Alondra Nelson Wants to Make Science and Tech More Just

It’s certainly top of mind and on the top of our priorities, but that’s still to be determined and played out.

The challenge is moving from the aspirational AI ethics principles many private and public sector organizations developed to a space where it’s an actuality. That means forms of accountability need to be created, and it takes honesty about the ways in which AI is still very much a work in progress, particularly when you’re dealing with its intersection with the social world.

I think it takes a real commitment to want to move from technical standards to what I call sociotechnical standards. A tool can be technically exactly right—we can think about the work that Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru did around bias and facial recognition [which showed that many facial recognition programs are better at identifying white and male faces than female faces with dark skin].

But that doesn’t deal with the socio-technical issue, which is that there’s still potential for disproportionate harm based on the incompleteness of the database and what we think the data tells us and what we think it “predicts” in the world.

Does the Biden administration have a position on facial recognition and whether a ban or moratorium should be put in place?

Not yet.

Is that forthcoming or upcoming or something the administration intends to weigh in on?

Not that I’m aware of. Obviously there’s a lot of regulatory development in this space at the state and local level.

The OSTP is currently reviewing the issue of facial recognition technology bans and moratoria. Both Eric Lander and I have publicly stated that addressing algorithmic bias is a priority for our work at OSTP, especially given the demonstrated harms to Black and brown communities that have resulted from the use of automated systems—in the criminal justice system, social services, housing, employment, and other sectors—that have exacerbated racial and economic inequality, or produced new forms of inequity and harm. The Biden-Harris administration is committed to technology policy that advances justice and equity, preserves rights, and expands opportunities.

While looking things up before we talked, I learned that you were working on a book about the OSTP.

Yeah, I was working on a book that was historical in some ways. There hadn’t really been a lot written about this office.

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It was established in 1976, and I think, to my mind, one read on the history of the office is that it emerged at a time just after the Vietnam War in which the executive was having to think about how to structure science and tech policy and strategy advice in the context of social change. I think that’s been the case since the 1970s. From an organizational theory perspective, I became interested in OSTP as a kind of federal startup organization within a centuries-old bureaucracy.

So the book was imagined as being a kind of history up through the Obama administration. Under Obama, the staff grew to its largest level, and they brought a lot of new directions to the work of science policy—grand challenges, public commitments, these sorts of things. I think now the book that I imagined will no longer exist. It was kind of an arm’s-length book about a topic that was in the distance, and now I’m right in the middle of it. So I think it will be a very different book in the end.

Is that something that you would publish soon, or after you leave?

No, that would be after I leave.

Just checking. In a speech about that book you mentioned five major scientific initiatives of the Obama administration around issues like AI, cancer research, and understanding the human brain. What are some of the moonshots that the OSTP and the Biden administration want to aim at during your time in office?

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