As buzz around artificial intelligence and big data continue to grow, Julia Powles, a 2018 Yale Poynter Fellow in Journalism, spoke at Yale Law School on the gaps in the public’s understanding of artificial intelligence — and the resulting benefits for big technological companies.

During the lecture on Monday afternoon, entitled “Big Tech and AI Complacency,” Powles discussed the difference between people’s understandings of the term AI, or artificial intelligence, and its actual role in today’s society. Powles, who is a research fellow in information law at New York University’s School of Law, then examined how this disconnect benefits big tech companies.

Powles began her talk by explaining the broader definition of AI, which currently encompasses big data and data crunching as well as ideas of disembodied intelligence — artificial intelligence that functions with human-like intellect and decision-making. The scope of AI, she noted, has widened as a result of the buzz generated by the term.

“[The term] AI has been used to imbue technology with our hopes, dreams and fears,” Powles said.

One such example is the story of AlphaGo, a project developed to play the Chinese board game of Go. Powles mentioned news stories that portrayed AlphaGo, a simple computer screen, as an embodied robot. But she noted that there is a crucial difference between the complexity of a game and the complexity of multilayered industries such as health care and the military.

Often, the media focuses on AI’s potential rather than how it currently functions, Powles added. Stories about AI — often funded by big tech companies — commonly paint pictures of superintelligent and moral machines and self-driving cars that distract from today’s AI functionalities.

Powles explained that tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon benefit from these futuristic visions of AI.

Tech companies have utilized the public’s positive perception of AI to strike favorable deals, such as the DeepMind deal with the London National Health Service, Powles said. In the deal, DeepMind, a British artificial intelligence company, gained access to data, clinical testing and medical expertise from the NHS in return for improving the National Health Service’s technological reputation.

“Rather than reaching for our initial perceptions that are being fueled by fiction and ideas of the last fifty years, we should respond to what the technology actually offers and put technology back in hands of people who would work for public interest, instead of deferring the future of innovation to the most powerful companies in the world,” Powles said.

Several attendees said that Powles had an insightful take on current topics related to AI. Darryl Laiu ’19 was particularly interested by Powles’ deconstruction of how the popular media influences the public’s understanding of AI.

“It gave insight into considering who controls the narrative in the public sphere and how that could be dangerous, especially when it affects legislation,” Laiu said.

Another attendee, Drew Medway ’22, said that it was “eye-opening to hear how the ways society talks about the future of AI impacts the reality of AI today.”

April Ryan, the White House reporter for American Urban Radio Networks, will be the next speaker for the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism on Nov. 1.

Brian Cho | .