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AI With a Cause: Indian American Teen Sneha Revanur Emerges as Greta Thunberg of Artificial Intelligence

AI With a Cause: Indian American Teen Sneha Revanur Emerges as Greta Thunberg of Artificial Intelligence

  • The 19-year-old Sophomore at Williams College in Massachusetts, founded Encode Justice in July 2020, to fight for human rights and justice in the age of Artificial Intelligence.

Sneha Revanur has become a major force in global discussions around the development and safety of Artificial intelligence (AI). The 19-year-old sophomore studying political science and economics at Williams College in Massachusetts is the founder and president of Encode Justice, which she launched in July 2020. The youth-led organization fights for human rights and justice in the age of AI and is pushing policymakers and companies to put people at the center of the AI revolution.

A Sweeping Call for Action

This week, Encode Justice issued the first-ever youth platform for global AI action. The report calls on leaders across the private and public sectors to enact a raft of policy recommendations by 2030 to ensure AI protects the “lives, rights, and livelihoods” of young people. “Together, we believe AI innovation has enormous potential to advance human prosperity — but as of now, our world is on the wrong path,” the agenda reads. “Today’s leaders must ensure that our generation inherits a livable future by immediately establishing guardrails for AI that protect all of our lives, rights, and livelihoods.”

Written by a group of activists, all 22 and under, “it lays out nearly two dozen steps policymakers and developers can take to tackle concerns that AI could erode public trust, undermine human rights, disrupt the workforce and exacerbate military conflicts,” The Washington Post reported. “This could be the most important moral challenge of our time,” the group writes in its report. “The clock is ticking, and our generation is ready for action — we have the greatest stake in what happens next.”

Described by The Post as “a sweeping call to action for heightened artificial intelligence protections,” the report  urged global leaders “to take swift steps to harness the potential and mitigate the dangers of tools that could have an outsize impact on their generation.” The Post notes that “the release marks one of the most significant efforts to date by young people to shape the debate around AI regulation, which is gaining momentum globally.”

Encode Justice has “over a thousand members under age 25,” the platform noted,  adding that it “represents millions of young people across the globe, and is supported by any more allies over the age of 25.”

Explaining the reason behind the platform launch, the young Indian American told The Washington Post that as “a soon-to-be first-time voter, one issue that was top of mind was how artificial intelligence could sow discord during the many key elections held across the globe this year — and how young people could be particularly vulnerable to AI-driven misinformation.” She said she’s “concerned about going to the polls with so much disinformation swirling around.”

According to her, the AI issue “reaches far beyond politics, with young women in particular now having to confront the threat of nonconsensual AI-generated videos and images,” she told The Post. “There are so many stories of teenage girls, literally high school students, who are impacted by deepfakes,” she said.

AI’s Greta Thunberg

In a recent profile on the young Indian American, Politico described her as the closest thing the emerging movement to rein in AI has to its own Greta Thunberg,” the Swedish environmental activist known for challenging world leaders to take immediate action for climate change mitigation.

A San Jose native, Revanur, the daughter of Silicon Valley high-tech workers, got her start in activism 2020 when she learned the algorithm California had proposed for replacing cash bail was compromised by racial bias. She noticed the lack of a substantial youth voice in the campaign against the proposition, which would have replaced cash bail with a similar algorithmic system. She rallied her peers and partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and others to successfully stop the measure. “At that point, it was a pretty energizing victory for us,” Revanur said in an interview with the Record. 

The victory inspired her and her peers to found Encode Justice. “We realized that we already had this amazing team assembled [and] we already had youth who are thinking about these issues,” she told The Williams Record, the independent student newspaper at Williams College. “So we decided to keep our mission alive and become an organization.”

Encode Justice “originally focused on the use of AI algorithms in bias, privacy, and surveillance, according to The Record. The organization has since expanded.” I think we have expanded to look at all those issues — making sure that AI uplifts human society and can be an ally and not an oppressor,” Revanur said. “I did want this to be a thing that was impactful,” she said of her group’s advocacy. “But I didn’t know the things we’re doing today were possible. I didn’t know it was possible for a young person to be at the table with the vice president.”

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Last summer, Revanur helped organize an open letter urging congressional leaders and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to include more young people on AI oversight and advisory boards. Soon after, she was invited to attend a roundtable discussion on AI hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris. “For the first time, young people were being treated as the critical stakeholders that we are when it comes to regulating AI and really understanding its impacts on society,” she told Time when she was named in the magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in AI ”becoming the youngest individual in the compilation in 2023. “We are the next generation of users, consumers, advocates, and developers, and we deserve a seat at the table.”

Revanur has been stressing the importance of youth participation in regulating AI and policy-making. “The age distribution of Congress skews towards people who are very old, very out of touch with technology, and who did not grow up in a generation in which they were surrounded by machines at their fingertips,” she told The Record.“I think it’s really important that we have younger voices pressing on leadership to actually take action on issues that are genuinely of concern to us,” she said. “If not, we’re going to continue having leadership completely drop the ball on these issues.”

A prospective political economy major, she told The Record of her aspiration to attend law school and continue work in tech policy after graduation. She admitted to The Record, however, that “the rigor of a liberal arts education has posed some challenges,” especially given her busy travel schedule. “When it comes to a small liberal arts college [where] you have five people in your class, being absent consistently is not the best thing.”

Fortunately, she found that professors “expressed understanding and support for her advocacy work,” she told The Record. And that “support inspired her decision to attend Williams College in the first place. “I think one of the reasons why I chose Williams was because, at a school like this — a community like this, there is so much support for the work that you’re doing.”

She also discussed handing down the reins of Encode Justice. “I think it’s really important that it stays in the hands of a truly young person and not just myself for the rest of my life,” she told The Record. “Even once that does happen, I do hope to stay involved in this work and to work on tech policy and make that my career — albeit in a different way.”

(Top photo by Jay Corey, courtesy of Williams College).

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