Sneha Revanur | Crusader for AI regulation

The 18-year-old Indian American is spearheading a youth activist group pushing for a human-centred approach to artificial intelligence

January 28, 2024 01:54 am | Updated 01:38 pm IST

In a year when rapid developments in artificial intelligence dominated headlines, an 18-year-old activist made it to the list of Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people. She calls for a “human-centered” approach to AI.

Sneha Revanur, an Indian American, became an active participant in shaping AI policy when she founded Encode Justice, a civil society group. In her blog, Ms. Revanur describes the group as a “youth-powered organisation leading a global movement for human rights and justice under AI through political advocacy, community organising, educational programming, and content creation”.

The group has close to 900 active members across 30 countries and draws inspiration from earlier youth-led climate and gun-control movements. Every member of the group is either in high school or college. Ms. Renavur is advocating for the active participation of Gen Z, typically those born between 1997 and 2012, in the formation of a legal framework to regulate AI.

Her efforts have resulted in her being invited to attend a roundtable discussion on AI hosted by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. She is also involved in a project released by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in 2022. Her role in the project involved advising the OSTP on crafting a framework for AI.

Though a mere blueprint and not enforceable, the framework, released in 2023, became one of the first frameworks aimed at regulating the use and development of AI.

A small start

Seen as the Greta Thunberg of AI, Ms. Revanur’s journey began at a young age. She once said her upbringing in Silicon Valley and her family background and association with the tech world helped shape her convictions and the formation of Encode Justice. Ms. Revanur’s older sister works in tech and both her parents are software engineers.

In 2020, Ms. Revanur, then 15, founded Encode Justice to mobilise the youth in her home State of California. The group was formed to oppose the initiative to replace cash bail with a risk-based algorithm. If the initiative, Proposition 25, had been approved by voters in the State, it would bring an end to cash bail in favour of risk assessment algorithms that would measure a person’s likelihood of re-offending or skipping out on the court.

Ms. Revanur says the problem with the initiative lay in algorithm tools similar to the one being used by the justice system in the U.S. This algorithm was found to have staggering rates of racial bias in an investigation conducted by ProPublica.

Once the initiative was defeated, the group continued its work on educating and mobilising peers around AI policies.

Ms. Revanur believes the release of the framework around AI is a great starting point, and there is a lot of work that has to be done to ensure that future regulations have more teeth. Her organisation’s goal, she says, is not to stop technology or to put an end to innovation. Instead, it aims “to re-imagine what exists and to build justice into the framework of the existing systems from the beginning”.

Ms. Revanur believes that since her generation was quick to adopt generative AI tools like ChatGPT, and will inherit the impacts of the technology, it makes sense for them to have a say in regulating it.

To further youth participation in AI regulations, her group sent an open letter to the U.S. Congress on AI policy. The letter demanded, among other things, the creation of governance structures to audit AI products and manage risks. It also recommended the setting up of an independent FDA-style regulatory agency to assess the impact of AI while simultaneously stressing a proactive approach to corporate accountability.

Ms. Revanur believes AI should be designed to align with human values, meet human needs, and be accountable to human stakeholders. While advocating for close human oversight aimed at keeping its development in check, she says close intergovernmental coordination is going to be crucial in setting up a regulatory framework for AI.

Encode Justice is supported by multiple investment funds such as the Omidyar Network, We Are Family Foundation, America’s Promise Alliance, the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, and individual donors. Ms. Revanur continues her activism while pursuing her education. Because, Ms. Revanur says, she and her comrades realise that their collective future depends on it.

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