Meet the Greta Thunberg of AI

Parents just don’t understand … the risks of generative artificial intelligence. At least according to a group of Zoomers grappling with this new force that their elders are struggling to regulate.

While young people often bear the brunt of new technologies, and must live with their long-term consequences, no youth movement has emerged around tech regulation that matches the scope or power of youth climate and gun control activism.

That’s starting to change, though, especially as concerns about AI mount.

Earlier today, a consortium of 10 youth organizations sent a letter to congressional leaders and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy calling on them to include more young people on AI oversight and advisory boards.

The letter, provided first to DFD, was spearheaded by Sneha Revanur, a first-year student at Williams College in Massachusetts and the founder of Encode Justice, an AI-focused civil society group. As a charismatic teenager who is not shy about condemning “a generation of policymakers who are out of touch,” as she put it in an interview, she’s the closest thing the emerging movement to rein in AI has to its own Greta Thunberg. Thunberg began her rise as a global icon of the climate movement in 2018, at the age of 15, with weekly solo protests outside of Sweden’s parliament.

A native of San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley, Revanur also got her start in tech advocacy as a 15-year-old. In 2020, she volunteered for the successful campaign to defeat California’s Proposition 25, which would have enshrined the replacement of cash bail with a risk-based algorithmic system.

Encode Justice emerged from that ballot campaign with a focus on the use of AI algorithms in surveillance and the criminal justice system. It currently boasts a membership of 600 high school and college students across 30 countries. Revanur said the group’s primary source of funding currently comes from the Omidyar Network, a self-described “social change venture” led by left-leaning eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Revanur has become increasingly preoccupied with generative AI as it sends ripples through societies across the world. The aha moment came when she read that February New York Times article about a seductive, conniving AI chatbot. In recent weeks, concerns have only grown about the potential for generative AI to deceive and manipulate people, as well as the broader risks posed by the potential development of artificial general intelligence.

“We were somewhat skeptical about the risks of generative AI,” Revanur says. “We see this open letter as a marking point that we’re pivoting.”

The letter is borne in part out of concerns that older policymakers are ill-prepared to handle this rapidly developing technology. Revanur said that when she meets with congressional offices, she is struck by the lack of tech-specific expertise. “We’re almost always speaking to a judiciary staffer or a commerce staffer.” State legislatures, she said, tend to be worse.

One sign of the generational tension at play: Today’s letter calls on policymakers to “improve technical literacy in government.”

The letter comes at a time when the fragmented youth tech movement is starting to coalesce, according to Zamaan Qureshi, co-chair of Design It For Us Coalition, a signatory of the AI letter.

“The groups that are out there have been working in a disjointed way,” Qureshi, a junior at American University in Washington, said. The coalition grew out of a successful campaign last year in support of the California Age Appropriate Design Code, a state law governing online privacy for children.

To improve coordination on tech safety issues, Qureshi and a group of fellow activists launched the Design It For Us Coalition at the end of March with a kickoff call featuring advisory board member Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower. The coalition is currently focused on social media, which is often blamed for a teen mental health crisis, Qureshi said.

But it’s the urgency of AI that prompted today’s letter.

So, is this the issue that will catapult youth tech activists to the same visibility and influence of other youth movements?

Qureshi said he and his fellow organizers have been in touch with youth climate activists and with organizers from March for Our Lives, the student-led gun control organization.

And the tech activists are looking to push their weight around in 2024.

Revanur, who praised President Joe Biden for prioritizing tech regulation, said Encode Justice plans to make an endorsement in the upcoming presidential race, and is watching to see what his administration does on AI. The group is also considering congressional and state legislative endorsements.

But endorsements and a politely-worded letter are a far cry from the combative — and controversial — tactics that have put the youth climate movement in the spotlight, such as a 2019 confrontation with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein inside her Bay Area office.

Tech activists remain open to the adversarial approach. Revanur said the risks of AI run amuck could justify “more confrontational” measures going forward.

“We definitely do see ourselves expanding direct action,” she said, “because we have youth on the ground.”

The young activists shaking up the kids’ online safety debate

When lawmakers began investigating the impact of social media on kids in 2021, Zamaan Qureshi was enthralled.

Since middle school he’d watched his friends struggle with eating disorders, anxiety and depression, issues he said were “exacerbated” by platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.

