Geek of the Week

UW’s Os Keyes takes on tech’s moral challenges, from gender bias in AI to facial recognition

Os Keyes. (Dorothy Edwards Photo courtesy of Os Keyes)

A PhD candidate with the University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering, Os Keyes researches the ethical and political impact that new technologies have on the world.

As the pace of innovation seems only to be matched by the widening gap in equality, Keyes is busy understanding how technology might not only reinforce existing inequalities, but also create new ones, and reshape our idea of what gender, race or disability even are.

But whether it’s gender bias in artificial intelligence or facial recognition technology that can claim to “detect” race or gender, Keyes doesn’t believe bias can be rooted out of tech completely.

“To me the more important question is: who is the system and its designers accountable to?” Keyes said. “Dangerous bias and the harms that come from it are often a symptom of wider power imbalances between technologists and those subject to technology, and that’s the problem that needs addressing.

“We need a lot more democratic accountability for the design and deployment of systems — by which I don’t mean top-down, one-size-fits-all legislation, but instead contextual and community-oriented design,” they added.

A tech writer for outlets such as Vice and Slate, in addition to their work at the UW, Keyes is a former lawyer and data scientist.

They are also one of the first recipients of Microsoft Research’s Ada Lovelace Fellowships, established to support diverse talent getting doctorates in computing-related fields.

Keyes, who was interviewed in this recent UW Q&A, testified in 2019 to the Washington State House of Representatives as an expert witness in support of House Bill 1654 to prohibit government from using facial recognition technology.

In the face of issues impacted by profit-driven approaches to technology, the security state, and the long history of “racialized and gendered exploitation and hegemony,” Keyes, in some ways, has to have optimism and hope — “If I didn’t, why would I do what I do?”

The primary source of that hope right now is the communities, friends, students and colleagues around Keyes.

“For every person who doesn’t get the need to look deeper, and to ask what kind of relationships we are building with technology and with each other, there are five who do, and who are earnestly and deeply invested in putting their ideas into practice in the course of their own lives,” they said.

When not tackling tech’s biggest issues, Keyes is tackling the next book on a to-read pile that stands at 45 titles. And in the midst of the pandemic, they’re missing a favorite audiovisual event series called Depths that normally plays at the Seattle venue Substation. Cult films are overdubbed by live musicians and Keyes said the free entry and $4 tater tots is a recipe for an “amazing one-of-a-kind evening.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Os Keyes:

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? People seem to think that big data is going to eat the world wholesale — but this isn’t the case evenly, and it isn’t the case unless we let it. Whether algorithmic systems are adopted in an area often has as much to do with the area itself (how it is valued, what existing infrastructure there is, whether there’s money in it) than the algorithms. And whether algorithmic systems are adopted at *all* isn’t inevitable. We can, and do, have the ability to resist harmful automation in both big and small ways.

Where do you find your inspiration? My students. It’s kind of a trite answer, but genuinely: my students. I’ve published a lot and I love it, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to pick between writing and teaching, it wouldn’t even be a question. My students’ willingness to engage with the unknown, and the hope for a better world they both embody and display, constantly inspires me. I try to learn from them as much as teach.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My phone — not for talking to people necessarily, but because it’s basically a glorified MP3 library that happens to accept texts. If I’m conscious, I’m probably listening to music (in another life and world I’m a professional musician, or more likely an awkwardly failed one constantly telling the same story about how I once got shoulder-checked by Bono or something). If you ever want to drive me insane, just put me in a completely silent room and wait an hour.

(Photo courtesy of Os Keyes)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I don’t mean to seem like an academic stereotype, but I am one, so that’s how it comes across. My workspace has all of the essentials — anonymized emails and notes from past students (the “wall of happy things”) for when it’s a bad day; every book I might need to reference, draw from, suggest to someone or just enjoy excitedly chucking at someone who asked for reading suggestions; and a chaotic mess of papers to review, half-finished drafts and notes. Oh: and a Dr Pepper (my one vice, other than all my other vices) so I can successfully look vaguely conscious if someone pops in.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) If you’re working away at 10 p.m., stop. When you’re exhausted, you work slowly — and when you work slowly, it takes longer, cutting into sleep and making you more exhausted, and the cycle continues. If you have something late at night you just can’t get your head around, go sleep. It will be a lot easier at 9 a.m. This also works for bad news, anxiety attacks, stressful meetings — thinking about it “have you tried a nap” is basically my go-to advice, and for good reason.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac.

Favorite superhero or sci-fi character? I’ve got a soft spot for Gambit (X-Men) and Lucifer (Wicked and the Divine).

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Gotta be a time machine; I’m excited to see how much I can wreck the timeline constantly trying to correct for That Time I Said Something Marginally Silly In 2001 Everyone Has Forgotten But It Eats At Me Late At Night.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … question whether they had read literally anything I’d written, buy them a copy of Cedric J. Robinson’s “On Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance,” and immediately send the rest to people’s food/water/housing crowdfund campaigns.

I once waited in line for … A Red Hot Chili Peppers gig, for 23 hours. Forgive me: I was 14 and did not know better.

Your role models: Susan Leigh Star, my grand advisor, for demonstrating the multiplicity and complexity you can have as a person while still producing beautiful and meaningful work. Ahmer Arif, a good friend and mentor, for showing that vulnerability, compassion and pedagogy are not only not contrary to research brilliance, but an aid to it. John Dewey, for having hope. And Buzz Aldrin, because being the /second/ person to do something interesting is about as narcissistic as my brain will let me be.

Greatest game in history: Empire Earth. People think of it as an Age of Empires knockoff, but the scenario editor made it so flexible and so much more than that! It really introduced me to what individual creativity and imagination can do with a piece of one-size-fits-all technology.

Best gadget ever: It’s not technically a gadget, but: the Pilkington Process for producing /atomically flat sheets of glass/ using the laws of physics and a bath. Never ceases to be exciting.

First computer: If we’re talking first owned outright: a Windows ME-branded special edition Dell. At the time I didn’t get why it was so cheap. Then I used it.

Current phone: iPhone SE — one of the original SEs, from 2016. It’s been stepped on, thrown out a window, run over by a car, and long ago just gave up trying to tell me it was out of the repair coverage window, but I have the tiny hands of a T. rex and refuse to give it up until they make something newer I can hold.

Favorite app: Todoist. It gameifies my ADHD!

Favorite cause: Does Cooperative Jackson count?

Most important technology of 2021: At this point I feel like we kind of have to say mRNA vaccines.

Most important technology of 2023: Dear Ghost of Steve Jobs: PLEASE GIVE ME A NEW TINY PHONE.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Devil’s advocate” originally referred to a person in the Catholic church whose role was/is to argue — on their own — against the beatification of a potential saint. They faced off against an entire team of theologians, researchers, ethnographers, scientists and everyone else you send to go check whether a miracle actually occurred. One person against like, 30. In other words: when you say “to play devil’s advocate …” in order to defend white supremacy or misogyny or anything else which has structural power behind it, you are not only being a tool, you are being such a tool that even the Catholic church thinks you’re doing things wrong.


Twitter: @farbandish

LinkedIn: Hahahahaha.

Related Articles

Trả lời

Email của bạn sẽ không được hiển thị công khai. Các trường bắt buộc được đánh dấu *