mentions that tech companies often shift blame to algorithms for mistakes that were a fault of humans whether intentional or unintentional. He asks about the growing concern of biases both consciously and unconsciously being imbedded into algorithms by the humans who make them.

[01:00:34] In ascribing values to intelligent machines to abide by, Ken asks whose values should be used, as different cultures have different values as well as different ethical codes of conduct.

[01:04:42] Brent asks about Francesca’s involvement with The Future of Life Institute, which leads Francesca to discuss Max Tegmark’s book “Life 3.0.”

[01:08:11] Brent asks about another initiative Francesca is involved in called Partnership for AI.

[01:10:52] Ken mentions that Francesca is the conference chair  for the 34th Annual AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence, which will take place in New York City in February. Ken asks what the submissions currently look like and also to talk about the health of the field.

[01:13:49] Brent asks what Francesca does with her spare time.

[01:15:11] Ken asks Francesca why he was told to reassure her that the STEM-Talk staff would use a photograph of her and not a photograph of “The Terminator” on the STEM-Talk home page next to her episode.


Francesca Rossi IBM bio

Learn more about IHMC

STEM-Talk homepage 

Ken Ford bio

Dawn Kernagis bio