Why Dr. Timnit Gebru is important for all of us

Because its products and services permeate our lives, Google has tremendous power. If the company cannot even pretend to care about its internal “Ethical AI” co-leader, how much do you think they care about the rest of us?


Dr. Timnit Gebru and I do not know each other. I have never met her and she probably is not even aware I exist. And yet, she is very important in my life. Not only in my life, but in your life, too. Indeed, I believe Dr. Gebru is extremely significant for everyone and I will explain why below.

Before that, let me recap briefly what happened last week that inspired me to write this, in case you have never heard of Dr. Gebru before. (It is very well possible that you have not — as I may not have if I weren’t researching the social aspects of algorithmic systems for a living.) However, you certainly know Dr. Gebru’s former employer: Google. You may even have heard of her area of work: at Google, Dr. Gebru used to be the co-lead of the Ethical AI team. And maybe, just maybe, you have even heard of her ground-breaking research (with Joy Buolamwini) demonstrating how face recognition algorithms are most accurate for faces that are male and caucasian and perform terribly for people of color, especially women. [Dr. Gebru’s record goes far beyond this one example I picked. Yet it is the one I have heard and seen mentioned most frequently as the go-to example in industry, policy and public discussions of “algorithms are not neutral”.]

On the morning of December 3, I checked my twitter feed and discovered Timnit Gebru’s tweet, published a few hours prior, announcing her discovery that Google had fired her. She wrote that her employment had been terminated immediately with reference to an email to an internal mailing list.

The news spread like a wild fire and, within hours, disputes over details and definitions broke out. What exactly did her email to the mailing list say? Was this the real reason she was fired by Google? Was she actually fired or did she resign? And even if she was fired: did she deserve to be fired? But here’s the thing: although some of the answers to these questions are informative (and even the questions themselves are very telling!), I will not discuss internal e-mails and information about individual people at Google here. For the point I am trying to make, none of them really matter.


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99 brilliant women in AI ethics… and I

I have just found out that I have been named one of 100 brilliant women in AI ethics. The Women in AI Ethics (WAIE) list is a global “list of 100 brilliant and inspiring women” issued once a year, and of course I am honored by the nomination. But I am even more thrilled by the fantastic company I find myself in. I mean: I am on the same list as danah boyd. Gina Neff. Anna Lauren Hoffmann. Abeba Birhane. And I could go on. Ninety-nine outstanding experts and amazing role-models from all over the world… and I.

It is a vertiginuous feeling. My ambiguity towards “AI ethics” are not exactly helpful here. (But as AI ethics seems definitely have become a thing, I should perhaps just embrace it, and drop the scare quotes?) Add to that my ambiguity towards top-ranking lists of any kind — the sociologist in me tends to be more curious about e.g. the categorization criteria and selection processes than the outcome…

Then again, it is Sunday morning, before my first coffee. And I have just been named a brilliant women in AI ethics among great company. I guess I’ll take it. 🙂

Das Sozialwesen und die Digitalisierung am Hack4SocialGood

Die Digitalisierung betrifft immer stĂ€rker immer mehr Lebensbereiche. Nicht ĂŒberall jedoch ist die Digitalisierung mit ihren Eigenheiten, Möglichkeiten und Herausforderungen gleich bekannt. Und umgekehrt kennen sich auch jene mit Digitalisierungsexpertise nicht automatisch in allen Lebensbereichen aus. Diese Differenzen gilt es auszugleichen, und die Berner Fachhochschule (BFH) leisted mit der Organisation von Hack4SocialGood einen Beitrag genau dazu.

Warum ich darĂŒber schreibe? Der Zufall will es, dass ich exakt einen Monat nach meiner Inputkeynote fĂŒr #GovAfterShock wieder an die BFH zurĂŒckkehren darf. (Nur theoretisch, natĂŒrlich — coronabedingt findet auch dieser Anlass online statt.) Dieses Mal mit einem Kurzvortrag zum Thema “Digitale Ethik” bei ebendiesem Anlass: Hack4SocialGood.

