Author Archives: Illah R. Nourbakhsh

About Illah R. Nourbakhsh

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Layers of Technology

In this month’s The Atlantic, Matthew Shaer pens an important article, A Reasonable Doubt, about the technology and sociology of DNA matching and its use in jurisprudence. One of the recurring themes we often consider vis a vis Robot Futures is how power relationships are influenced by technological progress, and there are multiple layers to consider in the case of DNA testing, all borne out by this article. First, there is the initial presumption of infallibility many of us have because of our pro-technology bias. Of course we discover that the black and white is in fact grey (thanks Stephen Crane) and that the technology of DNA matching, given a mixed sample, is so incredibly qualitative that ten labs can provide ten answers. Depressing, but eye-opening. But then there is the forward technology march: let’s solve the problem by removing humans from the equation! Shaer goes on to describe a Pittsburgh startup that uses a trade-secret protected algorithm to match DNA samples automatically, without depending on human judgement. Much as war-fighting robots are supposed to avoid human ethical shortcoming by avoiding human decision-making, so this DNA matcher is seen in a dozen states as the new gold standard because there are fewer places for a lab worker to be directly involved. But, ironically, the algorithm is hidden behind the veil of a trade secret, and so our ability to truly audit the process goes missing, and our faith in technology is only further amped. We need a new field, a Sociology of Technology field, similar to VTSS but more short-term; we need to understand just how we identify shortcomings in technology-human systems, and then how our techno-optimist solutions often drive the invention of yet newer problems. Cognitive Tutors, AI assistants, Automated DNA matching– all of them are so much more nuanced in systems-level effects that we make them out to be.

Community Empowerment works

The last chapter of Robot Futures talks about concept of technology as a tool for community empowerment; at the CREATE Lab we developed one specific example of such a system for a Coke plant near Pittsburgh, and the Allegheny County Clean Air Now newsletter has a wonderfully detailed article talking about the positive social impact of such empowerment technology in a very real case.

More User Monetization

A close reading of Oculus’ terms of service shows that they can fuse information about you that they collect together with other information about you that they purchase from others, all to then create custom marketing to you. And they explicitly state that they will also then collect information (and use arbitrarily) about just how you respond to said marketing! A good article about this, with examples from their Terms of Service, is in Extreme Tech.