Tag Archives: policy

The future of designing autonomous systems will involve ethnographers


elish_photoNote from the Editor, Tricia Wang: Next up in our Co-designing with machines edition is Madeleine Clare Elish, (@mcette), is an anthropologist and researcher at Data & Society, presents a case for why current cultural perceptions of the role of humans in automated systems need to be updated in order to protect against new forms of bias and worker harms. Read more about her research on military drones and machine intelligence at Slate. Madeleine also works as a researcher with the Intelligence & Autonomy Initiative at Data & Society which develops empirical and historical research in order to ground policy debates around the rise of machine intelligence.

“Why would an anthropologist study unmanned systems?” This is a question I am often asked by engineers and product managers at conferences. The presumption is that unmanned systems (a reigning term in the field, albeit unreflexively gendered) are just that, free of humans; why would someone who studies humans take this as their object of study? Of course, we, as ethnographers, know there are always humans to be found.  Moreover, few if any current systems are truly “unmanned” or “autonomous.” [1] All require human planning, design and maintenance. Most involve the collaboration between human and machine, although the role of the human is often obscured. When we examine autonomous systems (or any of the other terms invoked in the related word cloud: unmanned, artificially intelligent, smart, robotic, etc) we must look not to the erasures of the human, but to the ways in which we, as humans, are newly implicated.

My dissertation research, as well as research conducted with the Intelligence and Autonomy Initiative at Data & Society, has examined precisely what gets obscured when we call something, “unmanned” or “autonomous.” I’ve been increasingly interested in the conditions and consequences for how human work and skill become differently valued in these kinds of highly automated and autonomous systems. In this post, Tricia has asked me to share some of the research I’ve been working on around the role of humans in autonomous systems and to work through some of the consequences for how we think about cooperation, responsibility and accountability.

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Modern Times, 1936 [giphy]

The Driver or the System?

Let me start with a story: I was returning to New York from a robot law conference in Miami. I ordered a Lyft to take me to the Miami airport, selecting the address that first populated the destination field when I typed the phrase “airport Miami” into the Lyft app. The car arrived. I put my suitcase in the trunk. I think the driver and I exchanged hellos–or at the very least, a nod and a smile. We drove off, and I promptly fell asleep. (It had been a long week of conferencing!) I woke up as we were circling an exit off the highway, in a location that looked distinctly not like the entrance to a major airport. I asked if this was the right way to the airport. He shrugged, and I soon put together that he did not speak any English. I speak passable Spanish, and again asked if we were going to the right place. He responded that he thought so. Maybe it was a back way? We were indeed at the airport, but not on the commercial side. As he drove on, I looked nervously at the map on my phone.

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Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (2 of 3)


Editor’s Note: Global health research is not easy to coordinate. Publicly shared global health research is even more complex. That is why last month, Ethnography Matters was so excited to feature Erik Bigras‘s and Kim Fortun‘s innovative research methods for The Asthma Files, a project at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where ethnographers gather and publicly share data about asthma. We believe their work signals to an important turn in policy oriented and public ethnography. 

In Erik’s and Kim’s first post, Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (1 of 3),  they focused on why The Asthma Files is necessary and introduced some of the technical logistics for creating a crowd-sourced qualitative data health gathering project. 

In this month’s Ethnozine, Erik and Kim’s second post details the exciting process of choosing the best data sharing platform for their project, Plone. We learn about how the Tehran Asthma Files was born out of a close collaboration with the  Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine. 

We look forward to their final post in this series that will discuss how other researchers from social scientists to epidemiologists and global health experts can participate in the research project and make use of the data. 

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spacestehran

Choosing the Right Platform

Collaborating with other disciplines (here, data science) allows us to better understand the ways in which scientific knowledge is able to cross particular boundaries.

Collaborating with other disciplines (here, data science) allows us to better understand the ways in which scientific knowledge is able to cross particular boundaries.

Our ethnographic experiments are made possible partly because of the choice of online platform that The Asthma Files uses. Choosing the right platform is anything but simple. Each platform has its own capabilities, and these don’t necessarily align with the goals of the project. For The Asthma Files, we’ve so far been through three different platforms. We eventually settled on Plone because it was the one most suited to our needs.

As we said in our previous post, one of the goals of The Asthma Files is to rethink the everyday work of ethnography. In order words, we’re trying to understand how digital environments can transform the everyday, mundane, things that ethnographers do. As such, one of our primary audiences is ourselves as ethnographers and researchers. For this purposes, we needed an online platform that would be more than a delivery mechanism. We needed something that would act as a fully developed workspace where we could share, store, and create material.Read More… Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (2 of 3)

Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (1 of 3)


Editor’s Note: Ethnography can be used to inform important health and policy decisions. But there are few public case studies that illustrate the value of ethnography for this specific context. When we learned about The Asthma Files, a project where ethnographers were not only gathering data to better understand asthma but also openly sharing the data, we became very excited to feature their work.

The Asthma Files was first envisioned in 2006 by Kim and Mike Fortun, who wanted to address the contested space of asthma research. One of Kim’s graduate students, Erik Bigras, became involved in the project in 2009. Although Erik’s original dissertation topic was on game design, his research evolved to include the Asthma Files as one of his fieldsites. 

In the first post of their three-part series, Erik and Kim tell us about how they conceptualized The Asthma Files, why asthma deserves research attention from ethnographers, and how research data is shared on an open content management system.  

Kim Fortun, a cultural anthropologist, is a professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at RPI. Her book  Advocacy After Bhopal (Chicago, 2001) examines how different stakeholders understood and responded to the catastrophic chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India in 1984. She has also studied chronic, less obvious disasters linked to toxic chemicals.

Erik Bigras is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at  RPI. As a graduate student, his work focuses on the production of technical legibility and subject effects in the arenas of air climate science and environmental governance.

Check out past posts from guest bloggers. Here are some ideas for how you can contribute!

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The Asthma Files

An anthropological project to understand how different communities and societies respond to complex problems.

An interdisciplinary project to advance understanding of asthma and environmental public health.Read More… Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (1 of 3)