In August, MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito was invited to the White House to discuss the future of artificial intelligence (AI) with President Barack Obama. The two sat in the Roosevelt Room with Wired magazine editor Scott Dadich and talked for over an hour about how AI could affect self-driving cars, national security, and the economy; remake government with technology; and even discussed the meaning of Star Trek.
Since he joined the Media Lab in 2011, Ito has explored how new approaches to science and technology can transform society. A recent inductee in the South by Southwest Interactive Hall of Fame, Ito spoke with Slice of MIT to discuss his conversation with President Obama and the future of AI in daily lives.
How was your meeting with President Obama arranged?
“I first met President Obama for lunch on October 8, 2015, with CTO Megan Smith (’86, SM ’88), Deputy CTO Alexander McGillivray, the head of the US Digital Services Mikey Dickerson and White House Chief Digital Officer Jason Goldman. The lunch originally got set up because Media Lab Director’s Fellow Sam Kass, former Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, and President Obama’s chef all told the President he should meet me.
The White House reached out to me and invited me to lunch. It was a long lunch, and we discussed many things—including the history of the Internet, AI, MIT and the MIT Media Lab, and many other things. It was actually at this lunch that when I told President Obama that we had iterated on the Media Lab’s famous motto “Demo or Die” and had changed it to ‘Deploy or Die.’ He thought about it and told me, ‘maybe you should work on that messaging.’ I decided to drop the ‘or Die’ and make it just ‘Deploy.’ The lunch was a lot of fun and I think the President enjoyed it too.
Apparently, later, when they were trying to decide who to invite for the conversation with the president for Wired, President Obama asked to have me invited back. I heard about this first from the White House and then from Wired.”
How was the experience?
“President Obama is very smart and funny. He’s also very good at making everyone feel welcome and relaxed. Scott did a great job structuring the questions and the conversation was a lot of fun. The discussion was meaty, but it was over before we knew it. I also had a chance to catch up with all of my friends who work in the White House, and as usual, was very impressed by how informed, engaged, and effective the team was.
The only thing that I don’t like about the White House is that I have to wear a necktie. I rarely wear neckties these days.”
What was the best thing you took away from that conversation? What do you think President Obama learned from you?
“I was excited that the President was willing to talk on the record about AI and society in such a thoughtful way. As far as I know, this may have been the first time he talked about AI in depth in public, and I agree with everything he said. I’m not sure exactly what he learned from me, but he referred to our lunch from last year several times. I was excited that he remembered and had digested so much of what we had discussed.”
Do you think the US, as a country, is embracing AI and incorporating it properly into the economy and our daily lives?
“I think we can do a lot better in making AI easier to understand for social scientists and other non-computer science folks. I think that we should start working on trying to counteract some of the biases that will emerge from biased training data and start thinking about and working on who should or shouldn’t be involved in determining many of the policies around AI. I think the US is further ahead than any other country in the world, for now. It needs to take that leadership and try very hard to make sure it is responsibly deployed and that society is properly supported."
Were there any Media Lab projects discussed?
“We talked about Iyad Rahwan’s work on bringing society in the loop in AI and Cynthia Breazeal’s (SM ’93, ScD ’00) work with the Personal Robots Group and talked about the Media Lab in general."