Human control of artificial intelligence

How can you design autonomous systems like robots, self-driving cars or IT systems to be transparent and always open to human intervention? This is the question that eight post-docs from four faculties will spend the next two years working on. Welcome to AiTech.

© Auke Herrema

Computer says no.’ About ten years ago, the makers of the TV series Little Britain signalled the advent of artificial intelligence in the service industry. In those days, artificial intelligence was also dubbed artificial incompetence because of the incomprehensible decisions made by the software systems, or because of automatic carts getting stuck in the complexity of the traffic. It was funny. But that was then.

Two years ago, the VSNU (Association of Universities in the Netherlands) launched the Digital Society research programme in answer to the omnipresent digitisation that was unsettling society. Then-Rector Magnificus Karel Luyben contacted Prof. Inald Lagendijk (Computing-based society, EEMCS) and Prof. Jeroen van den Hoven (Ethics of information technology, TPM) to see whether and how TU Delft could play a role in the research programme. 

While walking around the campus, Lagendijk and Van den Hoven saw just how much artificial intelligence and autonomous systems was already being used. Applications included both pure software such as decision support programmes, as well as embedded programming in robots, virtually self-driving cars and in drones. Although the researchers they spoke to were enthusiastic, in-depth questioning revealed that most of them weren't entirely sure how such an artificial brain worked. Or what the effects of errors in input or processing would be. 

Ethical questions

Lagendijk explains: “Everyone faces the same questions: how can I keep control? How do I understand what's going on? How can I justify the decisions the system makes? All kinds of legal, ethical and social questions arise, which lots of people are working on. Institutes impose codes of behaviour along the lines of ‘thou shalt...’, but little attention is given on how to technically achieve it through research, design and engineering.” 

This is now the focus of TU Delft's contribution to the AiTech research programme: technical measures designed to safeguard human control of autonomous systems. The team was reinforced by the addition of Prof. Elisa Giaccardi (IDE) and Prof. Martijn Wisse (3mE), with Dr Luuk Mur as secretary. 

Built-in control

For the next two years, eight post-docs from the Faculties of EEMCS, TPM, IDE and 3mE will conduct research into the meaningful human control of artificial intelligence systems. They will divide their time between two faculties and the AiTech Centre based on the Construction Campus. Half of the € 2 million funding has been allocated by the Executive Board and the other half by the faculties concerned. 

The researchers, who are currently being recruited, are asked to supplement their applications with a research proposal that meets three criteria. The project must contribute to raising awareness of human control of applied artificial intelligence. The researcher must draw up criteria for what the human control entails in this particular case, and be able to quantify it. Finally, the research must lead to a technical application.

Open character

The open strategy chosen by AiTech is known as ‘mission-driven research initiative’. Devised by the British economist Mariana Mazzucato as an innovation model, the programme focuses on a distant goal but allows researchers to plan their own path. Including, and particularly, when competing with each other. Lagendijk and Mur also stress that other people can take part in AiTech. The initiative is open to anyone connected with the field. The open character will probably take shape in lectures and other gatherings.

What results does Lagendijk expect in another two years? “I'll be delighted if we have four or five examples in which we've defined meaningful human control more clearly and built it into technical systems.” TU Delft hopes that AiTech will give direction to government and corporate bodies intending to implement artificial intelligence, but perhaps unaware of the long-term implications. According to Lagendijk, this is the task of the university: “Not just to issue warnings; but also to develop solutions.”