Feb 20, 2024

Esther Paniagua: The Tech Maven Leading the Dialogue on AI

From local roots to international acclaim: The inspiring saga of a tech journalist reshaping our view on innovation

Esther Paniagua: The Tech Maven Leading the Dialogue on AI

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An accomplished and award-winning independent journalist, Esther Paniagua’s narrative unfolds within the domains of science, technology, and cybersecurity, woven together with a discerning eye for the societal repercussions of innovation.

The Madrid-born native’s byline has been seen across the pages of esteemed publications, from newspapers and magazines to scholarly journals and cutting-edge websites, showcasing a commitment to disseminating knowledge on science, tech and culture. A true polymath, she not only imparts wisdom in lecture halls but also takes center stage as a popular moderator and speaker at conferences.

Behind this journalistic luminary lies a narrative rooted in resilience and ambition. Raised under the guardianship of a father, grandparents, and uncles, Esther's journey began in the suburbs of Madrid, where her paternal grandparents sought a better life after moving from the economically challenged region of Extremadura.

Despite the odds, Esther navigated the corridors of a state school, later threading her way through university where she juggled part-time work, studies, and a crucial library fellowship into the fabric of her education. A journalism internship marked the genesis of her professional expedition, and today, she proudly calls Madrid home, sharing her life with a supportive husband.

Esther's relationship with technology is not merely professional; it's personal. A pioneer in the art of early adoption, she found herself immersed in the digital space thanks to her mother, who ventured to the United States in 1996. At the age of 10, Esther was bestowed with a computer and internet connection, a rare luxury in her peer group, igniting a passion for technology that eventually led her to explore coding.

Over the years, Esther has received the prestigious Inspire Award recognizing her outstanding contribution to raising awareness about artificial intelligence to being listed among the LinkedIn Top Voices in Technology and Innovation. Her impact is undeniable. Forbes celebrated her as one of the Top 100 Most Creative People in Business, while she garnered recognition as one of the Top 100 Women Leaders in Spain. The Accenture Journalism Award on Artificial Intelligence and the Vodafone Journalism Award on Economics underscore her expertise in these domains, while the Roche Institute Foundation Award on Precision Medicine and the ABSW's recognition as the Spanish Science Writer of the Year attest to her multifaceted brilliance.

This week, in conversation with Machinelab

Can you share a memorable experience or story from your career as a tech journalist that had a significant impact on you?

My career has spanned across technology, science, R&D, and health journalism. A standout moment involves discovering the work of Mariana Castells, a Spanish professor at Harvard. Her pioneering work in 'drug desensitisation' for allergy patients was life-changing. I reported on how she enabled cancer treatment for an acquaintance's brother, who suffered from an unusual allergic reaction.

This story led to my recognition as Spanish Science Writer of the Year and as one of Europe's best Scientific Writers by the ABSW. Mariana and I have since forged a lasting friendship, and I featured her inspiring story in the book 'Don’t Tell Me Tales,' showcasing influential Spanish women.

As a teacher of AI Journalism, how do you approach educating journalists on the ethical considerations of reporting on artificial intelligence?

Leading the AI Journalism module at the Master’s Programme in Investigative Journalism at URJC & El Confidencial, my approach encompasses three main objectives. Firstly, I aim to introduce journalists to the world of AI, covering its capabilities, limitations, and potential impact. This foundational knowledge is crucial for developing critical thinking skills that guide responsible reporting on AI-related topics.

Secondly, my teaching focuses on the practical application of AI tools in journalism, particularly in investigative reporting. This includes a thorough exploration of ethical considerations, transparency, and the responsible use of technology. Lastly, I emphasise the importance of scrutinising AI and algorithms. This involves teaching methods such as reverse engineering and other investigative techniques to understand and report on the inner workings of AI systems. Through this comprehensive curriculum, my goal is to equip journalists with the skills and ethical grounding necessary to navigate the evolving landscape of AI in journalism.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing ethical challenges associated with the widespread adoption of AI, and how should society address them?

Addressing AI's ethical challenges is complex, warranting extensive discussion. Key areas include:

Bias and Fairness: AI systems often reflect the biases present in their training data and, even more troubling, they reflect biases in the data scientists, in their choices of cleaning the data set, choosing what data to include, and their choice of what to optimise for in training the algorithm. This can perpetuate and even exacerbate societal inequalities, as it has already happened on many occasions. Addressing this threat requires rigorous auditing for bias in AI models, diverse data sets, and inclusive design practices to ensure fairness in AI outcomes.

Privacy concerns arise from the intrusive tracking of our personal lives on online platforms. Societal response should include strict data governance policies, transparent data usage practices, and robust cybersecurity measures to protect individual privacy.

Transparency and accountability: AI algorithms can be complex and opaque, making it difficult to understand how decisions are made. Promoting transparency in AI processes and ensuring accountability for AI-driven decisions are essential. This includes the development of explainable AI systems and clear guidelines on who is responsible when AI systems fail or cause harm.

Job displacement and precarisation of work. This transition should be managed by investing in education and training programs to prepare the workforce, considering new models of economic support and job creation, and deciding what is desirable to automate and what’s not.

Safety and security of AI systems, especially as they become more integrated into critical infrastructure and everyday life. This involves ongoing monitoring for vulnerabilities, ethical hacking to identify potential threats, and developing AI systems with safety-by-design principles.

Regulatory frameworks: Developing comprehensive and adaptable regulatory frameworks that can keep pace with AI advancements is crucial. This includes international cooperation to set global standards and norms for ethical AI use.

Cultural and societal impact: AI's influence on social norms, cultural dynamics, and human behaviour needs careful consideration. Engaging in wide-ranging societal dialogues and involving diverse groups in AI policy-making can help in understanding and addressing these impacts.

