Kenny Chen
Kenny Chen.

Every day, artificial intelligence systems make unseen but critical decisions about our health, our finances and our media diet. What kind of values are informing those decisions? What are the ethics behind the algorithms?

Pittsburgh-based entrepreneur Kenny Chen is part of a global network of tech evangelists looking to answer those questions. In December, Chen helped found the Pittsburgh chapter of the global advocacy organization City.AI, which seeks to democratize both the design and development of artificial intelligence systems.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Chen said his goal is to “make it possible for more people to understand and take part in this fast-changing and new part of the digital economy.”

Carnegie Mellon University has been widely acknowledged as a global leader in many of the new technologies and innovations that fall under the broad umbrella of “artificial intelligence.” Last fall it became the first university in the U.S. to offer a bachelor’s degree in A.I.

As these technologies have been increasingly incorporated into smartphones and consumer products in the last decade, the nation’s most prominent tech companies have poured millions into artificial intelligence research facilities in and around Pittsburgh, hoping to tap the CMU talent pipeline.

In 2018, Google, Facebook and Bosch announced plans to open local artificial intelligence labs and underwrite related research taking place at Carnegie Mellon. Uber, with a staff largely poached from the school’s robotics department, has been testing self-driving cars in the area since 2015, though currently on a limited basis.

In his role as program director for the startup accelerator and coworking space Ascender, Chen saw the city’s surging AI sector firsthand. He also saw the industry avoiding what he thought were critical questions.

“There’s been a massive surge in AI development, but for the most part most companies are focused on their competitive advantages, and have not prioritized discussions around ethics,” he says.

Though Mayor Peduto often likes to tout Pittsburgh as a smart city, Chen didn’t see city officials or business leaders making an effort to explain how AI is already undergirding many aspects of daily life.

In the local artificial intelligence industry, “the major gaps are not a lot of community-facing activities,” says Chen. And “a lot of misinformation about what it even entails.”

While much of the marketing around artificial intelligence presents thoroughly logical systems free from errors in human judgment, Chen says that the reality is that a man-made system can easily replicate the biases of its programmers.

“Algorithmic bias shows up in HR, insurance, finance,” says Chen. “People have machines dictate unequal outcomes.”

While the Pittsburgh chapter is only a month old, they’ve already held several networking and education events around the city. On January 28, the organization will kick off a robotics competition in collaboration with Xprize, a nonprofit dedicated to humanistic technology development.

Over the next year, Chen says he hopes to have a consistent schedule of open community-based activities where the organization can educate the public and also learn what kind of AI initiatives could best improve public life.

Founded in 2016, City.AI is based in Brussels, Belgium, and now has chapters in 62 cities all over the w0rld. Pittsburgh is one of four American cities in the network, along with New York, Los Angeles and Austin.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.