Qureshi’s longtime concerns were thrust into the national spotlight when Meta whistleblower Frances Haugen released documents linking Instagram to teen mental health problems. But as the revelations triggered a wave of bills to expand guardrails for children online, he grew frustrated at who appeared missing from the debate: young people, like himself, who’d experienced the technology from an early age.

“There was little to no conversation about young people and … what they thought should be done,” said Qureshi, 21, a rising senior at American University.

So last year, Qureshi and a coalition of students formed Design It For Us, an advocacy group intended to bring the perspectives of young people to the forefront of the debate about online safety.

They are part of a growing constellation of youth advocacy and activist organizations demanding a say as officials consider new rules to govern kids’ activity online.

The slew of federal and state proposals has served as a rallying cry to a cohort of activists looking to shape laws that may transform how their generation interacts with technology. As policymakers consider substantial shifts to the laws overseeing kids online, including measures at the federal and state level that ban children under 13 from accessing social media and require those younger than 18 to get parental consent to log on, the young advocates — some still in their teens — have been quick to engage.

Now, youth activists have become a formidable lobbying force in capitals across the nation. Youth groups are meeting with top decision-makers, garnering support from the White House and British royalty and affecting legislative proposals, including persuading federal lawmakers to scale back parental control measures in one major bill.

“The tides definitely are turning,” said Sneha Revanur, 18, another member of Design It For Us.

Yet this prominence doesn’t necessarily translate to influence. Many activists said their biggestchallenge is ensuring that policymakers take their input seriously.

“We want to be seen as meaningful collaborators, and not just a token seat at the table,” Qureshi said.

In Washington, D.C., Design It For Us has taken part in dozens of meetings with House and Senate leaders, White House officials and other advocates. In February, the group made its debut testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“We cannot wait another year, we cannot wait another month, another week or another day to begin to protect the next generation,” Emma Lembke, 20, who co-founded the organization with Qureshi, said in her testimony.

Emma Lembke, founder of Log Off Movement, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on protecting children online Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the panel and met with the group again in July, said that Lembke “provided powerful testimony” and that their meetings were one of “many conversations that I’ve had with young folks demonstrating the next generation’s call for change.”

Revanur said policymakers often put too much stock in technical or political expertise and not enough in digital natives’ lifetime of experience and understanding of technology’s potential for harm.

“There’s so much emphasis on a specific set of credentials: having a PhD in computer science or having spent years working on the Hill,” said Revanur, a rising sophomore at Williams College. “It diminishes the importance of the credentials that youth have, which is the credential of lived experience.”

Revanur, who founded the youth-led group Encode Justice, which focuses on artificial intelligence, has met with officials at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), urging them to factor in concerns about how AI could be used for school surveillance as they drafted a voluntary AI bill of rights.

The office’s former acting director, Alondra Nelson, who led the initiative, said Encode Justice brought policy issues “to life” by describing both real and imagined harms — from “facial recognition cameras in their school hallways [to] the very real anxiety that the prospect of persistent surveillance caused them.”

In July, Vice President Harris invited Revanur to speak at a roundtable on AI with civil rights and advocacy group leaders, a moment the youth activist called “a pretty significant turning point” in “increasing legitimization of youth voices in the space.”

Sneha Revanur, founder of Encode Justice and member of Design It For Us, outside the Capitol. (Courtesy of Sneha Revanur)

There are already signs that those in power are heeding their calls.

Sam Hiner, 20, started college during the covid-19 pandemic and said that social media hurt his productivity and ability to socialize on campus.

“It’s easier to scroll on your phone in your dorm than it is to go out because you get that guaranteed dopamine,” said Hiner, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Hiner, who in high school co-founded a youth-oriented policy group, worked with lawmakers and children’s safety groups to introduce state legislation prohibiting platforms from using minors’ data to algorithmically target them with content.

He said he held more than 100 meetings with state legislators, advocates and industry leaders as he pushed for a bill to tackle the issue. The state bill, the Social Media Algorithmic Control in Information Technology Act, now has more than 60 sponsors.

Last month, Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, awarded Hiner’s group, Design It For Us and others grants ranging from $25,000 to $200,000 for their advocacy as part of the newly launched Responsible Technology Youth Power Fund. Hiner said he received a surprise call from the royals minutes after learning about the grant.

“As a young person who … has a bit of a chip on my shoulder from feeling excluded from the process traditionally, getting that … buy-in from some of the most influential people in the world was really cool,” he said.

