In March Pietro's career took a 180° turn when he released his first hit "Rapping for AI ethics". What started as an academic presentation became an unexpected milestone in the history of American music. Here, Pietro gives us his first interview as a star.

During the NIH InnovationLab workshop, researchers from diverse backgrounds sought to discuss about a data ecosystem approach to ethical AI for biomedical and behavioral research. They were not prepared for what was coming...

Pietro Michelucci, HCI's director, presented his research in hip hop style. The success was so outstanding that he immediately scheduled a second presentation (in the same workshop) and even released his own video clip!

In the context of Citizen Science Month, we deepen the message behind this song and what inspired it. Pietro, don't forget us when you're famous!

In a nutshell, what is the message of "Rapping for AI Ethics"?

I’d say it’s really more of a human computation rap with an ethics flair.  Really big problems in the world today are piling up, many of which we’ve created by trying to solve other problems.  Even when we put our best minds together, it seems like we still can’t figure out a solution.

So then, we pin our hopes on creating a machine with superhuman intelligence to solve our problems for us, which probably won’t happen soon, and in the meantime, we’ll sit around worrying about AI taking control of our lives. But there might be a way to achieve superhuman intelligence TODAY and solve some of these big problems by combining machine and human intelligence in sensible ways.  

There are things humans do best, like being creative or applying knowledge about the world to a situation.  Machines, on the other hand, are best at crunching numbers and remembering things, but humans often know which numbers to crunch.  If we can figure out the best way to tap the complementary abilities of humans and machines, an approach we call “human computation”, maybe we can more effectively tackle some big problems.  The ethical bit is that technology is evolving so fast that we can’t anticipate all the risks, so why not apply human computation to solving that problem too?

But there might be a way to achieve superhuman intelligence TODAY and solve some of these big problems by combining machine and human intelligence in sensible ways.  

In what context was this worldwide hit released?

Haha - yeah, this will be my first hit single ;)  I was attending an intense weeklong workshop at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.  The topic of the workshop was “Artificial Intelligence Ethics” because we are starting to use AI to improve biomedical research and help doctors make better decisions.  So they convened about 30 of us to explore this topic in depth and they asked us to introduce our research interests using one “karaoke” slide, intimating that people occasionally put songs to their slides.  

Well, I believed them, but did not want to inflict my singing voice on anyone, so I stayed up from midnight until about 3am writing a rap to describe the kind of work we do at the Human Computation Institute.  As it turns out, I was the only one who did any kind of song and dance.

What inspired you to write this rap?

These are challenging times and emotional times.  Our existence today feels precarious - our climate is spiraling, pandemics persist, and if that weren’t enough, our global society is still in a state of primitive tribalism and resource mongering while politicians prey on polarity.  

In the scientific world, we often try to be objective and impartial, which makes sense when you are collecting or evaluating research data.  But even scientists are human, and our work is motivated by goals.  Sometimes these goals stem from basic drives such as survival.  

I think music and lyrics help us make emotional sense of the world, so for me this was an opportunity to connect our emotions to our research, and to convey a message of opportunity and hope based on the approach of human computation.

And finally, what are your musical references?

I have none.  I used to play the violin and eventually composed some neo-classical music, which was performed by local musicians.  In college in the late 1980s I wrote a few silly raps.