Es handelt sich hierbei um einen Innovationsworkshop fĂŒr eine inklusive Digitalisierung in der Form eines Hackathons, unterstĂŒtzt von der Open Knowledge Foundation, Sozialinfo.ch, der UniversitĂ€t Bern, Caritas Schweiz und Innosuisse. Die Anmeldefrist lĂ€uft noch bis zum 06. Dezember 2020.

Illustrationsfoto des Events (von https://www.bfh.ch/de/aktuell/veranstaltungen/hack4socialgood/ )

Auf dem Blog Knoten & Maschen findet sich ein aufschlussreiches Interview zum Event, das auch mehr Informationen und HintergrĂŒnde liefert. Die Eventwebseite ist hier: https://www.bfh.ch/de/aktuell/veranstaltungen/hack4socialgood/.

Hack4SocialGood kann spannend sein fĂŒr Menschen sowohl aus dem sozialen Umfeld wie auch fĂŒr jene mit Expertise in Innovation und digitaler Technologie. Der Anlass selber ist ein Kooperationsprojekt der drei Departemente Soziale Arbeit, Wirtschaft sowie Technik und Informatik. Ich bin selber gespannt auf die Ergebnisse, die dank solcher Synergien entstehen werden. Denn die Digitalisierung geht einerseits alle etwas an und kann andererseits auch von allen etwas lernen.

#GovAfterShock: our digital future

In my research, I tend to focus more on the present than on the future. After all, I’m a sociologist, not a futurist. However, the present can tell us a lot about the future: our plans today indicate the future we are anticipating; our dreams today describe the future we are hoping for; our actions today contribute to creating the future that will be.

I’m not only a sociologist, but also a Internet researcher. The annual conference of AoIR (the Association of Internet Researchers), which has taken place during the past days and revived me to a point I am not able to put in words yet, was a stark reminder of that.

As society is, increasingly, also digital, so is our focus on digital futures: the ones we fear, the ones we create, and the ones we desire.

Following the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation has created a global initiative called Government After Shock, inviting a global conversation on what we can learn from the COVID-19 crisis, what we want to keep, what we want to leave behind, and what we want do differently. The Bern University of Applied Sciences, together with Flux Compass (Hong Kong), contribute to #GovAfterShock with a workshop on the topic of Trust across borders.

The workshop on Nov 11, 2020, will invite us to stop and think about what we can learn from the COVID-19 crisis, and how we want to go forward with respect to our digital future. Its goal is to co-create a message to governments on the future we desire.

Organized and hosted by Angelina Dungga and Anna Simpson, the event includes two keynote inputs, one by SĂ©verine ArsĂšne and one by yours truly. I’m really excited about Dr. ArsĂšne’s talk, because she will propose three directions for reflection, around concepts of scope, pace, and method: How much of our futures do we want to be digital? How fast, or slow, do we need to move towards our digital futures? And what kind of democratic procedures will ensure that we get the digital futures that we want?

In my own talk, I will present existing phenomena to show that people express their values and preferences in many ways. As I have already stated for this article on the Forum for the Future: To include civil society in policy-making also means actively accounting for the values and preferences of people whose voice may not usually be heard. I will therefore present some examples of what can we learn from today about a future that is desirable for civil society.

Because the future is, supposedly, already here, just not evenly distributed.

Event flyer, Bern Progr, 21.09.202., 19h30

Event: Freiheit & Digitalisierung (21. Sept., Bern)

Am Montag abend darf ich im Progr in Bern einige Themen meines Essays zum Thema Freiheit im digitalen Zeitalter aufgreifen und mit illustren GĂ€sten darĂŒber diskutieren. Ich habe sogar das VergnĂŒgen, den Anlass mit einem Kurzreferat einzuleiten.

