Looking outside AI: Usama Fayyad, Data & AI expert, Institute for Experiential AI

Published by Looking Outside on January 3, 2024

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On this episode of Looking Outside we explore the reality and risk behind the hype of AI, with Executive Director of the Institute for Experiential AI at Northeastern University, Founder of Open Insights, Data Scientist and AI expert, Usama Fayyad.

Usama has been in the field of AI for three decades and has lived through three AI hype peaks followed by three winters. In this conversation he contextualizes how the current infatuation with the ‘eloquence’ of data-driven AI stacks up.

Usama first points to an important problem with AI – not with the algorithm but with the data sets that inform the outputs. As the first person to ever hold a Chief Data Officer title, Usama stresses how critical it is to scrutinize the data sets that are feeding the algorithm, as these large data sets are really the breakthrough in this wave of AI, he says, not the machine learning advancements, and the data is filled with errors.

Jo and Usama discuss the onus of the user in not over relying on the AI for our thinking, as the risk here is equally in erroneous output as it is in missing the ‘true contribution’ behind the source material. Usama puts this plainly to say AI has the potential to speed up banal tasks but can, for other tasks, be completely inappropriate – particularly when these require critical thinking and finding what’s between the lines. The algorithm is auto completing answers based on information fed into it: that information may be incorrectly summarized, incompletely inputted, biased, misrepresented or just plain incorrect.

Usama says the user must be aware and in control, because at the moment most generative AI tools are like black boxes that hold things nobody understands. And when the AI gets it wrong, it’s up to us to catch the mistakes, otherwise a world of hurt in the form of misinformation, misrepresentation and perpetuation of bias lies ahead.

Jump to the key points in the episode:

  • 4:28 The true advancements of AI and the current hype cycle
  • 8:22 Data curation that leads to misinformation, bias and unpredictability
  • 12:40 Impact on critical thinking with over-reliance on AI
  • 16:30 Irresponsible and inappropriate use of AI
  • 22:00 Dangerous versus safe application via new tools
  • 25:00 Deepfakes, misinformation and disinformation by bad actors

To look outside Usama works to catch his own bias – bias built on his personal experience, training, and business objective. He does this by taking a situation and trying to see its effect on someone’s live he wouldn’t normally consider. This forces him to consider interesting aspects he wouldn’t otherwise like social and ethical impacts that may arise. He marries this with talking to people, specifically in asking questions he knows the answer to, seeking to understand why a different answer may be given.

Usama joined Northeastern University Khoury College of Computer Science as Professor of the Practice, and the Office of the Provost as the Inaugural Executive Director of the Institute for Experiential AI. He continues as Chairman of Open Insights, a company he founded as a technology and consulting firm in 2008 after leaving Yahoo! to enable enterprises to get value out of their data assets and optimize or create new business models based on the new evolving economy of interactions.

He was the first person to hold the Chief Data Officer title when Yahoo! acquired his second startup in 2004. At Yahoo! he built the Strategic Data Solutions group and founded Yahoo! Research Labs. He has held leadership roles at Microsoft and founded the Machine Learning Systems group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Usama has published over 100 technical articles on data mining, data science, AI/ML, and databases. He holds over 20 patents and is a Fellow of both the AAAI and the ACM. Usama earned his Ph.D. in Engineering in AI/Machine Learning from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is an active angel investor/advisor in many early-stage tech startups across the U.S., Europe and the Middle East.

View on Looking Outside online.

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