Good models, Bad data

Doctor : Nurse

Computer programmer : homemaker

What connection did you make between these two analogies? Even if just for a split second, these analogies strike most of the masses to assign doctor and programmer to a male role, while nurse and homemaker are assigned to a female one- unless you have surpassed all societal norms and reached a true level of #wokeness. Props to you if so. But, the sad truth is that these biases are ingrained in society, and our brains’ eagerness to draw conclusions from what is laid before us cause most of us fall to victim to these sexist classifications. And guess what- that means it’s causing artificial intelligence to as well.

Of course, the past decade or so has seen a huge surge in feminist campaigns and immense progress is being made. Alas, there still is always so much more to be done. Given in the tech industry itself there are enormous disparities between males and their female counterparts, it almost seems to follow that there will be some biases in the algorithms being created in Silicon Valley and beyond. Take, for example, how for every dollar a male founder makes in the tech industry, his female counterpart is making 30 cents (a gap much larger than the national gender wage gap). Or, how in the big-name companies, like Facebook, Apple and Google, there still is a 3:1 male to female employee ratio. And we can’t forget the classic study that found men are 70% more likely to get money from the same sales pitch that a woman makes. Surely, I could go on for days, but all of these inequalities in the world seep their way into what is imagined to be an entirely unbiased thing: MATH!!

But how could math be biased? The numbers don’t lie, right? How can artificial intelligence be biased, unless the programmers are intentionally making their creations sexist, racist or partial in some other sense? It’s called bad data. As put by the colead of the Ethical AI Team at Google, Timnit Gebru, “data is generated by society.” When society is biased, then the data is bad. The examples of disparities between men and women I gave above may give a sense into why AI is learning biases. While machine learning has revolutionized technology, these miraculous systems still need a basis from which they perform their mathematical magic. In a nutshell, these algorithms learn from initial training data, that is input by humans, and form generalizations from this data and apply it to novel, unseen inputs. So, if Amazon uses an AI system trained on 10 years’ worth of applications, a majority of which are from men, it’s going to teach itself that men are better candidates (because the majority of the hires will have been men), and more men are going to be called in for interviews. And yes, this actually happened.

So how do we stop these biases? More and more research is being dedicated into investigating how to eliminate biases from AI. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty astonishing task: it means teaching these systems to ignore the bias in the world. Can humans even do this? Can we even look past the biases so ingrained in our society? Maybe your response to the analogies at the beginning of this blog give you an answer. Vulnerable groups are in AI’s potential line of fire. But, thanks to cohorts at companies like IBM, Accenture and more, there is work being done to combat these issues. Psychologists are working with programmers to study cognitive mechanisms humans use to look past biases, so that these processes can be modeled in AI.

Women and other marginalized groups shouldn’t be afraid of AI, however. It’s a relatively new part of our modern world, and computer scientists and humanitarians alike are working together to make sure that it’s helping society more than it’s harming it. In fact, many groups are making headway with eliminating biases from math in AI with, in fact, more math. Algorithms are being constructed to counteract the generalizations that other-wise impartial systems may learn from biased data. There is light at the end of the tunnel! And what we can do is not be afraid of the advancement of our technology, and help contribute to the “good” data! After all, no matter how perfect an equation is, an imperfect world will still push it to wrong conclusions.

-Daniela Torres, Sophomore Student at Johns Hopkins University

A Video Game Decided My Career Path: How a Run-in with a Winged, Cat-like AI Inspired Me and My Life Choices

Growing up, I spent countless hours watching my parents destroy monsters and save the world. While it may not have been your parents who first exposed you to the incredible pixel world of gaming, video games have influenced this generation in crazy ways. Gaming can bring about a sense of comradery, accomplishment, satisfaction, and so much more. A Forbes article titled “The Impact Of Gaming: A Benefit To Society" states the following: 

“In an online poll, gamers were asked what they believed to be the main benefit of gaming. Over 40% said that gaming improves emotional well-being. That’s a serious benefit if you consider that one in five people in America experience mental health issues each year. This is a large contrast to the common view that playing video games leads to violence and other antisocial behavior. Which, according to Qutee, is a view that 93% of gamers think is incorrect.”  

While gaming can be twisted into something that is harmful, the impact of responsible gaming on youth culture can be positive, healing, and even life-changing. 


Videogames have influenced my life in a multitude of wonderful ways. They’ve taught me to be fearless in my pursuits, protect the ones I love, and to value how fragile life truly is. Video games have changed my life, and I know I’m not the only one. In fact, it is because of one very specific game that I am pursuing artificial intelligence in the first place. When I watched a full playthrough of Team Ico’s The Last Guardian, released in December 2016, I decided then and there that I wanted to pursue artificial intelligence in college. I realized what I wanted to do with my life the very moment I met Trico, the game’s incredible half-bird half-mammal AI. 