Given the global nature of the internet and technology, how do you think digital governance should be approached to ensure a fair and inclusive digital landscape?

There are numerous strategies that can be employed to enhance digital governance, as I outline in my book ‘Error 404,’ where I propose nearly 80 initiatives from both macro and micro perspectives. On a macro level, it's imperative for democracies to align on rules and restrictions. The European Union is at the forefront of this movement, enacting a broad spectrum of regulations, with the latest being the AI Act. Expected to be approved by the end of February or early March, this act, while not flawless, lays a foundation for the responsible development and deployment of AI. Such laws could catalyse a broader global movement, similar to the 'Brussels effect' observed in other instances, like the GDPR.

On a micro level, it's crucial for companies and organisations to not only comply with these regulations but also to champion additional practices essential for inclusivity and business success. This means incorporating diversity in background, culture, sexual orientation, age, religion, gender, race, and (dis)abilities into the digital ethics, robustness, and safety equation. By doing so, organisations can foster a more inclusive environment that not only adheres to regulatory standards but also enhances their business operations and societal impact.

In your book, 'Error 404,' you discuss the potential scenario of a world without the internet. How does this relate to cybersecurity, and what steps should individuals and organizations take to enhance their cybersecurity measures?

The premise of my book begins with exploring the hypothetical scenario of a total internet blackout, prompting readers to contemplate our profound dependence on and vulnerability to the internet. Today's society, including vital entities like corporations, governments, hospitals, and other critical infrastructures, is intricately interconnected through the internet. It serves as the backbone of our communication system. Yet, it's important to note that the internet was not originally designed to bear such a heavy and critical load. The increasing trend of connecting virtually everything – from home appliances and clothing to agricultural crops – creates numerous opportunities for malicious actors to exploit these connections. This expanding web of connected devices lacks sufficient cybersecurity measures, highlighting the urgency for robust protections. This is precisely why the European Union is moving forward with new regulations focused on cyber resilience.

Historically, cybersecurity was often viewed merely as a financial burden rather than a necessary investment. The conflict in Ukraine has shifted public perception, though it’s not clear to what extent this change in attitude has translated into increased public and private sector investment in cybersecurity, particularly among corporations and SMEs. The need for serious commitment to cybersecurity is critical, not just in terms of financial investment but also in education and training. Human error remains the weakest point in the cybersecurity chain.

To lay the groundwork for robust cybersecurity practices, individuals and organisations must be vigilant against various types of cyber scams. Key measures include the use of strong, unique passwords – changed at least annually – and the implementation of two-factor authentication wherever possible. It’s also crucial to maintain updated offline backups of critical digital assets. Choosing secure service providers for email, cloud storage, instant messaging apps, etc., and being mindful of the personal information shared online are essential steps in safeguarding against potential digital threats. As our reliance on the internet grows, so does the importance of understanding and implementing these cybersecurity basics.

As technology continues to advance, how do you envision the future of journalism, particularly in the context of AI, data, and new narrative forms?

Journalism faces two contrasting futures: a utopian vision where AI elevates the field, and a dystopian scenario where it undermines journalistic integrity. The utopian outlook foresees AI enhancing work efficiency by automating mundane tasks like fact-checking, text summarization, and initial documentation processes, freeing journalists to focus on in-depth reporting. This future also includes increased audience engagement through personalised content, cost reductions, and new revenue streams.

The dystopian perspective warns of AI's potential to commodify journalism, leading to uncritical coverage and a hyper-polarised media landscape. This scenario fears an overabundance of misinformation from AI-generated content, deep fakes, and a loss of public trust. Intellectual property battles could result in content commodification and the de-skilling of journalism, transforming it into a precarious profession. Additionally, a fragmented infosphere could exacerbate trust issues, as people are less exposed to differing opinions.

The recent collaborations of OpenAI with publishers like the Associated Press and Axel Springer, introducing real-time news searches through ChatGPT, exemplify a significant shift. This suggests a movement towards disintermediating traditional journalism, echoing the influence that other technology giants have exerted on the media industry. It also raises questions about the authenticity of content and the potential for further diluting journalistic integrity in pursuit of digital engagement.

We need a balanced approach to integrating AI in journalism, one that harnesses its benefits while mitigating potential risks to the field’s core values and public trust.

In the context of the growing creator economy, how do you see technology and digital innovation influencing the way individuals build and sustain their personal brands, and what impact does this have on traditional journalism and storytelling?

Technology and digital innovation are significantly transforming the way individuals build and sustain personal brands. This evolution is particularly evident in journalism, where the online sphere is increasingly competitive. Traditional media outlets are vying for audience attention against a backdrop of social media content, viral phenomena, and the diverse curiosities of the digital age. Younger generations are turning more towards social media and video platforms for information, challenging traditional media's ability to engage these audiences. While digital platforms do offer opportunities for smaller brands to gain visibility, it's predominantly the well-established media organisations with substantial resources that can effectively compete, thereby exacerbating inequalities within the media landscape.

On a more individual level, freelance journalists and content creators are finding powerful tools in technology to connect directly with their audiences. Platforms enabling the creation and distribution of personal newsletters, blogs, and podcasts offer journalists the chance to share their unique perspectives, curated news, and insights. This direct-to-consumer approach not only fosters a more personal connection with the audience but also allows some journalists to monetize their content independently.

However, it's important to note that this opportunity is viable for only a small fraction of independent professionals. While beneficial for those who can leverage it, this model doesn't address the broader systemic challenges facing journalism and media. Issues such as misinformation, the financial sustainability of news organisations, and the need for quality journalistic standards in a digital-first world remain pressing concerns.

Images courtesy of Esther Paniagua, David Sabadell, Miquel Gonzalez

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