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Kickstart a career in digital ethics

Digital ethics

Ethical AI researchers are on the path to making our AI technologies more responsible

With great innovation comes great responsibility. Splitting the atom was an incredible breakthrough, but it also led to the atomic bomb. Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics are developing at a rapid pace, so it’s important to step back and ask questions about the consequences and how we can keep technology safe and beneficial to humanity.

Enter digital ethics, otherwise known as responsible tech – a relatively new field of research that is quickly becoming part of every major tech company.

Big retailers Bunnings and Kmart were recently in the news for their use of facial recognition software in stores. They claimed it was to help reduce theft, but they stopped using it due to concerns the system may breach privacy laws.

How companies, governments and other organisations collect and use data about us is one ethical dilemma that needs to be solved. Others focus on how human biases can infect AI, causing it to make decisions that reinforce discrimination.

From the ski slopes of Canada to Google’s ethical AI research team, Bec Johnson is on the path to making our AI technologies more responsible. Here, we share her pathway.

Bec Johnson, Ethical AI Researcher

Bec has taken a winding career path from a degree in geology to managing a ski shop in Canada and researching cybernetic systems in large organisations. Now, she’s an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher, PhD student and Google student researcher.

Bec has also racked up a number of degrees in both the sciences and humanities. All this experience has provided her with a unique mix of skills that she draws on when researching how to make AI technology more ethical.

“The analytical methods I honed during my geology days helped me develop rigorous empirical research capabilities. The skills I developed teaching people how to get down a mountain enrich my university teaching. The social science skills I developed in my second undergraduate degree and in my Master’s by Research degree have provided me with deep
inspiration in my PhD work in ethical AI,” she says.

Thinking about responsible AI

Bec is a student researcher on Google’s Responsible AI team, which looks at how AI is developed and used, and the best ways to build in fairness, privacy and security. Bec does this with “large language models” – like those used in chatbots, for example. For a chatbot to respond appropriately, the data used to build the model behind it needs to be inclusive of a wide range of languages and cultural values. This is where Bec comes in.

“A lot of the models built today use data that is predominantly in English and often American in origin,” she explains. “This means they’re not always useful outside of English speaking countries. It’s important that those building AI models and systems use diverse datasets that are globally representative.”

Bec’s pathway

  • Founder, PhD Students in AI Ethics global group Ethical AI Researcher, Google
  • Bachelor of Science (Geology), Deakin University
  • Manager, Banff Springs Ski Shop & The Ski Lounge, Canada
  • Bachelor of Arts (Communications), University of Calgary
  • Lecturer, University of Sydney
  • PhD in AI Ethics, University of Sydney
  • Master’s by Research in Communications and Cybernetics, University of Sydney

This post was brought to you in partnership with Google and was originally published in Careers with STEM: Technology.

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