Three Important Things

This is mostly a qualitative paper that details the environmental and social harms of training and deployment of LLMs.

1. Environmental Costs

There is a large carbon footprint for training LLMs - for instance, training a large Transformer model emits 284t of CO2, compared to the average per-capita emission of 5t for humans. The rate of growth of LLMs will only make this progressively worse.

As such, it is important to pay attention to green AI (i.e computationally efficient hardware and algorithms, promoting efficiency as an evaluation metric), and to internalize the environmental costs of training LLMs.

In particular, the people in countries most affected by the environmental impacts of climate change are often those who stand to gain the least from LLMs due to being economically and socially marginalized.

2. Unfathomable Training Data

The rate of growth of datasets used for training LLMs has also resulted in a documentation debt, where existing corpuses are undocumented and too large to now be documented.

Documentation is important because the choice of datasets used for training popular models currently reflect the views of a vocal minority on the Internet. For instance, GPT-2 included all outbound links from Reddit as its training corpus, under the assumption that these are likely links that contain information which are interesting to humans. However, Reddit users are predominantly men between 18 and 29 from Western countries, which skews the representations that the language model learns.

Another problem that LLMs face is with distribution shift - while underlying social views may be changing, LLMs may continue to perpetuate biases and stereotypes from the training set it had access to when it was trained.

Finally, while it is important to ensure that language mdoels do not output toxic content, doing so could counterintuitively further marginalize disadvantaged communities. Developers of previous language models have made good-faith attempts to do this using methods including removing potentially toxic content from their training datasets. A popular way of doing this is using a filter list, i.e List of Dirty Naughty Obscene and Otherwise Bad Words, and to remove any content that contains words in the list. However, this was found to marginalize LGBTQ communities where words like twink appeared frequently in their discourse, but are often included in such lists.

3. Risks and Harms

The paper lists many of the risks and harms that can result from the deployment of LLMs.

On a psychological front, there is a risk that people ascribe intention behind the stochastic output of LLMs, believing that they actually understand what they output and are trying to convey meaning. This could be due to our implicit programming as we would always believe that the output from other humans carry some form of intent, but it is not something we should carry over to LLM output. However, the increasingly blurry distinction between human and LLM-produced outputs makes this especially challenging and risky.

On a fairness and inclusion front, LLMs will largely absorb the “hegemonic worldview” from their training corpus, and learn biases that are present, especially from groups who are already in privileged positions in society.

Furthermore, in spite of attempts at making LLMs more fair and equitable, such attempts will never be sufficiently comprehensive and complete. Prevailing views of diversity and inclusion largely draws from legally protected attributes in the US such as race and gender, but miss out on many other marginalized communities around the world that don’t fit into this mould.

On a reliability front, there are also concerns of LLMs producing wrong output that lead to real-world consequences, in particular for disadvantage communities. For instance, they cited the example of how a Palestinian man was wrongly arrested by the Israeli authorities when a post saying “good morning” in a dialect of Arabic resulted in Facebook translating it into “hurt them” in English, which prompted the government to take action. A lack of representative training data for these languages with fewer number of speakers is likely to be a major reason for the mistranslation.

Most Glaring Deficiency

I found the paper overly qualitative with a lack of clear evidence or results to validate their points, and their arguments sometimes appeals to the pathos too much, which would be fine in normal writing but is probably insufficient for an academic paper.

Conclusions for Future Work

While there is not much in the way of technical contribution, this is still an influential paper in its own right, as it kicked off a lot of discussion regarding the ethics and morality of LLMs back when the paper was published in 2021 before usage of LLMs truly took off.

Most of what is discussed is common knowledge now, which is perhaps a testament to the success of the efforts of the authors and all others who work to ensure that LLMs are put to use for good.

To end off, quoting Birhane and Prabhu, based off a quote from Ruha Benjamin:

“Feeding AI systems on the world’s beauty, ugliness, and cruelty, but expecting it to reflect only the beauty is a fantasy.”