Unveiling the Invisible Catastrophes: Brittany Smith’s Quest to Protect Humanity from AI Harms


In a world increasingly shaped by the power of artificial intelligence (AI), one visionary voice is calling for immediate action to address the present-day harms it inflicts upon humanity. Brittany Smith, the Manager of the AI2050 program at Schmidt Futures, stands at the forefront of the AI policy and governance landscape. In a dynamic article published in The Guardian, Smith unveils the invisible catastrophes wrought by AI and advocates for a paradigm shift in approaching these risks.

Unmasking the Harms

Smith paints a vivid picture of the insidious ways in which algorithmic technology mediates our relationships and governs our institutions. Drawing our attention to the welfare system, Smith reveals how governments employ algorithms to combat fraud. However, what seems like a noble endeavor often morphs into a “suspicion machine,” resulting in dire consequences for the most vulnerable among us. Biases seep into every process step, perpetuating discriminatory outcomes that wrongfully accuse marginalized individuals. From false criminal accusations to determining access to public housing, AI’s biases erode people’s dignity and strip away their rights, posing an existential risk to those who rely on social benefits.

The Unchecked Power of Suspicion Machines

Not only is Smith worried about Suspicion Machines, Lighthouse Reports and Wired magazine have recently reported on the matter. According to the research, governments worldwide embrace predictive algorithms, conducting far-reaching experiments on vulnerable populations with minimal public scrutiny. While the focus has primarily been on predictive policing and risk assessments within the criminal justice system, there is another realm where these experiments unfold, impacting millions of lives with profound consequences. Fraud detection systems deployed in welfare states, often called “suspicion machines,” utilize opaque technologies that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. In this narrative, we explore the implications of suspicion machines, shedding light on the unprecedented experiment on welfare surveillance algorithms and the discriminatory outcomes they perpetuate.

The sales pitch for these systems presents them as tools to recover millions of euros defrauded from public funds. It capitalizes on the caricature of the benefit cheat, perpetuating the notion of the undeserving poor. In Europe, where welfare states are remarkably generous, public debates surrounding welfare fraud are charged with political implications. However, the actual extent of fraud is often exaggerated by consulting firms, who are frequently the vendors of these algorithms. The true challenge lies in distinguishing between honest mistakes and deliberate forgery in complex public systems.

The lack of transparency surrounding these algorithms exacerbates the potential harm inflicted upon the most vulnerable communities. The suspicion machines score hundreds of thousands of people based on data mining operations, often without sufficient public consultation. Being flagged by these systems can have dire consequences as fraud controllers gain unprecedented power to upend the lives of suspects. When such opaque technologies are deployed in search of political scapegoats, the repercussions among marginalized populations are significant.

The narrative of suspicion machines reinforces the need for transparency and public scrutiny in deploying AI algorithms. Journalists play a crucial role in holding governments and algorithm vendors accountable by highlighting the potential harm caused by these systems and questioning their fairness and accuracy. The narrative is a call to action, urging societies to challenge the unchecked power of suspicion machines and advocate for measures to protect the most marginalized.

A History of Technological Advancement at the Expense of the Vulnerable

Smith casts a critical eye on the prevailing narrative that touts AI’s potential economic and scientific benefits while overlooking the lives shattered by its flaws. The author poses a question: How can someone falsely accused by an inaccurate facial recognition system be expected to embrace an AI-driven future? Smith argues that continuing to perpetuate these historical advancement patterns disproportionately harms the most marginalized segments of society. The author urges us to acknowledge the present-day harms inflicted by AI and reject harm as an inevitable consequence of progress.

Redefining Existential Risk of Suspicion Machines

While acknowledging the importance of mitigating far-future existential risks, Smith questions the overemphasis on theoretical concerns at the expense of real-world harm. Smith advocates for a more nuanced understanding of existential risk, one that recognizes present-day catastrophes as urgent interventions in their own right. By connecting current actions with future complexities, Smith implores us to develop and deploy AI systems prioritizing safety, ethics, and transparency, ensuring maximum public benefit. It is through these concerted efforts that a best-case scenario can be achieved.

A Call to Action

Smith concludes by urging us to embrace a research agenda that rejects harm as an inevitable outcome of technological progress. By confronting the present-day wounds and preventing future catastrophes, we can shape a future where robust AI systems serve humanity ethically and transparently. Smith’s vision challenges us to reevaluate the narratives that dominate public imagination and redirect our focus towards tangible solutions for the betterment of society.

Lighthouse Reports and Brittany Smith’s powerful narrative uncover the invisible catastrophes unleashed by AI and compel us to take immediate action. With a steadfast determination to protect the vulnerable and marginalized, Smith highlights the urgent need to address present-day harms. By reframing our understanding of existential risk and prioritizing interventions that mitigate real-world consequences, we can forge a path toward a future where AI is harnessed for the maximum public benefit. As Smith’s clarion call resounds, the choice lies before us: to navigate the treacherous landscape of AI with caution, compassion, and an unwavering commitment to preserving our shared humanity.