“The challenges posed by the information revolution are no longer just computer science problems” 

Questions to Iyad Rahwan, one of the leading experts worldwide on AI 

October 13, 2023

Iyad Rahwan was named one of the 100 most influential scientists in Berlin 2023 by the Tagesspiegel. The Syrian-Australian computer scientist and director of the Center for Humans and Machines at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development studies how intelligent machines impact humanity. In this interview, he talks about his research, chatbots as a sparring partner, and how art can contribute to AI research. 

What is the focus of your research at the Center for Human and Machines? 
Iyad Rahwan: Our research at the Center for Human and Machines revolves around understanding and shaping the impact of emerging technologies. These technologies, like digital media and artificial intelligence (AI), can permanently change our societies – for better or worse. We conduct interdisciplinary science to understand, anticipate, and shape how these new technologies are changing how we live and work and, vice versa, to understand how our human behavior impacts the development of AI. I am convinced that only based on scientific knowledge will we be able to control their actions, reap their benefits, and minimize their harm.   

Your research has a futuristic angle. How do you approach this? 
Rahwan: Among other things, we work with the concept of Science Fiction Sciences (SFS). Science fiction allows us to envision future worlds molded by scientific and technological advancements and predict how they might influence human behavior. We simulate these future scenarios through SFS to anticipate hypotheses about human reactions to forthcoming technologies. For instance, our "Blurry Faces" project, inspired by the Black Mirror episode “Arkangel”, examines the impact of depersonalizing filters on prosocial behavior. 

You have a broad and interdisciplinary approach. How do you take this into account when conducting the center's research? 
Rahwan: The challenges posed by the information revolution are no longer just computer science problems. Our Center, therefore, is decisively neither a traditional computer science department nor a traditional behavioral science department. Instead, we bring together experts from diverse fields, such as applied mathematics, computer science, economics, political science, psychology, and physics. Additionally, we collaborate with people from media, arts, and humanities, including cinematography, philosophy, science fiction, and visual art. 

However, not only interdisciplinarity is necessary. Considering the highly volatile character of new technologies, our Center is structured a bit like a startup incubator. As they don't know how the market will respond, they need the flexibility to try different ideas. This requires an egalitarian environment, but the authority to drop things fast. 

AI tools are evolving rapidly and are becoming an integral part of daily life for many. What do you believe is the potential in this ongoing development? 
Rahwan: I am convinced that responsible use of new technologies can significantly improve our lives. Artificial intelligence offers vast opportunities, from enhancing access to quality healthcare and education to accelerating scientific and medical progress. Digitalization can also contribute to a more humane existence by, for instance, providing children living in poverty with high-quality, personalized tutors like the ChatGPT-powered "Khanmigo" that was announced recently by the Khan Academy. 

On the flip side, there have been numerous warnings regarding the potential consequences of this AI development. How do you evaluate these concerns within the context of your research? 
Rahwan: There is no simple answer to this question. On the one hand, there are short- and medium-term questions about how AI will disrupt human society, from replacing tasks performed by human workers today to speeding up the spread of fake news to perpetuating biases in decision-making systems in business and government. At the other end, we have questions about longer-term existential risks, exploring the possibility of machines becoming more competent than humans in all domains, possibly evoking an existential conflict with humans. These concerns must be taken seriously, also because economic and political interests may be affected. We need to carefully research these phenomena and build societal consensus based on the findings. 

How do you personally integrate AI into your day-to-day life? 
Rahwan: We all use AI on a day-to-day basis. Take the example of text-to-speech systems when you ask your smartphone to read a page. That is AI. We don't call it AI anymore because we take it so much for granted, but this was a real challenge for AI in the past. Other examples are navigation technologies, like Google Maps, or social media, where AI personalizes your content. At the moment, I use AI extensively for brainstorming. These advanced chatbots like ChatGPT have become so powerful that you can easily organize a party with their help or even discuss a problem at work. When I want to submit a paper or write an opinion piece, I use the chatbot as a sparring partner and ask the AI to act as a very skeptical person to point out all the weaknesses of the arguments and even produce some counterarguments. It really helps me to clarify my thinking. 

Your center was established at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in 2019, and you moved to Germany with your family. Can you tell us about that experience? 
Rahwan: The Max Planck Society is a truly unique institution that trusts its researchers and whose structures provide us with scientific freedom that probably does not exist elsewhere. This allows us to tackle the big questions in the long term. This aspect attracted me to join from a scientific standpoint. In addition, I really like living in Berlin. I always lived in big cities and feel more comfortable in cosmopolitan cities with people from all over the place and speaking different languages. Berlin is such a vibrant, diverse city, and you can always choose your niche.  

You worked and conducted research on an international scale, including at prestigious institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). What lessons can the German scientific community glean from global examples? 
Rahwan: Germany's extensive research funding and public trust in science are clear strengths. However, philanthropic support for research can still be improved. Wealthy people supporting science play an essential role in the U.S., for example, in cancer research or research on digitization's impact on democracy. Another point that the German science landscape can learn from in an international context is branding. Science institutions in other countries invest in their image and thus attract top talents internationally. Germany has outstanding science, and investing in branding would enhance its prominence. 

You're not only a distinguished scientist but also an artist. In your comics and paintings, you explore AI. How does this artistic perspective enhance your research in this field? 
Rahwan: I am fascinated by art. Art offers a unique way to explore emotions and dimensions of the world that science alone cannot capture. I think of it as a complement to science in describing and understanding the world, and I also use art to ponder scientific questions and scenarios. My cartoons depict situations in which our interaction with machines produces absurd outcomes and explore whether this can happen in the real world – in this way, they may also inspire scientific questions and projects. My oil paintings aim to convey that machines can evoke emotions like fear, fascination, or empathy. As machines improve in displaying emotions, we will feel empathy towards them. Giving machines a face with the help of art invites us to ask whether we should enter these relationships or rather be careful. 

Iyad Rahwan is director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, where he founded and directs the Center for Humans & Machines. He is an honorary professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Technical University of Berlin. Until June 2020, he was an Associate Professor of Media Arts & Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Rahwan holds a Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is also a cartoonist and artist. With his art, he aims to educate and stimulate discussion about the societal impacts of artificial intelligence.    

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