Sarah T. Roberts: Pandemic’s Ill-Conceived Reliance on AI

Scholar of content moderation points out shortcomings of replacing human workforce with artificial intelligence in wake of COVID-19 crisis.

Sarah T. Roberts, assistant professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, has publishing an op-ed for Slate on “The Great A.I. Beta Test,” on the attempts of social media companies like Facebook to use artificial intelligence to replace its human workforce of content moderators, who were sent home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Despite their technological sophistication, such automated tools fall far short of a human’s discernment,” writes Roberts. “The A.I. tools are a blunt instrument. They can easily function at scale in a way that humans cannot, but with the terrible downside of being overly broad in yielding hits, unable to make fine or nuanced decisions beyond what they have been expressly programmed for.

“These serious shortcomings were clear to the companies that had elected to employ the class of tools in the absence of human staffers,” Professor Roberts continues. “By March 31, industry leaders Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube had all made statements about the expected impact of automated moderation systems, and each characterized any unwanted outcome as some form of ‘mistake.’

“An important choice of words, perhaps, but also more demonstration that computational tools can do only what they are designed to do—a result that can indeed vary from what their designers had intended or what their users had come to expect. In this new ecosystem of reliance upon computational moderation tools, the firms were essentially demanding that all their users suffer through the pains of such systems. In effect, they have made unwitting beta testers of us all.”

Roberts served as a consultant on “The Cleaners,” an award-winning documentary on CCM in the Philippines by filmmakers Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck. In 2018, she convened the first known symposium on “All Things in Moderation” at UCLA, gathering scholars, experts, journalists, and other stakeholders to closely examine the social, political, legal, and cultural impacts of CCM.

To read the full op-ed in Slate, visit this link.