The Last Guardian is an action-adventure game created by Team Ico. The game was released in December 2016 after over 8 years of active development. Following the success of their cult-hit second game Shadow of the Colossus, Team Ico wanted to make sure they followed the vision of the game Fumito Ueda had set out for them. After switching studios, mid-development changing their platform from the PlayStation 3 to the PlayStation 4, and multiple showcases, The Last Guardian was officially showcased at Sony’s E3 2015. The development cycle took much longer than expected, but the wait was well worth it. The Last Guardian received favorable reception and was named on several Game of the Year lists. Reviewers praised the game’s environment and story, while the realistic animal behavior of the deuteragonist Trico was praised by some and scorned by others. 

Trico’s concept is an amalgam of several creatures, designed to be realistic as opposed to outright adorable. Trico’s ability to summon lightning adds to their wild and magical feel, while the cat-like twitching of Trico’s ears as it’s mesh collider brushes against tall surfaces evokes the familiar feeling of a house cat. Trico was programmed with key frame animations as opposed to industry standard motion capture techniques, which allows for subtleties that are hard to see in live animal subjects. Team Ico also used the full physics engine Havok to build Trico. According to Ueda, the effect of wind was modeled separately for each of Trico's feathers. 

The game hinges completely on the relationship between the unnamed boy player character and Trico.  The two work together to traverse the area the boy has awoken in by solving puzzles. Protecting each other from guards who threaten to separate them, Trico’s agility and stature help the boy reach areas he can’t get to alone. The boy initially has little control over Trico, but as the game progresses, he learns to command Trico to leap onto ledges or head in a certain direction, as well as shoot lightning and other actions. The boy can soothe Trico by petting its feathers, feed Trico when hungry, and pull spears out of Trico after battling enemies.  

Player’s frustrations with Trico come from the way Team Ico designed its AI. Trico is meant to behave like a fickle pet who doesn’t always listen. Trico is a wild creature, and that shows when it refuses to listen to the boy’s commands. The player character and Trico learn to work together and over time develop a special bond, but that’s only true if the player puts in the effort to train Trico properly. “More than anything, Trico’s behaviour is gloriously random. Sometimes it listens to its kid companion, and will merrily carry him over precarious bridges, parapets and crumbling towers. Other times, it flat out ignores the boy, instead choosing to take a gigantic nap, go for a little wander or throw a hissy fit in the hopes of being fed, “wrote David Meikleham for Gamesradar. Most games are created so the player follows the path of least resistance. This isn’t the case for Trico and The Last Guardian, so it is understandable that people are critical of Trico’s unwillingness to behave 100% of the time. 

For me, the very first encounter with Trico in the game was enchanting. Being able to work with an AI that seemed to have a mind of its own blew my mind. Trico is an amazingly designed AI, and I personally love the choice Team Ico made to have Trico show some independence. I feel like it gives Trico a certain realism that is missing from other video game AIs. The amount of time, dedication, and love put into making Trico was not lost on me, and that passion is what sparked inside of me the desire to create something similar. However Trico was made, high school aged me wanted to make something equally as magnificent and impactful.  

Trico is the kind of character you never forget meeting. I’ve played and watched hundreds upon hundreds of hours of games, and Trico is one of few characters I vividly remember interacting with and loving. When I learned that Trico was an intricately designed AI, I decided then that I would pursue the field of artificial intelligence and build my own Trico. I want to be able to create something that impacts others in an equally positive way to the way playing with Trico impacted me. 

Ever since finishing The Last Guardian, I have a sense of purpose and a benchmark to check myself against. When I feel down about the indeterminacy of the future, I think about my desire to create something that will impact people and change them for the better, like Trico did for me. While The Last Guardian is not my favorite game of all time (it’s pretty close though), it will always have a very special Trico-shaped place in my heart. 

 -Savanna Thompson, Sophomore Student at Johns Hopkins University

Proceed with Caution in the Age of Promising AI Frontiers

It is my pleasure to join President Jiali Zhang in welcoming Johns Hopkins University to the HopAI Club. My name is Daniel Blessing and I lead finances for the club. With hard work, we will lay the financial groundwork which will grow this club as AI grows with it.

-Daniel Blessing, hopAI Director of Finance

Personally, I think AI will become a technology that defines our future as the computer and internet have defined our parent’s future. The first academically recognized AI event was held in 1956, where a program called the Logic Theorist was exhibited. The Logic Theorist was a program designed to mimic the problem-solving skills of humans and inspired researchers that AI was achievable. Fast forward to 1997, reigning world chess champion Gary Kasparov lost to IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer. Recently on December 7, 2018, Google’s DeepMind published a paper about AlphaZero, a self-training AI program that defeated previous computer world champions in go, chess, and shogi. An AI program was able to surpass centuries of human knowledge in these games after only a few days of self-training. Generations of geniuses have dedicated their entire lives to chess, and AlphaZero surpassed them by playing itself over a few days with no human input required. AI is a powerful technology. Self-driving cars, life-saving prediction of sepsis, and even Netflix recommendations currently utilize AI programs. It is exciting that we have the privilege to work on the Finance Committee for a club focused on AI.

