Imagine you want to optimise local public transports while making students sleep more (and thus get better results). Sounds like a good problem to be crunched by an algorithm, right? Yes and no:
The MIT algorithm had done all the city could reasonably ask. It had sorted through more possibilities than any human being could possibly contemplate. And it had come up with a solution no bureaucrat had ever mustered. But it was people who made the final call. People with competing interests and a mish-mash of motivations. This was a fundamentally human conflict, and all the computing power in the world couldn’t solve it.
The point is: public power can’t think of software as a simple mean. Software is policy
, as the founder of Code for America Jennifer Pahlka explains. She looks at the US administration’s failure to reunite families separated at the border: it was impossible to execute the court order because of… the software used by border agents to register people. She highlights two lessons derived from her experience:
The first is that implementation is policy. Whatever gets decided at various times by leadership (in this case, first to separate families, then to reunite them), what happens in real life is often determined less by policy than by software. And until the government starts to think of technology as a dynamic service, imperfect but ever-evolving, not just a static tool you buy from a vendor, that won’t change.
The second lessons has to do with the tech community mentality towards the Trump administration. An increasing number of employees petitions is pushing major companies executives to disengage with government agencies involved with the enforcement of certain immigration policies. But stepping back isn’t enough:
Silicon Valley can’t limit its leverage over government to software. Software doesn’t have values. People do. If the people who build and finance software (in Silicon Valley and elsewhere) really want government that aligns with their values, and they must offer government not just their software, but their time, their skills, and part of their careers.
Human labour is a key component of this project, “Anatomy of an AI system”
, portraying Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources. Nerd readers, rejoice. 🤓