Fusing the Muslim entity in AI Research: Dr Junaid Qadir, winner of Facebook’s Ethics in AI Research award

Facebook recently announced the winners of the Ethics in AI Research Initiative for the Asia Pacific, an initiative to help support thoughtful and groundbreaking academic research in the field of AI ethics.

Among the winners from nine different countries is Junaid Qadir, Professor at the Information Technology University (ITU) of Punjab, along with co-investigator Amana Raquib, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi. We sat down with both to find out more about this initiative and their future plans of taking this forward.

DP. What was the motivation behind participating in the AI Ethics Research announced by Facebook?

A: Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has revolutionized numerous fields and disciplines, but this technology can also be abused. Examples of this are deepfakes and manipulated media. We’ve realized that biases hidden in data and algorithms can lead to bad or criminal use of AI technology that does not benefit society. This has reignited the debate around the principles and values that should guide the development of AI and Machine Learning (ML) technology. In these ethical discussions on AI, the Muslim voice is conspicuously lacking. In our work, we want to explore the rich legal history of Islamic jurisprudence and look at scholarly precedents on how technology may be regulated. We believe the Islamic tradition offers a reliable bedrock for these uncertain times and that Muslims should develop this further by engaging with contemporary problems and share this with the world.

DP. How much time did you both spend to conclude your research?

A: The Facebook AI Research Initiative for the Asia Pacific award is for new research and covers funding for 6 months. Our proposed topic is: “Culturally-informed, pro-social AI regulation and the persuasion framework for Pakistan and the Muslim world.” We’ve been working in this area over the past couple of years, which led to the formulation of our project that was accepted for this award.

DP. What importance do you see of AI in today’s world? What issues related to AI do you see on social media platforms?

A: AI is the driving technology behind innovations such as recommender systems, automatic language translation, and driverless cars. AI is also used to facilitate sustainable human development in sectors such as education, health, agriculture. Unfortunately, AI, in the wrong hands, can also be used to harm people. For example, AI can be used by rogue entities for anti-social purposes (such as for surveillance). AI, when used with good intentions, can also result in inadvertent harms (for example, decisions that are biased against certain communities).

DP. How will your research and the subsequent project help Facebook as a platform in terms of ethics?

A: Dr Junaid: These grants aim to support thoughtful and groundbreaking academic research in AI ethics that takes into account different regional perspectives. While our work will not focus on the technology of any one company, we aim to provide a holistic framework comprising Islamic principles and guidelines that can guide the development and consumption of AI technology.

Dr Amana: Our work will provide a philosophical appraisal of the status quo and contribute to the discourse some solid ethical foundation grounded in a faith-based paradigm.

DP. What role do you see religious laws playing in setting up the best ethical standards and practices for social media and technology overall?

A: Dr Junaid: “Religion, for most people, is the major source for establishing ethical standards and norms. The Islamic tradition followed globally by more than 2 billion people has a rich ethical tradition spanning more than 1400 years, that people in the Muslim world are closely tied to. The Islamic tradition is comprehensive and encompasses a spectrum of solutions ranging from concrete legal instruments for the state and community as well as incentives for individuals. Our interest in developing a code of ethics based on the Islamic tradition stems from our belief that a moral and legal ethical code rooted in the local culture, tradition, and values has a greater chance of being accepted (rather than a code that is perceived to be alien).”

Dr Amana: Despite being ensconced in the Islamic tradition, we will try to frame our narrative in a way that is understandable to a global audience and that aims to provide a moral and teleological compass.

DP. What do you foresee your project on ethical AI to benefit users of technology on a holistic level?

A: Dr Junaid: Broadly speaking, our ethical AI framework (which will be designed to be aligned with Islamic ethical principles) will work on ensuring that AI technology brings benefits (Maslahah) to human beings and all associated harms (Mafsadah) are mitigated. This will entail, among other things that the AI technology: (1) is secure, transparent, and accountable; (2) is inclusive for all human beings (3) prioritizes human wellbeing and treats human beings with fairness and dignity; and finally (4) allows human beings to thrive physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Dr Amana: “Our research will primarily be meant for the developers, engineers and policymakers.”

DP. How long will it take for the awarded project to be accomplished by you both?

A: This project lasts 6 months. Realistically speaking, pursuing this groundbreaking work to a mature stage will require a longer time frame and a bigger team. However, we hope to set the stage for future work in this space during this time.

DP. What are some challenges and issues related to this project?

A: There is a need to develop a framework that is true to Islamic principles but engages with and informs the modern discourse on the ethics of technology. There is also a need to reflect the diversity of scholarship in the Islamic realm appropriately as we think about the Islamic principles and their implications for technology. These are some of the challenges.

DP. What is the role of the co-investigator in the awarded project besides your lead role?

A: Dr Junaid: This project is a multidisciplinary one and spans the breadth of science, technology, engineering, philosophy, and religion. Therefore, we needed to have a multidisciplinary team. Dr. Amana has a background in philosophy and religious ethics and brings the humanities’ perspective to the discourse. She is the author of a prominent book on the Islamic ethics of technology and will use her rich experience to contemplate the ethical conundrums posed by AI technology.”

DP. How do you think your participation and role in shaping ethical AI will motivate your students and technology learners in Pakistan to pursue this field?

A: We are heartened by the great interest in our project and hope that this will motivate more students and researchers to take up the challenge of developing new technologies guided by ethics and their Islamic tradition. We are also thankful to our universities (ITU, Lahore and IBA, Karachi).

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