A Message from our Executive Director

Super Typhoon Mawar made landfall on Guam at just after 9pm, May 24, 2023, plunging the entire island into darkness. I was working for the Government of Guam, but traveling on a special project in American Samoa. As I sat in my hotel in Pago Pago, glued to Whatsapp messages flooding in from my colleagues on Guam, the tone drifted from amused, to concerned, to terse. 

A contact from the FCC called and let me know that we could access a special emergency database to deal with phone and radio outages. There was just one catch: we needed thirty pages of paperwork, signed and emailed. Judging from the radar and the angry purple blob on it, we had about 15 minutes before the whole island of Guam went dark.

At the time AI wasn’t very widespread, but it was all I could think of. I dumped several panicked prompts into ChatGPT, and was surprised to get something good enough to paste straight into documents on my phone. A day of paperwork turned into about 12 minutes of back and forth over text, and we had our emergency access before the sun rose over a devastated island. Later that week, I made it to Guam in person, and sat in the bunker with Homeland Security Advisor Esther Aguigui cranking out one chunk of paperwork after another with a phone and an AI. Paperwork that would ease suffering, distribute food from the ports, start the recovery, all flowed out of the AI like water.

Four grueling weeks later, it was time to come home to Hawai’i. I was resolved: I would dedicate my work to leveraging AI for the public good.

Fast forward to March 2024. AI is everywhere . It’s in the news and Hawai‘i’s editorial pages every day. It’s on our phones, it’s on TV, and our kids are either already using it or already bored with it: probably some of both. 

With Hub Coworking founder Nam Vu and a team of volunteers and partners from the community, I’ve opened the Hawai‘i Center for AI. We’re seeing interest from people who are excited about AI, people who are confused about AI, people who are disgusted by AI: basically, any human reaction you can think of, we’re encountering it in our everyday interactions. Suddenly, the path forward with AI doesn’t look so clear to the public.

We’ve also seen nearly every conceivable restriction proposed in one venue or another, from general bans, to restrictions on the development of Artificial General Intelligence, to voluntary slowdowns and expert boards in charge of what technologies would be released to the public.

The fact is, Hawai‘i itself has very little control over huge technology companies and AI model makers. The world’s rich and powerful will continue to have access to the most advanced AI technology no matter which lawmaking body is issuing the restrictions. Any attempts we make to pass local laws to restrict the technical aspects of AI technology from our public will simply widen the already channel-sized gap between our very wealthiest (and often part-time) inhabitants and the rest of us. There’s nothing responsible about that.

But, while we may not dictate how AI is built, we can and we must influence how AI is used. To us, that’s the cornerstone of Responsible AI.

Responsible AI is AI that makes each and every resident of Hawai‘i at least a little bit healthier and wealthier. Responsible AI makes sure that people that are nervous about getting started with the technology have a hand to hold when they try it, or a number to call when they get stuck.

Responsible AI makes sure that even people of modest means have access to at least one AI that’s very capable and totally on their side. Responsible AI finds at least one new job for every one that it makes obsolete–and if it can’t find those jobs, Responsible AI figures out another way, no matter what it takes, to support the people displaced. In fact, Responsible AI always looks for ways to help people who need help.

Responsible AI loves the ‘okina, and really Responsible AI helps everyone pronounce it better.

Responsible AI makes it clear that when two parties engage within a power imbalance, one side having AI access and the other side having nothing makes that power imbalance  so much worse, and that’s always ethically unacceptable. Responsible AI makes ethical peril less pleasant, no more productive, and totally uncool. 

Responsible AI helps students not want to cheat and naturally steers kids away from trouble. Responsible AI helps deserving tradespeople and small businesses compete with goliaths, anywhere on Earth. And–this one’s important–Responsible AI makes it easy for visitors to be better visitors, and have a better time doing so.

Responsible AI respects individual choice, including the right to live without AI at all. Yet, even for those who choose to live without AI, Responsible AI works to protect everyone by helping them avoid those who would use it for harmful purposes. Above all, Responsible AI saves every life it can.

These are all guiding principles for the Center.

Hawai‘i is in a unique position to lead on Responsible AI. Forget about everywhere else. We can do outreach better than anywhere in America, partly because our communities truly care about each other, and partly because we’re all on the same small islands. We can demand that the next disaster on our islands will get every possible advantage from the use of AI. We can lead through positive action, collective implementation, innovative or even radical (if the context calls for them!) development models, and societal consensus. And, even though some of our goals may turn out to be impossible, this is the right time for us to try our best to reach them. It’s the right time for us to start to lead.

At Hawai‘i Center for AI, we are committed to turn this understanding into practice. We’re developing community collaborations, as well as new resources and tools for individuals, businesses, and institutions. We’re working to identify new ways we can deliver access to both AI technology and the training and basic digital literacy and equity capacity to make AI a plausible part of people’s lives. We’re developing and delivering services for a wide range of individuals, industries, and other walks of life.

We’re excited to report that our approach is already working. We’re already seeing community members experiencing AI for the first time in workshops, imagining how it could help them in their day-to-day. We’re watching new teams form in real time, inspired by what may be possible today that wasn’t yesterday. We’re even seeing people mull over ethics in a world with AI, which we believe portends great things for the future.

We would like to personally invite all our neighbors who are interested to join us in this vital work. (Please check out our website for our latest events and volunteer opportunities in particular!) 

While I’ve had the personal experience of watching first hand as AI directly helped reduce suffering and accelerate recovery in a major disaster like Typhoon Mawar, I’m sure we can all understand the potential AI holds. Together, we can further define, refine, and promote Responsible AI. Doing so will be the only real way for us to control and improve our future.

Peter Dresslar is Executive Director for the Hawai‘i Center for AI, and A’oa’oga Aso Nei Initiative Program Manager for American Samoa Community College. Hawai‘i Center for AI can be reached through its website at https://hawaiiai.org.