Youth activists’ lobbying efforts are also bearing fruit in Washington.

This summer, Design It For Us led a week of action calling on senators to take up a bill to expand existing federal privacy protections for younger users, the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, and another measure to create a legal obligation for tech platforms to prevent harms to kids, the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA).

A Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, said the advocates played a key role in persuading lawmakers to exclude teens from a provision in KOSA requiring parental consent to access digital platforms. It now only covers those 12 and younger.

Dozens of digital rights groups have expressed concern that the legislation would require tech companies to collect even more data from kids and give parents too much control over their children’s online activity, which could disproportionately harm young LGBT users.

“We were focused on making sure that KOSA did not turn into a parental surveillance bill,” said Qureshi.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said their mobilization “significantly changed my perspective,” calling their advocacy a “linchpin” to building support for the legislation.

Qureshi and other youth advocates attended a White House event in July at which President Biden surprised spectators by endorsing KOSA and the children’s privacy bill, his most direct remarks on the efforts to date. Days later, the bills advanced with bipartisan support out of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Hiner and other youth advocates said they have worked closely with prominent children’s online safety groups, including Fairplay. Revanur said her group Encode Justice receives funding from the Omidyar Network, an organizationestablished by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar that is a major force in fueling Big Tech antagonists in Washington. Qureshi declined to disclose any funding sources for Design It For Us, beyond its recent grant from the Responsible Technology Youth Power Fund.

Some young activists argue against such tough protections for kids online. The digital activist group Fight for the Future said it has been working with hundreds of young grass-roots activists who are rallying support against the bills, arguing that they would expand surveillance and hurt marginalized groups.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 23: (L-R) Divya Siddarth, Emma Lembke, Zamaan Qureshi, Sneha Revanur and Emma Leiken speak onstage during Unfinished Live at The Shed on September 23, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Unfinished Live)

Sarah Philips, 25, an organizer for Fight for the Future, said young people’s views on the topic shouldn’t be treated as a “monolith,” and that the group has heard from an “onslaught” of younger users concerned that policymakers’ proposed restrictions could have a chilling effect on speech online.

“The youth that I work with tend to be queer, a lot of them are trans and a lot of them are young people of color, and their experience in all aspects of the world, including online, is different,” she said.

There are also lingering questions about the science underlying the children’s safety legislation.

Studies have documented that prolonged social media use can lead to increased anxiety and depression and that it can exacerbate body image and self-esteem issues among younger users. But the research on social media use is still evolving. Recent reports by the American Psychological Association and the U.S. Surgeon General painted a more complex picture of the dynamic and called for more research, finding that social media can also generate positive social experiences for young people.

“We don’t want to get rid of social media. That’s not a stance that most members of Gen Z, I think, would take,” said Qureshi. “We want to see reforms and policies in place that make our online world safer and allow us to foster those connections that have been positive.”

Sneha Revanur, the youngest of TIME100 AI

Earlier this year, Sneha Revanur began to notice a new trend among her friends: “In the same way that Google has become a commonly accepted verb, ChatGPT just entered our daily vocabulary.” A freshman in college at the time, she noticed that—whether drafting an email to a professor or penning a breakup text—her peers seemed to be using the chatbot for just about everything.

That Gen Z (typically defined as those born between 1997 and 2012) was so quick to adopt generative AI tools was no surprise to Revanur, who at 18 is of a generation that’s been immersed in technology “since day one.” It only makes sense that they also have a say in regulating it.

Revanur’s interest in AI regulation began in 2020, when she founded Encode Justice, a youth-led, AI-focused civil-society group, to mobilize younger generations in her home state of California against Proposition 25, a ballot measure that aimed to replace cash bail with a risk-based algorithm. After the initiative was defeated, the group kept on, focusing on educating and mobilizing peers around AI policy advocacy. The movement now counts 800 young members in 30 countries around the world, and has drawn comparisons to the youth-led climate and gun-control movements that preceded it.

“It’s our generation that’s going to inherit the impacts of the technology that [developers] are hurtling to build at breakneck speed today,” she says, calling the federal government’s inertia on reining in social media giants a warning sign on AI. “It took decades for [lawmakers] to actually begin to take action and seriously consider regulating social media, even after the impacts on youth and on all of our communities had been well documented by that point in time.”

