• PIT Policy Lab

Why I Became a Public Interest Technologist

By Aranza García, Tech Policy Lead @PIT Policy Lab


After graduating from my public policy master’s degree, my husband and I moved to San Francisco. Living in the Bay Area surrounded by the edgiest technologies was eye-opening, and I wanted to be part of the conversation. I approached some friends who provided valuable insight into the industry and encouraged me to explore its different fields. After many hours invested in the basic programming skills that I started developing, I successfully applied to a summer school organized by UC Berkeley and Google about the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in policy.


Amongst many things that I learned, I realized that there are a few people – mostly white men - sculpting every aspect of our society through the development of emerging technologies. It then hit me: as a young woman, as a Mexican immigrant, and as a social scientist, I HAD to get a seat at the table to participate in the conversations that are transforming all of our lives. I am now an advocate for responsible AI and human-centered technologies. Here is why.


Technology shapes our future.

Historically, our society has been shaped by industrial revolutions: from steam power, through mass manufacturing, to the Internet. Innovation has always defined the economic and industrial dynamics of its time. The Fourth Industrial Revolution refers to the current impact of emerging technologies – such as AI - that transform our lives, helping humans to excel in unimaginable ways. Technology is the backbone of past, present, and future-making. And as a change-maker, I must better comprehend today's world to find solutions that make sense for tomorrow's challenges.


Technology is not neutral: it is built by people with certain values, ideas, and assumptions. In this regard, the products and systems that emanate from technology advancement pose unprecedented threats to privacy, security, equality, civil liberties, and democracy. Both policies and products hold the ability to create long-lasting change, and as a social scientist, I am committed to understanding how we can maximize the benefits of technology for the common good.


Even though governance frameworks exist to harness AI aiming to protect us all from its downside risks, none are truly universally adopted or comprehensive. Regulation is not an easy task: we know that self-regulation does not impede big corporations from violating our rights, while strict legislation tends to block innovation and scientific progress. I am passionate about participating in the current conversations about how to ensure technological advancement in an ethical and responsible way.


Technology holds the answers for many of our challenges as humanity.

As a public-interest technologist (and as a human being!), I cannot be indifferent to the inequalities that threaten our societies. Technology holds the promise of offering efficient solutions to many of these concerns. The United Nations recognized technology as a pivotal tool to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) in 2030, which include ending hunger by achieving food security, reducing universal literacy by expanding education access to children worldwide, and promoting the use of sustainable energy, amongst many others urgent issues.


What’s more, emerging technologies have proven helpful to help us cope during the pandemic. For instance, some governments have relied on digital tools to contain the virus and flatten the incidence curves. In little time, Artificial Intelligence has also allowed scientists to digest large amounts of data in the race to develop Covid-19 vaccines, the quickest created in history. Broadband and digital infrastructure have provided education access to many students and ensured many businesses comply with social distancing protocols through remote work.


Technology is not a silver bullet; the current and potential uses of AI are particularly dangerous. But it holds the promise to rapidly achieve breakthrough advances in sectors like healthcare, agriculture, energy, education, and mobility. Experts agree that if we do not urgently align technology's potential with our most pressing concerns as humanity, we will not thrive to achieve sustainable and fair societies. Human dignity and global prosperity are the central ideas in my quest to join the efforts of those change-makers that seek to democratize technology.


“Data rights are human rights!”

Data is the core of Artificial Intelligence systems and algorithms-based technologies. Many issues have been identified and exposed about the risk that is posed by data itself. In this regard, becoming obsessed with the promise data offers leads us to fail to recognize its inherent ability to mislead. When we think of data, we are inclined to think about objectiveness, but this is not necessarily the case. The data can be poorly collected and misanalyzed: it can even fail to capture what it aims to quantify. Poor quality data leads to harmful biases and irresponsible decision-making, which is beyond dangerous.


Furthermore, there are unacceptable violations regarding the use of data that affects our privacy and civil liberties: from tech companies profiting from our private information to governments manipulating election processes. Human rights refer to those rights inherent to the human being, and in the face of the fourth industrial revolution, it is only natural that those rights are translated into the digital spaces that are part of our daily lives.


These concerns must be addressed so that the entire data management process is transparent, explicable, and understandable. There will always be errors, but we must strive for a culture where we hold each other accountable and seek to amend our mistakes. Data needs to be representative and inclusive to build responsible products, policies, and systems that celebrate the diverse world we live in and positively impact our communities.


Representation is important.

It is well documented that there is a worrying lack of female representation in the workforce around the world because of social, cultural, and historical reasons. Tech is not the exception: in the United States, only 21% of senior executives in tech companies are women, only 7% of VC funding goes to women-owned businesses, and only 4% of VC investors are women. Worldwide, there is also an underrepresentation of female students in STEM areas. And because we are underrepresented in the industry, gender biases and stereotyping are being reproduced in AI.


Technology jobs are generally well paid, creative, and fun: they can allow women to gain financial independence, develop intellectually and professionally, and engage in purposeful debates that can positively impact many people. It is urgent to include more underrepresented women into this conversation: black and Hispanic women, working mothers, immigrants, girls around the world, women with disabilities, and transgender women. I cannot stress this enough: we have no other option than to get a seat at the table. We have to raise our voices and engage in the conversations that are shaping our future.


***


While these are the main reasons why I am passionate about advocating for human-centered technologies, many other issues concern me. I am interested in exchanging ideas and benefiting from your insight!


Through my role as Tech Policy Lead at PIT Policy Lab, I am lucky to bridge the gap between social science and emerging technologies. Please reach out at aranza@policylab.tech if you want to know more about my work in the public interest technology field.