BCNM Scholar Interviews

16 Oct, 2019

BCNM Scholar Interviews

BCNM is pleased to host three stellar scholars for the next year in Berkeley. Their research initiatives are generously funded by the Berggruen Institute, a think tank that supports research into the most pressing human and social issues of our time.

David Platzer

After finishing his Ph.D. in medical anthropology at John Hopkins, David is taking part in a new collaborative and ethnographic project in the Bay Area.

His program, Transformations of the Human, has two foci: biotechnology and artificial intelligence. In this post-doctoral cohort of six, each are embedded in an AI lab. David has been placed with the Center for Human Compatible Artificial Intelligence, where he is looking at the broader movement of human compatible AI and trying to understand it in its own terms. The center grapples with the idea that AI could present a cataclysmic risk to human society, with a five percent or greater chance of causing human extinction.

The reality of this threat is less science fiction, and more to do with the potential of AI following our instructions too well, according to David. David offers this scenario: if he orders an AI to turn everything around him to gold, it would assume that order included David himself, thus leading to the end of the human race. To remedy or counter this possibility, members of this collective are working on the Value Paradigm, which is a process that intends to build AI systems that are aligned with our values.

David’s research explores what those values are and who the “we” under consideration is. To inform his findings, he studies the collective by sitting on meetings, conducting interviews with various engineers working on the paradigm as well as expanding the scope outwards and situating this particular research program with the wider field of AI development. He is also curious about how work is being potentially transformed by AI, and whether or not economic disruption and societal shifts can become part of this discourse.

Julianne Yip

Julianne just finished her Ph.D. in cultural medical anthropology from McGill University in Montreal, Canada and recently joined BCNM in Berkeley to look at the biotech industry.

Although Julia’s previous doctoral research focused on ice and climate change — even traversing the Arctic with climate scientists to follow their fieldwork — Julianne’s post-doctoral project led her to being stationed at the lab bench and running experiments with biotech personnel.

She relies on participant observation, or what she aptly dubs as “deep hanging out,” getting a glimpse into her informants’ everyday lives by following their activities. She is always conscious of not going “native,” maintaining a crucial distance to capture any anomalies that the biotech scientists took for granted.

Julianne has a wide range of research areas from global health to climate change to her current preoccupation in biotech. She points out, however, that all of them are united under her passion to pursue non-ethnocentric anthropology. By exploring these distinct topics, she is able to view human beings from another perspective — whether it’d be through microbes, ice or zoonoses.

Francis McKay

Leaving his instructional post at the University of Chicago’s M.A. program in social sciences, Francis has pivoted to exploring the lack of diversity in the Bay Area’s artificial intelligence industry.

The Berggruen Institute paired Francis with AI for All, a non-profit start-up dedicated to solving diversity issues in the AI laborforce by creating training programs and introducing children from underrepresented groups to the field. Utilizing ethnographic research and participant observation for his data collection, he is truly a part of the team: he spends time at the fieldsite, becoming a member of the start-up and helping to further the company’s mission.

One of the crucial problems with the space, Francis said, is that the majority of the AI workforce are white men — and that the group hoped to confront potential biases that contributed to this ongoing problem.

Alongside his fieldwork, he conducts independent research on the ethics of AI, trying to piece together what underrepresentation really meant instead of relying on general categories of racial and gender identity. Rather, he hoped to identify particular groups with no kind of prior access or resources to AI education at a local and international level.

Francis is no stranger to questions of morality or ethics, and points to serendipity as the reason why he was in the Bay Area this summer. While he was with the University of Chicago, he studied mindfulness-based therapy in the United States to see how it worked in terms of wellbeing and mental health. He believes looking into AI aligns with his previous research areas while challenging him to think about a broader and more diverse global population.

It is an honor to have such a brilliant cohort doing groundbreaking work in Berkeley for the next year! We look forward to seeing where their ventures take them.