Nov 6 Global Challenges event: sneak preview

Interdisciplinary Honors think tank on Global Challenges

October 29, 2019

Nov 6 Global Challenges event: sneak preview

An AI researcher, a civil rights lawyer and a digital rights activist have a lot to talk about. One thing they all agree on: interdisciplinary thinking is the key to a better future.

Over the past two days, speakers from Microsoft, UW iSchool and the ACLU shared advice and ideas about technology, ethics and social change in the lead up to our large public conversation to be held on November 6. First-year Interdisciplinary Honors students asked them for advice on how to imagine and participate in responsible steering of emerging technologies. Student concern about lack of privacy, equity and safety for groups and individuals in our society prompted the class visit and the topic of next week’s Global Challenges event.

Ece Kamar, who emigrated to the U.S. from Turkey to earn her PhD in Computer Science at Harvard University, has spent most of her professional life considering these kinds of questions. Kamar (who participated remotely from a conference in Oregon) has been a principal AI researcher at Microsoft for the past nine years, where she researches how AI systems can be broken, biased, etc. Kamar grounds her inquiry in interdisciplinary conversations with stakeholders and helps to design more holistic, multi-disciplinary development practices and trainings for engineers.

in the style of a surveillance photo: Shankar Narayan and Anna Lauren Hoffmann talk with Carissa Mayer. Ece Kamar looks down from a large screen above their heads.
Surveillance image (taken on iPhone) of Shankar Narayan, Anna Lauren Hoffmann and facilitator Carissa Mayer. Ece Kamar’s face floats above, as she participates via video chat.

Kamar discovered her passion for computer programming as an undergrad, noting how it felt to realize “this is just like solving puzzles!” She is currently working on a 9,000-piece puzzle in her free time, but she is also puzzling out how the world will be for her 5-year-old daughter, who motivates her work. Kamar told students: “I believe in the prospect of good AI, but there is so much we don’t know.”

Throughout the talk, Kamar cited considerations like weighted value judgements, unfair market advantages for companies who release untested products and use the outcomes to furnish them with valuable data, and how AI reflects biases already inherent in our society and systems. “A lot of these are actual big societal challenges requiring an interdisciplinary approach. So that is my selfish reason for joining you, today.”

Shankar Narayan, director of the Washington ACLU’s Technology & Liberty Project, agrees that private companies can’t be expected to regulate themselves. He’s also certain that government agencies and current legal systems are mostly unprepared to protect public interest, especially for already marginalized populations, in the rapid, pervasive uptake of new technologies. “We are going to do at least as badly at rolling out AI systems as we have done rolling out brick and mortar systems,” Narayan notes. “It’s a question of who has the power,” he continues, noting that people most likely to be harmed by applications of AI and big data are rarely centered in governance or development.

Narayan, a diplomat’s son who has lived in many regions and countries, is able to draw from dozens of cultural “norms” while forming his sense of possibility and spotting flaws in our current systems. As one of “a handful” of students of color at Bates University in Maine, Narayan says he learned about activism with his friends as they worked towards more equitable and inclusive systems on campus.

After earning his degree in philosophy and economics, Narayan chose law school because he hoped it would give him “the best tools I’d need to try to change the world.” His advice to students is to seek a breadth of experiences, not only by studying different subjects but by leaning into community and investing in relationships both on and off campus. He believes the future belongs to “versatile thinkers who know a lot of different kinds of things.”

Anna Lauren Hoffman gives similar advice. As a first-generation Honors undergrad from a small town in rural Minnesota, Hoffman wasn’t sure what to study, but she did discover how she wanted to learn. An Honors seminar invited her to think differently about how people think about and talk about places. “I’ve taken somewhere north of 60 courses in order to get where I am today and I don’t remember all of them, but I remember this one,” she explained.

It took a few years after earning her first college degree for Hoffman to find her calling. After leaving her “depressing” job as an insurance-claims adjuster to pursue a music career in Nashville, she decided to earn her master’s degree to become a librarian. On a whim, she attended a lecture raising ethical questions about how data could be harvested from MySpace profiles and immediately changed her trajectory to become a digital rights educator and activist.

Now an assistant professor at UW’s iSchool, Hoffman challenges industry leaders, government agencies and the public to take a wider, non-binary perspective on the impacts of new technologies on individuals and systems. “We treat these things as inevitable,” she admonished, “but we don’t have enough conversations about what to build and when.”

Hoffman also wants students to think more carefully about the power dynamics at play in all of our systems, starting with who’s asking the questions. When consuming “data” about the relative safety of self driving cars or the degree of racial bias in software that influences parole outcomes, for instance, she begins by examining the source and purpose of the study, wondering: “Who benefits the most from phrasing the question that way?”

Learn more and/or RSVP for Global Challenges event: HUB North Ballroom on Nov 6, 6:30 p.m.