Van Jones is posing for selfies with young fans after a conference last week in Mountain View, California, on artificial intelligence and employment opportunities. I’m supposed to interview him, once he can break away. But every time he tries, another earnest face turns to him, and he’s pulled back for one more photo.
Maybe best known as an analyst and host on CNN, the Oakland-based Jones says his primary job is being volunteer president of Dream Corps–a multifaceted organization promoting job opportunities for urban and minority youth, prison population reduction, and political dialogue. “Our job is to close prison doors and open doors of opportunity,” says Jones, always ready with a catchy turn of phrase–as well a “huh!” or guffaw for emphasis.
The July 17 conference, the Summit on Artificial Intelligence and Its Impact on Communities, kicked off a collaboration between Dream Corps and AI4ALL–a youth education program founded by artificial intelligence pioneer (and Chinese immigrant) Fei-Fei Li. The head of AI for Google Cloud, Li also runs Stanford University’s AI Lab and Vision Lab. In 2015, she started an AI summer camp for high school girls at Stanford, which grew into AI4ALL. Formalized as a nonprofit organization in 2017, it now operates out of six universities–targeting girls and minority and low-income children.
AI4ALL is a logical partner for Dream Corps, which teaches programming to underrepresented communities through its #YesWeCode program. AI education also matters to criminal justice reform. A 2016 ProPublica study, for instance, found that faulty data and analysis developed a sentencing algorithm that was horribly unreliable at assessing a defendant’s likelihood of recidivism. Further, it mislabeled blacks almost twice as often as it mislabeled whites.
Jones (one of Fast Company‘s 12 Most Creative Minds of 2008) is also a political figure, having briefly served as special adviser for green jobs in the Obama administration. He resigned after six months under intense attacks over controversial statements and actions from his past, including at a 2009 University of Berkley appearance where he called Senate Republicans “assholes.” Jones apologized, and since then he has emphasized more outreach and dialogue with political opponents.
After all the selfies, Jones and I chatted about tech, education, justice reform, and the political environment. Here are the best parts, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Fast Company: With all the work you’ve done around so many issues, what brings you into the world of AI?
Van Jones: What I mainly focus on is, how do we get a future that works? And you got a lot of threats to that–geopolitically, socially, politically. But also from a technological point of view. You can’t think about a great future for urban kids without thinking about work, can’t think about work without thinking about artificial intelligence, machine learning.
I was just delighted to find out that Fei-Fei Li has this organization called AI4ALL. And I just wanted to make sure that “all” included everybody, including my constituency.
FC: You’ve done work to advance your constituency with green jobs. Is AI what you saw as the next opportunity?
VJ: I also have been working with YesWeCode.org to get apprenticeships and internships and jobs for people in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area–mostly young people of color, ages 18-24.
So now you look at artificial intelligence. That’s really the next big opportunity. And I think it’s important for us whenever we have these big transition moments, whenever we have these shifts in the economy, to make sure the people who usually get hurt first and worst–huh!–don’t benefit last and least– huh!–with these new changes.
FC: Another concern with AI is that there can be bias, that it’s not done by people who are representative. How do you see it as most dangerous, perhaps in automated sentencing? What kind of dangers have you seen?
VJ: If human beings are setting up artificial intelligence and haven’t thought through their own bias and how their own perspective might have a negative outcome on what they’re building, they’re going to build bad stuff that hurts people. And so inclusion, diversity–these aren’t just buzzwords and ways to not get called bad names at house parties. It’s key for the positive outcomes that everybody wants to actually show up well.
We are going to have unintended consequences from artificial intelligence. But unintended consequences are one thing. Consequences based on ignorance or malice or just not caring enough is totally different. It’s hard to say it’s unintended after 400, 500 years of dealing with racial injustice and that kind of stuff. If you aren’t thinking about gender bias, if you aren’t thinking about racial bias, if you aren’t thinking about disability bias, then the negative consequences may not be intended, but they were avoidable.
FC: A lot of AI systems that influence people’s lives are run by the government–for instance if you’re looking at sentencing–or by Wall Street, if you’re looking at things like credit ratings. Those are constituencies that you’ve done battle with. Do you see a bigger barrier because of the racial and class tension we’ve been having lately?
VJ: The U.S. is more diverse than it’s ever been, and in some ways it’s a miracle in human history to have this many different kinds of people, this many different religions, every kind of human ever born, in one country. And honestly, we mostly get along, on a day-to-day, individual basis.
That said, there’s real, rising tension. The economy is going up, but society is coming apart. Some people are getting a lot, some people are getting a little, and some people are losing.
We often fight about the past and the present, but the future is potentially common ground. When people think about what they want for tomorrow, when it comes to a clean environment, thriving communities, equal opportunity, people are sometimes more generous about the future that they want to project than about the present, the status quo that they find themselves defending. And so the future can be common ground, and a conversation about possibility with new technologies can be common ground.
FC: Anything else you want to add?
VJ: Fei-Fei Li is the Rosa Parks of the new millennium. She is the person who is pulling us forward into a world of more inclusion, more wisdom, more appreciation, more understanding. She’s doing it from a Google, Stanford AI platform–artificial intelligence platform that most people assume would repel people like her, and instead she’s propelling this whole conversation forward.