Big Data

Meet Reggie Townsend, a 2023 Datanami Person to Watch

Ensuring the trustworthiness of AI has emerged as one of the biggest challenges in the adoption of AI systems. Overcoming this challenge will require the guidance of experienced AI leaders, people such as Reggie Townsend, who is the vice president of ethics at SAS and a 2023 Datanami Person to Watch.

We recently caught up with Townsend to discuss his work in trusthworthy and responsible AI. Here’s what he had to say:

Datanami: The roaring success of ChatGPT has given millions of people an introduction to conversational AI technology. From an ethical consideration, what should consumers be aware of when they interact with conversational AI?

Reggie Townsend: It’s definitely a net positive that more people are being introduced and becoming familiar with generative AI. However, there remains a need to recognize and appreciate the fact that the data used to train ChatGPT still comes from humans. The results of generative AI, at their core, are a reflection of us, humans. There’s still an inherent risk that these models can be informed by inaccurate data, misinformation or biases. It remains imperative that consumers continue to apply critical thinking whenever interacting with conversational AI and avoid automation bias — the belief that a technical system is more likely to be accurate and true than a human.

Datanami: Do you think the data and corporate communities are spending enough time and energy on assessing the ethical implications of AI? If not, what will it take to spur us to take AI ethics seriously?

Townsend: Ethical AI development is incentivized in more than one way — from a legal perspective, companies want to remain compliant and viable, so they are looking at activity around the world on developing AI regulations to stay ahead of upcoming guidance. But ethical AI is also good for profitability, as any overreaches into privacy or potential for discrimination can cause serious financial and reputational damage to a company. While you can never spend too much energy on responsible AI development, innovators in this space continue to be guided by emerging standards and awareness of consequences.

Datanami: Please tell us about your role with the National Artificial Intelligence Advisory Committee. What sorts of questions or concerns is the committee looking into?

Townsend: My role along with the 26 other committee members, is to provide the government with input and insight into five primary areas of concern: Bias, AI Research and Development, International Development, Workforce Readiness, and Government AI Deployment.

I currently sit on two subcommittees: The first is for Workforce Readiness, where we’re focused on what is necessary for the citizenry to inherit a digital economy driven by AI, developing a set of recommendations to release this year. The second subcommittee focuses on Government AI Deployment, where we’ll be making recommendations for how the government can use AI to the benefit of citizens.

Datanami: Outside of the professional sphere, what can you share about yourself that your colleagues might be surprised to learn – any unique hobbies or stories?

Townsend: I’ve been involved in improv comedy for almost eight years now. I got into improv in the first place to force myself to be a more immediate and responsive communicator. It turned out I wasn’t half bad, so I was invited to participate with a team, and we’ve been doing local shows in Chicago for years. It’s a chance to not be so serious, and also helped me discover and develop techniques that also apply to my professional life, like learning to affirm others while stating what you believe to be true, and allowing me to bring some of my humor and personality into my public speaking.

You can read the rest of the interviews with the 2023 People to Watch here.