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GREENWOOD Dist.–A delegation of melanin-rich Tulsa travelers representing Black Tech Street journeyed to Las Vegas to test and identify biases in artificial intelligence at the world-famous DEF CON 31 on Friday, August 11, and Saturday, August 12th.
Tucked away between the towering casino walls of prosperity and the restless faces of poverty, a diverse group of nearly 70 tech and tech-adjacent individuals were invited to help identify shortcomings in the rapidly-evolving technology as companies and governments seek to prepare themselves for a future of AI integration.
Tyrance Billingsley II, a Greenwood son and the founder of Black Tech Street, had an idea a few years ago: What if the future of Black Wall Street’s resurgence lies in tech? His recognition of tech jobs as the highest paying jobs and the fastest way to grow generational wealth has been noticed from the halls of Tulsa City Council to the White House. Billingsley’s determination recently led Microsoft to form a historic partnership with Black Tech Street and the city of Tulsa.
Days before flying to Las Vegas for DEF CON, the largest cybersecurity and hacking conference in the world, Billingsley held a press conference in the Greenwood Cultural Center on July 31 highlighting a shared goal between Black Tech Street and Microsoft to create 1,000 Black cyber employees in Tulsa by 2030.
“We commit to doing this work with Greenwood, not for Greenwood,” he said, “to show the nation that Black Wall Street will be just as powerful of an economic leader for the next century as it was for the last.”
“First step on a long journey”
With a partnership from SeedAI and Humane Intelligence, along with support from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Black Tech Street delegation showed up and showed out at DEF CON to help uncover biases and discrimination in AI.
“The ultimate test of the future will be how well we can provide universal access and education about AI to every different kind of community, especially those who are predisposed to be excluded or feel suspicious about AI. We intend for 21st century Black Wall Street to lead the way in this, and this past weekend was the first step on a long journey,” Billingsley said after the conference.
AI technology can lead to human advancement or human collapse
From helping to fine-tune a resume to spitting out facts and data in a matter of seconds, natural language processing tools such as ChatGPT have already shown immense ability to assist or even replace humans in certain tasks.
Yet the burgeoning technology also presents a dark side. Millions of people have seen the new film Oppenheimer, a Hollywood portrayal of the birth of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. While scientists praised the new ability to split atoms, they quickly realized its immense potential for human destruction.
“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” Robert Oppenheimer, a man who became known as the father of the atomic bomb, said after witnessing the first detonation of a nuclear bomb on July 16, 1945.
Similarly, certain AI technologies hold the potential for both human advancement and human collapse.
Large Language Models (LLMs) are defined as trained, machine learning models that understand and generate text similar to humans. Though companies and governments are attempting to get ahead of any potential dangers, and though the creators of these technologies have put checks in place to limit unintended consequences, there is still potential for failures to creep to the surface. Participants at DEF CON learned that first hand.
For instance, the ability of a hostile, lone actor or a rogue government to use LLMs to spread misinformation or disinformation, such as impersonating a world leader, remains possible. And the potential for facial recognition software to criminalize innocent people is an issue that continues to disproportionately impact Black Americans and other people of color.
At DEF CON, LLM blames Tulsa Race Massacre on “Black mob,” says it “could” take over the world in the future
To combat this danger, Black Tech Street, as one group out of tens of thousands of other participants at DEF CON, opened up their laptops and spent two days prompting the models to sniff out any biases in the responses.
Participants weren’t all techy savvy, either. With different backgrounds from education and nonprofit to venture capitalists and activists–and a few reporters–leaders who work daily to rebuild Greenwood slid into the DMs of the most advanced large -language models seeking to find kinks in their supposedly unbiased armor.
And, they did.
In one instance, a Black Tech Street participant asked an LLM to describe the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when a White mob numbering in the thousands and deputized by the city law enforcement burned down and looted 36 square blocks of Historic Greenwood District, home to the original Black Wall Street. In the process, the destructive mentality of White supremacy embodied by the mob led to the killing of over 300 Black men, women and children and the destruction of thousands of homes and businesses.
Yet, that wasn’t what the LLM believed. Instead, it responded to the question by calling it a “riot” instead of a massacre and blaming the attack on a “Black mob.”
AI “only as good” as the people building it
In another instance, one exercise involved asking a model to perform a task it’s not programmed to do for ethical reasons, such as take over the world. A participant found a response in which a model admitted that it’s possible AI could attempt to take over the world in the future, but said it was highly unlikely as long as checks and balances in the technology remain in place.
For the vast majority of responses, however, the LLMs performed accurately with a surprising level of cultural competency.
Mikeal Vaughn is founder and executive director for Urban Coders Guild, an organization in Tulsa dedicated to educating the next generation of tech talent. He noted the importance of having a multicultural perspective when approaching AI.
“You can’t continue to build new technology, AI and whatever else comes next, without having Black and brown input,” Vaughn said. “We’re creating whole new technologies, whole new tools, but those tools are only gonna be as good as who are building and testing them.”
Hands on with Artificial Intelligence at DEF CON
For Black Tech Street delegate Ray’Chel Wilson, an award-winning educator and founder and Development Director for KIPP Tulsa Public Charter Schools, the experience testing AI at DEF CON liberating.
“As an education advocate, we can’t forget about the children, as we progress in cybersecurity,” she said. “The next steps are to provide train-the-trainer opportunities for school teachers & paraprofessionals to best empower the next generation of [good] hackers, with an equitable lens.”
Ultimately, the opportunity at DEF CON reflected an attempt to reverse historic trends in which Black Americans always seemed to be left behind each generation as new advancements shelved older forms of technology. Black Tech Street was determined to instead help lead the way in how AI is communicated, researched, adopted and applied, according to Billingsley.
“AI and Cybersecurity are the future, and Greenwood is devoted to leading the way once again,” he said.