Wer kommt — und es wĂŒrde mich natĂŒrlich sehr freuen, Dich/Euch/Sie dort zu sehen — kann mit AusfĂŒhrungen zu diesen drei wichtigen SĂ€tzen meines Fazits rechnen:

Freiheit im digitalen Zeitalter ist bedingt durch die Möglichkeit zur sowohl individuellen als auch kollektiven Selbstbestimmung. DafĂŒr mĂŒssen Rahmenbedingungen geschaffen werden, die in dieser Hinsicht auch echten Handlungsspielraum und Wahlfreiheit eröffnen. Ob diese vorhanden sind oder nicht hĂ€ngt genauso, wenn nicht noch mehr, von der Gouvernanz wie von der Technologie ab, denn Organisationsstruktur, Entscheidungs- und Partizipationsprozesse sind mindestens ebenso wichtig wie technische Optionen und Implementierungen.

Diagnose: Ambivalenz. Freiheit im digitalen Zeitalter

“Freiheit” ist natĂŒrlich ein weiter Begriff. Deshalb lĂ€dt die Eventseite auch ein, einen eigenen Definitionsversuch zum Thema “Was ist Freiheit” zu verfassen.

Mein Beitrag stammt aus der Kurzbio des Buches, in welchem mein Essay erschienen war. (Er ist im Bild ersichtlich.)

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Eine Meinung zum Internet? Diskutiere mit am Swiss IGF 2020

Das Wichtigste zuerst: Am 28. September findet das Swiss Internet Governance Forum 2020 (kurz: Swiss IGF 2020) statt. Virtuell. Die Teilnahme steht allen offen, solange das Anmeldeformular bis am 22. September ausgefĂŒllt wird.

UrsprĂŒnglich war das Swiss IGF 2020 fĂŒr MĂ€rz 2020 geplant gewesen ÂŻ\_(ツ)_/ÂŻ Fantastischerweise konnte das ursprĂŒngliche Programm in den grössten Teilen beibehalten werden, wenngleich die “Parallelsessionen” fĂŒr die Online-Version mit SimultanĂŒbersetzung nun nicht mehr parallel laufen können.

Das Programm ist auf der Swiss IGF 2020 Seite zu finden.

Weitere Änderung zu vorherigen Swiss IGF sind vor allem logistischer Natur: WĂ€hrend in frĂŒheren Jahren die Anreise an den DurchfĂŒhrort erbracht werden muss, braucht es in diesem Jahr ein GerĂ€t mit Internetanschluss. Und der Zmittag wird nun nicht offeriert.

Warum ich ĂŒberhaupt darĂŒber schreibe? Seit ĂŒber einem Jahr engagiere ich mich freiwillig in der Kerngruppe des Swiss IGF, sozusagen das Organisationskommittee der Freiwilligen, die das Ganze gemeinsam auf die Beine stellen.

Als ich im SpĂ€therbst 2018 zum ersten Mal persönlich Teil am Swiss IGF teilnahm, war ich von der Breite der Themen und teilnehmenden Stakeholder sofort begeistert. Da trafen sich Politikerinnen und Politiker, Bundesangestellte, Forschende, interessierte Leute aus der Zivilgesellschaft und aus der Privatwirtschaft, um zusammen ĂŒber das Internet zu diskutieren. Die programmierten Themen reichten damals von Swiss-ID ĂŒber Netzsperren bis hin zu Digital Health.

Diese Breite ist das erklĂ€rte Ziel des Swiss IGF (siehe: Über das Swiss IGF), und rege Debatten ĂŒbrigens auch. Es sind zwar kurze Inputreferate vorgesehen, aber die Hauptzeit der Programmpunkte gehört dem Austausch.

Auch dieses Jahr wird das Swiss IGF spannend werden: Wir diskutieren ĂŒber Bibliotheken, Digitale Kompetenzen in der Verwaltung, die Herausforderung Digitale MĂ€rkte und Internet-Plattformen uvm. Ich freue mich jetzt schon.

