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The IEEE Standards Association has released a report calling for engineers to consider the impact their work will have on climate change, children, and society. It’s a push toward “utilizing emerging technologies in a way that prioritizes people and planet over power and profits.”

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is one of the largest organizations for computer scientists in the world. With hundreds of thousands of members, the group undertakes initiatives to create common standards and often consults organizations like the European Commission and OECD on matters of ethics and design principles.

“It is imperative to move beyond business as usual and to prioritize the well-being of our children, starting with protecting their privacy and security online. If we fail to do this, their agency, mental health, and self-actualization as humans in any culture will be reliant on forces beyond their control,” reads the report titled “Measuring What Matters in the Era of Global Warming and the Age of Algorithmic Promises.”

The whitepaper encapsulates change already underway at the IEEE that’s in line with AI ethics principles released in spring 2019 after years of work, according to John Havens, director of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous & Intelligent Systems. The report also follows an IEEE directive last fall to recognize “the global scale of the human-made and other environmental, social, and governance challenges that threaten to rapidly and critically impact the living conditions of current and future generations.”


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Other recent works express similar sentiments: Last year, CEOs from Apple, Amazon, and other top businesses recognized a responsibility to society, as well as shareholders, and companies like Microsoft and Amazon have recently espoused ambitious carbon footprint reduction goals.

The report offers three recommendations:

  • Shift toward a “new climate economy” and identify “Earth-friendly AI”
  • Protect children’s future, data, and lives
  • Seek new success metrics that take societal well-being into account

Havens worked with IEEE Standards Association managing director Konstantinos Karachalios and climate change advocate economist Lord Nicholas Stern to author the report. The autonomous initiative Havens leads includes ethicists from companies like Google and Salesforce.

The paper itself does not constitute an IEEE standard, but it points to a number of standards that may need to change to reflect the recommendations. Impacted standards include P2089, for changes in children’s data privacy standards, and a metrics and autonomous systems best practice standard named 7010 that’s due out in the months ahead, an IEEE spokesperson told VentureBeat in an email.

Building Earth-friendly AI

The report highlights work at the intersection of climate change AI, such as a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report that calls for AI-powered help in crucial areas like water supply management, clean power, fishing sustainability, and other sectors of the economy deemed “Earth-friendly AI.”

It also champions work by organizations like Climate Change AI. Last year, the group documented numerous ways machine learning skills can combat climate change, from measuring urban planning and climate change impact to reducing transportation activity.

Climate Change AI members include leaders like Institute for Computational Sustainability director Carla Gomes, alongside luminaries like deep learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio and Google AI chief Jeff Dean. The group met at NeurIPS in December 2019 and will meet again at ICLR next month.

Children, data privacy, and big tech

The whitepaper also argues that the internet fails to account for underage users. It asserts that the internet is designed to treat every user as an adult, ignoring the need to protect children from data collection by tech giants.

This issue implicates tech giants intent on user data collection, like Google and Facebook, Karachalios told VentureBeat in a phone interview.

“This is a question of power, and we have to address this as such,” Karachalios said. “We believe it is important to give a chance to our children and future generations to understand, let’s say, the regimes of power, and the structure of power, and how perhaps they can find some creative ways to address it. Because they are born in the system … but they will not understand that they are subservient to platforms which pretend to serve them.”

The World Economic Forum Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is also working with the United Nations to reconsider data protection for children in the age of AI.

Measuring benefits beyond profit

Finally, the report calls for well-being metrics that speak to benefits not explicitly tied to profits. These should influence AI design, manufacturing, and use, such that “human well-being and ecological sustainability replace exponential growth as our new metrics of societal success.”

It also points to advances in the field of probabilistic computing that can support the creation of well-being metrics and highlights recent work by the government in New Zealand, where lawmakers are using metrics associated with people and the environment to influence policy and the economy.

Measures of success that extend beyond financial profit or GDP, Havens said, can encourage data scientists, engineers, and the makers of machine learning-driven products to design with societal interests in mind.

“Now if you build, say, an autonomous vehicle, along with all the amazing stuff you’re already doing to protect us and bring us technological excellence, maybe you didn’t know about the Better Life Index, or the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal that focuses on the environment,” Havens said.

Other metrics that measure human benefit and well-being include the OECD’s Better Life Index and the Genuine Progress Index, which lawmakers in places like Maryland use when drafting legislation.

The United Nations, in partnership with Samsung, is continuing to explore ways AI can help people reach sustainable development goals, like addressing poverty and hunger and access to quality education.

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