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Interview with Brendan Newell on AI’s Impact on People of Faith

Today, we feature an interview with Brendan Newell, one of our Contributing Fellows on the Networks Team. Outside his role at AI and Faith, Brendan has been a Technical Architect at Microsoft for over 20 years, most recently working on Identity and Cloud Security issues with some of Microsoft’s largest Enterprise customers to plan and implement secure Cloud solutions.  Before entering the technology field, Brendan studied to be a Catholic Deacon.  Brendan was involved in Microsoft’s discussions of AI ethics with the Vatican and business and government agencies that became the Rome Call for AI Ethics, and is presently participating in a Microsoft-sponsored irrigation project applying AI software in Tanzania.


Here, we catch up with Brendan about his participation in the National Faith ERG conference in May, his involvement in the Rome Call, and ask him to share his thoughts about how AI advances will impact people of faith. 


Brendan, it was a delight to include you in our ethics track on translating faith beliefs into tech ethics at the National Faith ERG Conference in May.  Could you please share an experience or two that illustrates that practice in your own work?

Working primarily in Cybersecurity, it is commonly an easy task to bring my faith into work.  I see the work that I do as strengthening organizations against those who would do harm.  A recent example was some work with a financial institution in the developing world.  I was brought in to pilot some security changes, and in the process, found an active attack.  Fortunately, it was against our pilot system, not against production.  But if that had continued, it most certainly would have brought financial hardship to consumers and small businesses in a very poor part of the world.


At the conference, it was terrific to see how Faith ERG groups at tech companies are beginning to use their knowledge and global engagement to work on projects that can significantly improve and change the lives of people through access to technology they previously have not had.  Please tell us how you’ve become involved in such a project and the How and Why of it?

One of the biggest projects was working with Microsoft Research on leveraging Whitespace TV as a broadband internet access medium.  In most of the developing world, the TV spectrum is little used.  Fewer TV sets mean fewer viewers, and thus little revenue for a broadcaster.  Whitespace leverages this spare spectrum by setting up a large, TV broadcast antenna in an area, and using that spectrum to broadcast to special routers placed in schools and community access centers. Those devices can then route the traffic over regular ethernet or WiFI, enabling access.


This opens up new opportunities to provide internet access to communities that might be left in digital darkness for years without it.


What is your vision for how the faith community could/should be engaging with AI issues 10 years from now, especially in the context of faith ERGs?

I believe faith can influence AI development in two primary ways.  First is in the field of Ethics.  Is the AI being used in a way that benefits humanity, or is it being used abusively?  This will be a hard one, as a particular model could be used in a morally good, or at least morally neutral context by one organization, but used badly by another.  For example, an AI that examined food shipments for spoilage could be used to provide fresh food for a populace – a moral good. But the same AI could be used to direct poor quality food to minority groups or areas of political opposition.

Secondly, and specifically related to Faith ERGs, is providing input to the AI developers to reduce bias.  An AI is only as good as the model data presented to it, and Faith ERGs can help ensure that model data reflects all appropriate groups, and are modeled in such a way as to be both accurate and inoffensive. 


What emerging technologies do you think might have the most impact on faith communities in the coming years? 

Just about every emerging technology will have some impact.  AI in social media can have (and is having) a negative impact on minority religious communities. There has been a rising trend in authoritarian governments to use AI to monitor and control minority religious activity in many countries.  This has resulted in job loss, and in some cases imprisonment for those affected communities. This is a troublesome trend that needs further global attention.


What do you think is most important about the Rome Call for AI Ethics? What should people of faith take away from this statement? 

That large tech companies really DO care about the ethical use of Artificial Intelligence, that the companies, and other world wide organizations are taking concrete steps to see that AI is used properly, and guidance is in place to restrict its misuse.

Thanks so much for your time, Brendan!

Emily Wenger

is pursuing a PhD in computer science at the University of Chicago with a particular emphasis on machine learning and privacy. Her research explores the limitations, vulnerabilities, and privacy implications of neural networks. Emily worked for two years as a mathematician at the US Department of Defense before beginning her PhD studies in 2018. She graduated from Wheaton College in 2016 with a degree in mathematics and physics.

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