RAISO Student Group Explores the Responsibility and Safety of AI

Mason Secky-Koebel wanted to be a part of the global conversation about technology and artificial intelligence, so he and a fellow student created the Responsible AI Student Organization (RAISO).

In May 2013, a game called Flappy Bird was released on Apple and Android's app stores for mobile phones and tablets. The premise of the game was fairly simple — users controlled a bird as it flew, maneuvering the animal to avoid pipes and other objects in the sky. The longer the bird was in the air, the higher the score. Developed by programmer Dong Nguyen, Flappy Bird became a surprise success, and by early 2014, it had upwards of 50 million downloads, making it the most downloaded game in the U.S.

Yet a month after it reached that plateau, Nguyen decided to pull Flappy Bird from the stores. He felt it was too addictive and that players were spending too much time controlling the imaginary bird. It was shocking for a developer to obtain such great success only to halt it because of what he thought was an ethical dilemma. 

Is it up to a developer to determine what’s the appropriate amount of time users play their game? That question and more surrounding the Flappy Bird controversy were recently discussed on the Northwestern University campus by members of the Responsible AI Student Organization (RAISO). The organization examines the impact technology has on the world and the burden on developers, engineers, programmers, and others responsible for molding the safety of their technology.  

RAISO was co-founded by Northwestern undergraduates Mason Secky-Koebel and Bijal Mehta, who set out to create a community of people interested in ethics and AI. The two met in 2020 at a meeting of the TREE lab, a research initiative at Northwestern that examines the ethical and social impact of new technologies. After one conversation and a couple of months of preparation, RAISO was born. RAISO’s mission is to educate students of any background about AI and its current and potential impact on society.

“I had an interest in the technology behind AI," Secky-Koebel said, "but it soon became clear there was a need for conversations about AI safety, and the consequences of developing technology that one day will be able to outthink us."  

Watching the Netflix film The Social Dilemma in the summer of 2020 confirmed Secky-Koebel's feeling. 

“(The movie) does well to highlight what tech companies and businesses have been doing the last 15 years - most famously with companies like Facebook - turning towards business models powered by advertising and data extraction,” Secky-Koebel said. “Because people interact with their screens so much, companies like that saw it as an opportunity to collect huge amounts of information and sell it. It’s complicated because technology has made our lives so much better, but it’s become detrimental in a lot of ways too.”

One of RAISO’s core principles is that it’s not just for members of the university community with a background in computer science; anyone interested is welcome. That includes undergraduates, faculty members, university staff, and certainly students in Northwestern Engineering’s Master of Science in Artificial Intelligence (MSAI) program, who touch on many of these topics throughout their time in the program. 

Along with the discussions on topics such as the ethical concern behind applications like Flappy Birds or the misconceptions surrounding AI, the organization has a weekly newsletter titled Hold the Code, which includes the tagline ‘A tech newsletter you can actually understand,’ and a regular speaker series where guests give their thoughts on the current and future state of technology.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these conversations have been virtual so far. As more people return to campus, Secky-Koebel is optimistic more people will join the conversation and that RAISO will continue to grow in the coming year.

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