As promising as the AI frontier appears, there are reasons to be cautious. Elon Musk says “If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably [Artificial Intelligence].” For example, there are concerns about AI programs that decide to award loans becoming socially discriminating. In an extreme example, AI programs can be used by governments to oppress their people through monitoring and judging on a social-credit system. Based on these concerns and great technologies, I think the conversation of HopAI should be focused on AI safety and opportunity. In conclusion, Artificial Intelligence is an exciting, nascent field and the work we will be doing is important for its growth at Johns Hopkins. We will benefit the undergraduates and university by creating a strong AI organization at Johns Hopkins. I look forward to seeing you at our future events and leading the growth of AI at Johns Hopkins and the United States of America.

A Juxtaposition of Technology

A recent burst in artificial intelligence has brought computer science into medicine deeper than ever. For the first time in ages, doctors could turn to machine learning algorithm for clinial advice or even decisions. Diagnostic errors are reduced, inefficient workflows are transformed and resources are saved. However, the next generation biomedical practicers are faced with the giant challenge to build up robust and interpretable AI systems for health care. Also, several limitations like bias, privacy and security have to be overcome to achieve equality between patients and clinicians. The mission of HopAI is to facilitate both scientific research and public awareness of AI, and I'm excited to be part of this exciting era.

-Wang Xi, PhD Student at Johns Hopkins University

My High School Hopes & Dreams

I can’t say that I remember my first exposure to artificial intelligence as so much of the technology that surrounds our lives is full of hidden algorithms running an elaborate show behind a thin curtain. However, I do remember the first time I got to peek behind that curtain. As a senior in high school, I chose to take a Computational Science class which focused on building models for scientific phenomena. The class had a unit on machine learning, and whether or not you agree that machine learning is a subsection of AI, it was building decision trees in this high school class that first showed me how computers can make ‘choices’-- and I was hooked. Not only did I spend hours refining that code, but I also bought books on machine learning to hone my skills.

As I read beyond my skill set and into abstract ideas that I, personally, am years away from ever being able to implement, I became fascinated not only with the technical aspect of AI but also the ethical side of using such technologies. This desire for a deeper understanding of AI led me to join HopAI in my freshman year of college as I believe artificial intelligence is the technology of the future, and we all would greatly benefit from trying to understand it and its implications further. However as interesting these conversations are, I am still deeply interested in AI from a technological standpoint. Because of this, I have joined a design team focusing on deep learning in medicine. My goal is to have a well-rounded understanding of this fascinating topic, and I continue to strive for that goal by writing this post as with the hope of starting yet another important conversation about this rising technology.

- Cassie Parent, Freshman at Johns Hopkins University

Why did I do this?

My name is Olivia Brown, and I am an international studies and computer science double major at the Johns Hopkins University. The question that inevitably comes after this introduction is why. Why am I doubling in two things that to most people seem to make no sense together, and why on earth am I doing this to myself?

They’re fair questions. Sometimes I forget my pre-rehearsed answer and I start to doubt why I’m “doing this to myself,” too. Then I read an article, or listen to the Daily, and realize that although there are a lot of people out there much smarter than me, they often forget to listen to each other. In these cases, they need a translator, and that’s who I want to be.

The articles that remind me the most why I’m “doing this to myself” are the ones about Artificial Intelligence. As with most sciences, we now know we know just enough to know we know nothing. (No shame if you have to read that sentence twice.) Also with most sciences, the international community and politics and laws are unable to keep up. Artificial Intelligence has a lot of power, and some immense potential to change the world. However, without certain checks and balances, without a new sort of Geneva convention, Artificial Intelligence also poses an immense threat to the world as we know it.

I truly believe artificial intelligence can be used for good. I’m not here to scare you, just to let you know that the world is changing at a pace we all need to keep up with.

Consider the industrial revolution, in pretty much every country. Certain jobs that were once done by people were being completed at a much faster and consistent rate than ever before, and the economy changed. A lot of damage was done to the “losers” of this economical change, and to the environment. In most cases, public education increased and improved over the long run, as did laws to protect the working class against their employers and monopolies.

Now imagine what an artificial intelligence revolution could do. In just America, consider the ramifications of such a revolution for those who already feel as though they unfairly lost their jobs to immigrants. What would it create in the long run?

A lot has to happen before an artificial intelligence revolution occurs. For one, the technology would have to be much more accessible. Although it may be far off, if the political and legal world ignore the increasing presence and impact Artificial Intelligence could have, it will still be here before we are ready for it.

Thanks for reading!

-Olivia Brown, Sophomore at Johns Hopkins University