Swiss IGF 2020: Anmeldung bis am 22. September 2020.

Panel participation at the EASST/4S 2020 conference in virPrague (Aug 20)

Tomorrow (from where I am writing this) I will present some of my research at the joint conference of the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology and the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S). Originally planned in Prague from Aug 18-21, COVID-19 has made the conference move to virPrague, i.e. online. Unfortunately I had to miss out on the first day of the conference, but today I had the chance of attending a few presentations, all excellent by the way. I love to learn what others are working on and get new perspectives. Therefore, I am glad that I will again be able to be part of “my” conferences this autumn (also looking at you, AoIR2020). Despite the particular circumstances it is clear to me that virConference is always better than noConference.

More than anything else I owe my active participation at the EASST/4S 2020 conference to two fantastic scholarly colleagues. Elinor Carmi and Dan Kotilar masterfully responded to the conference theme “Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds” by putting together a wonderful panel about “Contextualizing Algorithms in Time and Space” that I would want to attend even if I were not presenting. From the summary:

[W]hile the power of algorithms is unquestionably global, the exact temporal and spatial trajectories through which algorithms operate, and the specific socio-cultural contexts from which they arise, have been largely overlooked. This panel aims to address these gaps, and uncover the complex spatio-temporal contexts through which algorithms operate. We will ask: What is the role of locality, temporality, and culture in the creation and implementation of algorithms? How algorithms become localised to create ‘personalized’ experiences? What types of data are being used to contextualize people’s lives through platforms? and what gets filtered out in the process of datafication, and why?

Together with Taina Bucher (because, yes, I forgot to mention: the brilliant Taina Bucher is also part of our panel) we will talk about Facebook, Google, and a user-profiling company, about personalizing, profiling, and targeting, and about structures, timing, and practices. I am looking forward to it — if you intend to join, please say hi 🙂

Although half of the conference is already over, the program of the next two days is still extremely rich. Are you attending EASST4S and would like some pointers? Please let me recommend the following panels and presentations by my STS Lab/STS-CH colleagues from Switzerland and my ex-colleagues from S&TS Cornell (apologies in advance to anyone I may have overlooked):

Thursday morning starts with food: at 10am (all times are Prague local times, i.e. CEST) you could attend The Follies of Scaling-up Processed Foods in India or Logics of Food Consumption, Choice and Politics on Digital Media, then Commercial and Temporal Logics of Digital Food at 12pm. In the afternoon, perhaps peek in on Comm Scholars in STS – Making it work as an interdisciplinary scholar before attending Locating And Timing Matters Of Attention Through Wikipedia: Technical, Epistemological And Political Considerations. (Re:the latest session, you need to know that it will be held in a flipped format, so you need to engage with the presentations beforehands.) At 8pm, in case you are not attending our panel, there are still at least two more Swiss STS presentations on offer: Charting the Political Epistemologies of Epigenetics and DOHaD and Architectonic Studies of Radio Signals: Reorganizing Archives of Data/Natures In Their Own Terms.

Friday starts at 10am with: New Patient’s Definition Shaped by Preventive Properties of HIV Drugs. At noon, there is Articulating Politics with Design and Technology: Public Space, Computation and Commoning, and a little later Scaling a “global music platform”: secret gigs, live music and the platform metaphor. At the end of the last conference day, a last difficult choice: between Another Type of Precision Oncology? Knowledge Production within a Platform of Cancer Immunotherapy in Switzerland, Cures, Harms & Medical Authority: Animating Side-Effects As Modes Of Resistance In Hepatitis C-Treatments and Locating South Asia in Social Studies of Science and Technology. All interesting, all relevant, although not necessarily linked to my immediate research topic. But even if I had to choose which session to attend based on topic or research area, I would hardly manage to come up with a satisfying schedule: there are so many parallel sessions happening! Impossible to attend everything I am interested in — just like with in-person conferences.

However, unlike in-person conferences there will be recordings available, it seems… great news!