Even algorithms have parents

Alberto Ibarguen, President and CEO Knight Foundation, during closing remarks on the third, and final, day of the Knight Media Forum 2018
Photo by Angel Valentin

Alberto Ibargüen, President and CEO of the Knight Foundation, on the use of artificial intelligence and journalism in the digital era.

Interview Nicole Alexander and Dr. Annette Kleinbrod

Mr. Ibargüen, from chatbots to analysing research to automated granting of direct aid in the case of natural disasters, many foundations already utilise computer-based methods and decision-making processes. What does the Knight Foundation think about this?
We use data analysis to evaluate the impact of our grant-making, but do not run animated processes to make grants. In fact, we take a very human-centred approach to grant-making, with staff living in the communities where we make grants and/or working closely with grantees in the fields we work in. 

Knight Foundation’s prime focus is on journalism and the arts. What is your view, and your approach, to digitalisation in these areas?
Actually, more than half of our grants budget goes toward building community. Our arts programme is part of that, in that we believe art binds people to each other and to a place and, as such, is a fundamental element in building a community. Our interest is in creating informed and engaged communities. There is no way, in our times, that one can have an informed or an engaged community without technology and digital communications. Effective use of digital technology is critical to journalism, the arts and cities. Society's technological transformation will only accelerate, and embracing change is necessary for success – and survival.  

What does digital change mean for journalism?
Technology allows journalists to reach much larger audiences and tell stories in new ways, using data as well as words. But the great crisis in journalism is not in dissemination, it is in the creation of news, particularly at the local level. Our very forms of government are structured according to geographic area and, for democratic government to function properly, people must be relevantly informed. We have good information about worldwide stories but we suffer a terrible lack of information about local areas, the very areas where we actually elect our representatives. For more than a decade, it has been easier to find stories on the web about another continent than it has been to find out how my representatives voted in Congress or in our state legislatures, for example. That is unsustainable. It is, quite literally, an existential threat to effective democracy.

Can digitisation help to change that?
Digital media can and should be able to help, but only if we can figure out a business model that works and if we can recover the sense of trust news media once had. The collapse of the business models for print newspapers, magazines and, to a lesser extent, broadcast television is directly linked to the Internet. Digital advertising revenue has replaced print and broadcast advertising revenue, but the vast majority of that growth has been captured by Facebook and Google, not news organisations. 

Why do you think that confidence in the media has been lost?
The crisis in trust is part of a broader collapse of trust in the institutions that underpin democracy. The causes are multiple, and the institutions themselves bear some responsibility. The advent of social media, where everyone can be a publisher, inevitably diffuses the clout of legacy news brands. The speed and volume of misinformation through this new media ecosystem poses a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. But it is precisely here that I see technology coming to the rescue. I think we have been thinking about this in the wrong way. We have been thinking about this as editors, not as engineers. An editor wants to hire 10,000 fact-checkers; an engineer would want to write code to figure out the truth or falsity of a statement. We bet on the former and we are losing. I say we should now switch and bet on digital technology to help us save something that resembles truth. 

The Knight Foundation devoted itself to technology at an early stage. What was the reason for this?
Knight's approach to funding technology in journalism started with the acknowledgement, 11 years ago, that we didn't know the answers. That's why we started the Knight News Challenge, to draw in ideas from technologists, not just digital journalists, to build more informed communities. The results were powerful. In terms of the business model, the market will ultimately have to save it. We have invested in for-profit companies that are leveraging technology to help sustain good journalism; we have also helped nonprofit local news sites get better at raising money from their communities. And we have encouraged community and place-based foundations to support local information projects

How do you proceed with regard to your other fields of activity – art and cities?
The arts strengthen community by attaching people to place. They do this by providing unique, authentic, experiences. The question is, how can we use technology to extend those experience to new audiences, or amplify the experiences of existing audiences? We invited ideas on that in the spring. We're also funding "digital curator" positions at art institutions to help give them the capacity to engage new audiences through technology. In cities, we are actively seeking to help city governments reach citizens with usable and actionable information. As opposed to a corporation that is selling wares or governments that are offering services, we want to focus our “smart cities” efforts on letting the citizens say and get what *they* want. 

Which areas of society do you see as facing the greatest dangers from the use of artificial intelligence?
Artificial intelligence affects every aspect of our modern lives. Technology and commerce will ensure it will impact every society on earth. Yet, for something so influential, there’s an odd assumption that artificial intelligence agents and machine learning, which enable computers to make decisions like humans and for humans, is a neutral process. It is not. Even algorithms have parents, and those parents are computer programmers, with their values and assumptions. Those values – who gets to determine what they are and who controls their application – will help define the digital age. There are various examples of how computer programmers consciously or unconsciously have created algorithms that judge on the basis of race, gender or economic status, depending on the values sincerely held by the programmer. Algorithms optimised for engagement decide what we see on social media, which in turn can influence how we behave as citizens. 

Why did the Knight Foundation invest in the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund, which supports artificial intelligence projects worldwide? 
For the Knight Foundation, and our deeply rooted belief that informed and engaged communities are essential to democracy, exploring artificial intelligence is a natural. Identifying the ethical issues in AI, helping determine who decides them, and engaging diverse perspectives is the way we’ll make the most of AI’s potential to benefit society – and minimise its potential harm.


Knight Foundation

The Knight Foundation is an American foundation established in Florida in 1950. Its purpose is to focus on journalism, art and the development of the cities in which the founders John S. and James L. Knight published their newspapers. The foundation wants to promote informed and committed communities, as these are the basis for a well-functioning representative democracy. The Knight Foundation has been working on technology and digitisation for 11 years. In January 2017, the foundation initiated the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund, in cooperation with the Omidyar Network, LinkedIn-founder Reid Hoffmann, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and entrepreneur Jim Pallotta.

Dr. Annette Kleinbrod

EZ-Scout of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) seconded to the Association of German Foundations

Telefon (030) 89 79 47-0

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