At the urging of many in the AI industry, Washington appears to be moving fast this time. This 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,” Revanur says. “We are the next generation of users, consumers, advocates, and developers, and we deserve a seat at the table.”

‘Adults have failed’: Youth activists take up fight for U.S. digital rights

LOS ANGELES (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -Sneha Revanur, a 16-year-old student from California, is on a mission to do for digital rights what Greta Thunberg’s movement has done for the climate fight – put young activists on the front lines.

Revanur founded youth digital rights group Encode Justice last year after joining a successful campaign against state plans to use an algorithm to set prisoners’ bail terms, a system that critics said was racially biased.

“We’ve seen it in climate, we’ve seen it on the guns issue, but there hasn’t been an equivalent uprising for technology and algorithmic justice among my peers,” said Revanur, a high school senior from San Jose, California.

“We are the next generation of technologists, regulators, activists – it’s impacting our lives on a daily basis, and in the future, we have the most to lose,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a lunch break between her classes.

In little over a year, Encode Justice has exploded from being a small group of Revanur’s peers to encompassing more than a dozen chapters across the United States as well as teams dedicated to researching policy issues and campaign strategy.

Revanur modeled the group on a professional issue advocacy body, and it is involved in digital rights issues at every level of government – from surveillance regulations in Baltimore to a privacy bill in Washington State.

Most recently, members lobbied federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C., for a national ban on facial recognition technology.

On weekends, the advocacy team convenes phone banks to lobby officials on specific policy items. So far, they have met more than 20 elected officials.

“These youth are amazing – and they recognize just like they did with climate – that adults have failed,” said Kade Crockford, director of the technology for liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Crockford is working with Encode Justice to organize a week of action in schools to push for a state ban on facial recognition technology in Massachusetts.

“This newer generation does not see digital rights as a remote, far away issue – they see it as central to what it means to be free,” Crockford said, praising the group for tracking legislation at all levels of government.

“Their generation doesn’t have the luxury to ignore these kinds of issues,” Crockford added. “They realize if we don’t act quickly on digital rights, they are gonna end up where they have little control over their lives.”

‘REAL WORLD IMPLICATIONS’

The summer before her senior years in high school in Virginia, Mrudula Rapaka started seeing Revanur’s posts about the Californian bail algorithm on Instagram and decided to get involved.

“I learned how dangerous these algorithms could be to marginalized groups,” she said.

Rapaka started volunteering her time to call up voters in California to ask them to vote against upcoming a state ballot measure that would have rolled out the bail systems state-wide.

California voters eventually rejected the measure, which was also opposed by groups including Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, by a 13% margin.

Rapaka, who lives near Washington D.C., now helps direct Encode Justice’s advocacy work.

Raising awareness of digital rights issues among youth is another pillar of the group’s activities, said Vidya Bharadwaj, the organization’s education director.

“Not everyone realizes that algorithms surround them in their everyday life,” she said. “I try to explain how this tech is profiling us – there are real world implications, and minorities are impacted more so than others.”

Bharadwaj gets in touch with high school teachers by email, asking if she can give Zoom presentations to their students on key issues such as the discrimination and privacy risks posed by facial recognition technology.

She has also given classroom talks about social media algorithms, which are often engineered to keep users hooked, and can boost misinformation or polarizing posts.

“The message really lands when it comes from your peers,” she said, estimating that Encode Justice’s classroom presentations have reached more than 3,000 students in the last four months alone.

An aspiring computer programmer, Bharadwaj also runs GirlCon, a group dedicated to helping young women find careers in science and technology, and draws on the work of pioneering women AI critics such as Cathy O’Neil and Joy Buolamwini.

At a recent presentation to a computer science class in Mississippi, Bharadwaj explained how algorithmic bias works, giving an example of how a computer model could estimate the price of a house in a way that undervalues Black homes.

It is not a hypothetical issue: Last year, real estate platform Redfin was sued by housing advocates who said the methods it used to assess home values were racially biased.

The group is also beginning to take on privacy issues that directly impact students, from the use of test proctoring algorithms in schools to systems that profile students who are likely to be violent.

Revanur said it had been a whirlwind to see the group grow from a group of 10 friends and classmates to a fully fledged advocacy group, which is even starting to see international chapters sprout up.

“We’re doing something that hasn’t been done before,” she said. “And it’s awesome to see how integral youth can be to this movement.”