Joanna Bryson: making AI safer

Joanna Bryson is a professor of ethics and technology at the Hertie School.

“The interview must be held in English,” the assistant had already made clear in advance. Joanna Bryson puts it differently: “You can speak in German. But I won’t understand it.” And she laughs. She laughs more at all than one would expect from a professor at a university in Germany – and mostly at herself. She said she tried to learn German at university and is currently taking a language course at the Goethe Institute. But the 56-year-old says she has always been a failure at foreign languages.

Instead of articles and verb conjugations, the professor at the Hertie School in Berlin prefers to work on artificial intelligence and the question of how companies can be protected by technology. Incidentally, she only ended up in Europe because she didn’t know what subject to choose for her postgraduate degree after completing her bachelor’s in behavioral science. “I figured I would definitely learn something abroad,” she says.

At university in Edinburgh, Scotland, there was already an artificial intelligence department at the time that worked in a truly interdisciplinary way: “There was linguistics, neuroscience, logic, philosophy, music, everything!” In addition to a master’s degree in artificial intelligence, she also earned one in psychology. Then, after earning her Ph.D. in Massachusetts and failing to find a job back home during the dot.com crisis, she returned to Europe: “In the US, I applied to seven jobs, had one interview and no offer. In the UK, I applied for two jobs and got five offers,” the professor recalls.

It was only then that Joanna Bryson began to really take an interest in this continent and the politics here. “The British seemed oddly unaware of the fact the EU offered a lot of opportunities which I only learnt about after I arrived,” says the US native, who has had British citizenship since 2007 and now lives in Berlin. At the time, she says, many people thought investing in AI was a way to make a lot of money. What people forgot was that “you can never have cybersecurity without AI, and you can never trust AI without cybersecurity,” Bryson says.

‘Politics is altered be the digital revolution’

Internationally, AI is seen far too little for what it is: a man-made product like any software. “People used to think that politicians should be interested in what the people they represent ‘really’ wanted. Social media would have been a good way to find out, after all. Instead, it now turns out that social media can get people to have new things they want. Some politicians are using that, others are surprised that it’s true.”

Joanna Bryson sees the task of political scientists to observe this development – and also to keep an eye on its ethical consequences. I would never say that politics is co-determined by machines, I never use machines as an actor, but what we can do is altered by the digital revolution, so therefore, of course, politics & governance is,” she says.

She sees the planned AI regulation at the EU level as a way to iron out the problems that exist here. “Even if I wouldn’t sign off one hundred percent on the content so far – I think it’s great that this process exists,” she says. What’s most important to her is that governments around the world take a different approach to companies like Google, Apple and Facebook: “These companies have become so big, so comfortable, almost mythical. We need to think about governing them through innovative institutions.”

For almost two years now, Joanna Bryson has been teaching as Professor of Ethics and Technology at the private Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. In addition to research and teaching, press interviews are also part of the professor’s everyday work. She likes to conduct them on one of the five technical devices she owns: “I have a desktop in my office and at home, a laptop, an iPad, and a smartphone. Unlike a lot of people, I still make sure I have my files on one of my devices, not just on clouds, and also backed up on multiple disks I have. I do still use a lot of Google services, though, because I think they get cybersecurity correct.” She also doesn’t receive her emails on her smartphone “It’s for work/life balance. I wouldn’t deal with them really on the small screen anyway,” she says. “And I don’t like having a plug in my headphones to navigate either. Instead, I prefer to look at a map, then start walking – and then just get lost sometimes.” Janna Degener-Storr 

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