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Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, delivered a thought-provoking and sobering lecture that laid bare the threats to privacy, democracy, and social justice posed by artificial intelligence (AI).

They spoke at the 11th Annual Dorothy Day Lecture, sponsored by the Class of 1971, on April 28, 2024, in the Janet M. Daley Library Lecture Hall.

"AI is causing tremendous harm today, and this harm can and must be resisted," Crockford began.

Throughout the lecture, Crockford provided data and research illustrating the detrimental effects of AI, particularly focusing on its impacts on wealth disparities, workplace surveillance, and authoritarian tendencies perpetuated by tech giants. They called on the audience to resist blind acceptance of its supposed revolutionary potential.

Crockford drew parallels between historical industrial exploitation and modern AI-driven control measures, noting Charles Babbage as an early implementer of workplace surveillance, a tactic now widely used by companies like Amazon to increase productivity. "At Amazon, each worker's every movement is surveilled, catalogued, analyzed, and used against them," Crockford remarked.

Technology Is Not a Panacea

The discussion also offered a critique of techno-solutionism, articulated by figures like Marc Andreessen. Crockford said that the mindset often overlooks systemic issues and human complexities. They encouraged stakeholders to address root causes of problems rather than relying solely on technological fixes. 

"Powerful people and institutions too often reflexively look to adopt machine learning technology to provide relatively cheap, easy, quick fixes to what are in fact large systemic, sometimes centuries or decades old problems," they noted.

Techno-solutionism can be seen in using AI to assist doctors in writing patient notes, a reaction to healthcare professionals being overworked because they don’t have enough time for patient care. Crockford cautioned that superficial fixes can have unintended negative consequences.

AI is causing tremendous harm today, and this harm can and must be resisted.

Crockford’s discussion extended to Silicon Valley's dominant role in the AI landscape, particularly tech giants like Google, Facebook (Meta), and Amazon. The concentration of power raises alarms about data privacy, political manipulation, and the erosion of democratic values. In the age of AI, Crockford posed the questions: Who benefits and who decides? 

“Today, in the absence of sufficient regulatory and legal action from states and the federal government, the people benefiting and the people deciding belong to a very elite group, the super wealthy venture capitalists and big shots of big tech,” they said.

Drawing inspiration from the legacy of Dorothy Day, Crockford noted, "We actually do have the power to resist their vision of the future and insist on our own."

Crockford shared examples of AI's harmful impact, including falsehoods, biased outcomes, discriminatory practices, and privacy infringements. "AI may be smart, but it's not immune to dumb mistakes," Crockford noted.

Crockford highlighted one such mistake. A user uploaded a photo of a mushroom to Google’s Gemini, which said the mushroom was edible and delicious. The mushroom, however, was far from benign. “According to mushroom experts, this is actually a highly toxic specimen that essentially liquefies the human liver and causes painful death within about 24 hours,” they said. Crockford added that there’s a proliferation of books for sale on Amazon written by Gemini, and some are mushroom identification books.

They also warned of the risk that AI can pose to democracy. “According to Freedom House’s new Freedom on the Net report, researchers documented actors in 16 countries using AI to quote 'sow doubt, smear opponents, or influence public debate,'” Crockford said. Likewise, deepfake images could be used to discredit candidates, sow confusion among voters, and influence the outcome of elections. The challenge lies in developing robust strategies to detect and counter such manipulative content to ensure a fair and transparent electoral process.

"Hope Is Invented Every Day" — James Baldwin

While Crockford’s stark lecture focused on the downside and dangers of AI, they cited reason for optimism. Confronted with the specter of chatbots and generative AI actors replacing Hollywood actors and writers, both unions recently went on strike and gained concessions from the movie studios. ”The writers and actors said hell no. We have power in this situation, and we're going to use it to get what we want,” Crockford said. “They did that using a very old technology, solidarity. They refused to work until the studios agreed that they would not use AI to replace actors or writers.”

Crockford closed with a call to action, urging people to question the powerful, organize, and call for reforms — following Dorothy Day’s lead.


Dorothy Day Lecture Series committee with speaker Kade Crockford

About Kade Crockford

Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, is a passionate and engaging speaker on issues at the intersection of technology and civil liberties. Kade led the ACLU of Massachusetts “Press Pause on Face Surveillance” campaign, which has thus far won the passage of a Massachusetts’ state law regulating police use of facial recognition, and eight municipal bans on government use of face surveillance technology, including in Massachusetts’ four largest cities.

About the Dorothy Day Lectures

The Dorothy Day Lectures, established in the spring 2013, is a "living legacy" honoring members of the Emmanuel College Class of 1971. This endowed lecture series is held annually each April on a topic that reflects the interplay between sociology, history, economics and political action and the connections between the late '60s/early '70s and the present. The series is named after Dorothy Day, the woman who co-founded the Catholic Workers Movement in 1933. The inaugural lecture was held on April 27, 2014, and featured Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS, executive director of progressive Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK. Other past speakers include authors and advocates such as Amy Goodman, Reverend Liz Walker, Tracie McMillan, Diane Nash, Razia Jan, Robert Ellsburg, Heather McGhee, Patrick Radden Keefe, and Pam Wilmot.

Watch a recording of the lecture: