Inside the R&D of AI ethics

How do you start to wrap your head around some of the most fundamental issues surrounding new technology and how it impacts society? If you’re Jonathan Zittrain, you take this “brainstorming exercise,” as he calls it, and force it into the real world.

Zittrain is, among other honorifics, a Harvard Law School professor and the faculty director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. He’s also the force behind Assembly, a collaboration between Berkman Klein and the MIT Media Lab, a program which is taking a unique approach to solving problems related to AI and ethics.

For each of the last two years, Assembly has brought together a temporary group of technologists, business professionals, and academics to put their energy into a single topic. The cohort members divide into smaller teams and settle on project topics. (“Controlled chaos,” as 2018 cohort member Kasia Chmielinski describes it.)

At the end of the 12-week cohort session, the finalized projects are presented to Assembly’s advisory board. And from there, hopefully they make it back into industry. Zittrain sums it all up succinctly, saying, “We try to blend research, engineering, theory, and policy to make sure what we generate is as grounded in reality as possible—and that it can impact that reality.”

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