By Kim Martineau
Omar Costilla Reyes reels off all the ways that artificial intelligence might benefit his native Mexico. It could raise living standards, he says, lower health care costs, improve literacy and promote greater transparency and accountability in government.
But Mexico, like many of its Latin American neighbors, has failed to invest as heavily in AI as other developing countries. That worries Costilla Reyes, a postdoc at MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
To give the region a nudge, Costilla Reyes and three other MIT graduate students — Guillermo Bernal, Emilia Simison and Pedro Colon-Hernandez — have spent the last six months putting together a three-day event that will bring together policymakers and AI researchers in Latin America with AI researchers in the United States. The AI Latin American sumMIT will take place in January at the MIT Media Lab.
“Africa is getting lots of support — Africa will eventually catch up,” Costilla Reyes says. “You don’t see anything like that in Latin America, despite the potential for AI to move the region forward socially and economically.”
Four paths to MIT and research inspired by AI
Each of the four students took a different route to MIT, where AI plays a central role in their work — on the brain, voice assistants, augmented creativity and politics. Costilla Reyes got his first computer in high school, and though it had only dial-up internet access, it exposed him to a world far beyond his home city of Toluca. He studied for a PhD at the University of Manchester, where he developed an AI system with applications in security and health to identify individuals by their gait. At MIT, Costilla Reyes is building computational models of how firing neurons in the brain produce memory and cognition, information he hopes can also advance AI.
After graduating from a vocational high school in El Salvador, Bernal moved in with relatives in New Jersey and studied English at a nearby community college. He continued on to Pratt Institute, where he learned to incorporate Python into his design work. Now at the MIT Media Lab, he’s developing interactive storytelling tools like PaperDreams that uses AI to help people unlock their creativity. His work recently won a Schnitzer Prize.
Simison came to MIT to study for a PhD in political science after her professors at Argentina’s University Torcuato Di Tella encouraged her to continue her studies in the United States. She is currently using text analysis tools to mine archival records in Brazil and Argentina to understand the role that political parties and unions played under the last dictatorships in both countries.
Colon-Hernandez grew up in Puerto Rico fascinated with video games. A robotics class in high school inspired him to build a computer to play video games of his own, which led to a degree in computer engineering at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. After helping a friend with a project at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Colon-Hernandez applied to a summer research program at MIT, and later, the MIT Media Lab’s graduate program. He’s currently working on intelligent voice assistants.
It’s hard to generalize about a region as culturally diverse and geographically vast as Latin America, stretching from Mexico and the Caribbean to the tip of South America. But protests, violence and reports of entrenched corruption have dominated the news for years, and the average income per person has been falling with respect to the United States since the 1950s. All four students see AI as a means to bring stability and greater opportunity to their home countries.
AI with a humanitarian agenda
The idea to bring Latin American policymakers to MIT was hatched last December, at the world’s premier conference for AI research, NeurIPS. The organizers of NeurIPS had launched several new workshops to promote diversity in response to growing criticism of the exclusion of women and minorities in tech. At Latinx, a workshop for Latin American students, Costilla Reyes met Colon-Hernandez, who was giving a talk on voice-activated wearables. A few hours later they began drafting a plan to bring a Latinx-style event to MIT.
Back in Cambridge, they found support from Armando Solar-Lezama, a native of Mexico and a professor at MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. They also began knocking on doors for funding, securing an initial $25,000 grant from MIT’s Institute Community and Equity Office. Other graduate students joined the cause, including, and together they set out to recruit speakers, reserve space at the MIT Media Lab and design a website. RIMAC, the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, X Development, and Facebook have all since offered support for the event.
Unlike other AI conferences, this one has a practical bent, with themes that echo many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals: to end extreme poverty, develop quality education, create fair and transparent institutions, address climate change and provide good health.
The students have set similarly concrete goals for the conference, from mapping the current state of AI-adoption across Latin America to outlining steps policymakers can take to coordinate efforts. U.S. researchers will offer tutorials on open-source AI platforms like TensorFlow and scikit-learn for Python, and the students are continuing to raise money to fly 10 of their counterparts from Latin America to attend the poster session.
“We reinvent the wheel so much of the time,” says Simison. “If we can motivate countries to integrate their efforts, progress could move much faster.”
The potential rewards are high. A 2017 report by Accenture estimated that if AI were integrated into South America’s top five economies — Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru — which generate about 85 percent of the continent’s economic output, they could each add up to 1 percent to their annual growth rate.
In developed countries like the U.S. and in Europe, AI is sometimes viewed apprehensively for its potential to eliminate jobs, spread misinformation and perpetuate bias and inequality. But the risk of not embracing AI, especially in countries that are already lagging behind economically, is potentially far greater, says Solar-Lezama. “There’s an urgency to make sure these countries have a seat at the table and can benefit from what will be one of the big engines for economic development in the future,” he says.
Post-conference deliverables include a set of recommendations for policymakers to move forward. “People are protesting across the entire continent due to the marginal living conditions that most face,” says Costilla Reyes. “We believe that AI plays a key role now, and in the future development of the region, if it’s used in the right way.”