“I resign because I am exhaustedHere’s what Alex Hanna wrote on February 2, his last on Google’s Ethical AI team. She felt that the company, and the tech industry as a whole, did little to promote diversity or mitigate the harm its products had caused to people belonging to minorities. “In a nutshell, tech has a whiteness problem,” she also wrote in her Medium post. “Google is not just a tech organization. Google is a white tech organization.”
After quitting her job, Alex Hanna had no time to rest. On February 3, she joined the Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR) as number 2 in the group.
This decision was a turning point in a complicated professional period for Alex Hanna. At the end of 2020, its manager, Timnit Gebru, had been fired from her position as coordinator of the “Ethical AI” team after writing an article questioning the ethics of large language models (including those of Google). A few months later, it was the turn of Alex Hanna’s new boss, Meg Mitchell, to be fired.
DAIR, which was co-founded by Timnit Gebru in late 2021 and is funded by various philanthropic organizations, aims to challenge the current understanding of artificial intelligence (AI) through a bottom-up, community-driven research approach. The group works in a network, remotely, with teams based in Berlin and South Africa.
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“We wanted to find a new way to produce AI, a way that was not subject to the same institutional constraints as companies and most university research”, explains Alex Hanna who became the group’s research director. Although this type of inquiry is slower, she points out, “it allows research to be done for members of the community – it is different kinds of knowledge that are respected, remunerated and used for community work” .
After less than a year of existence, the DAIR is still in the process of defining its approach, says Alex Hanna. However, research work is well underway. The Institute has three full-time staff and five affiliate members – a mix of scholars, activists and practitioners who come with their own research agendas. They also help develop the institute’s programs. Raesetje Sefala, one such DAIR affiliate, uses satellite imagery and computer vision to study neighborhood shifts in post-apartheid South Africa, for example. Concretely, his project consists of analyzing the impact of the end of segregation and mapping low-income areas. Another DAIR affiliate, Milagros Miceli, is working on a project addressing power asymmetries in outsourced data processing work. Many information workers, who analyze and manage large amounts of data from technology companies, reside in developing countries and are usually paid paltry sums.
For Alex Hanna, DAIR was a natural choice. The one who believes that she had “an atypical career in the world of technology” began with a doctorate in sociology and a thesis on labor law. During her graduate studies, she used machine learning tools to study how activists interacted with each other during the 2008 revolution in Egypt, her parents’ home country. “People said that [la révolution] happened on Facebook and Twitter but you can’t create a movement out of nothing,” she explains. “I started interviewing activists and understanding what they are doing on the ground outside of their online activities.
DAIR aims for significant structural change by using research to shed light on questions that would otherwise not have been explored and to disseminate knowledge that would not otherwise have been valued. “In my resignation letter to Google, I emphasized that tech organizations embodied a lot of white supremacist values and practices,” says Alex Hanna. “To fight them, we must question these perspectives and find a way to stop these organizational practices”. This is the goal, she says, that DAIR stands for.
Article by Anmol Irfan, translated from English by Kozi Pastakia.
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Meet Alex Hanna, the researcher who left Google to save AI
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