It was a move that capped a dramatic period in Hanna’s professional life. In late 2020, her manager, Timnit Gebru, had been fired from his position as co-head of the ethical AI team after writing a paper questioning the ethics of large language models (including that of Google). A few months later, Hanna’s next manager, Meg Mitchell, was also shown at the door.
DAIR, which was founded by Gebru in late 2021 and is funded by various philanthropic associations, aims to challenge existing understanding of AI through a community-centered, bottom-up approach to research. The group works remotely and includes teams in Berlin and South Africa.
“We wanted to find a different way of AI that didn’t have the same institutional constraints as corporate and academic research,” says Hanna, who is the group’s research director. Although this type of investigation is slower, she says, “it allows for research for community members: different types of knowledge that are respected and compensated for and used for community work.
After less than a year, DAIR is still working out its approach, says Hanna. But the research is well underway. The institute has three full-time employees and five fellows, a mix of academics, activists and professionals who come in with their own research programs but also help develop the institute’s programs. DAIR colleague Raesetje Sefala is using satellite imagery and machine vision technology to focus, for example, on neighborhood change in post-apartheid South Africa. His project is analyzing the impact of desegregation and mapping low-income areas. Another DAIR colleague, Milagros Miceli, is working on a project on power asymmetries in outsourced data work. Many data workers, who analyze and manage large amounts of data entering technology companies, reside in the southern hemisphere and are typically paid a pittance.
For Hanna, DAIR feels like a natural fit. Her self-described “non-traditional path to technology” began with a PhD in sociology and a work on labor justice. In graduate school, she used machine learning tools to study how activists connected with each other during the 2008 revolution in Egypt, where her family is from. “People said [the revolution] it happened on Facebook and Twitter, but you can’t just pull a movement out of thin air, ”says Hanna. “I started interviewing activists and understanding what they were doing on the ground besides doing online business.”
DAIR aims for a major structural change by using research to shed light on issues that otherwise could not be explored and to disseminate knowledge that otherwise could not be assessed. “In my resignation letter from Google, I pointed out that technology organizations embody many values and practices of white supremacy,” says Hanna. “Disrupting this means asking ourselves what these perspectives are and discovering how to undo those organizational practices.” These are values, she says, that DAIR supports.
Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist and founder of Perspective Magazine, based in Lahore, Pakistan.