Western student investigates social impacts of artificial intelligence

Whether scrolling Facebook, calling an Uber or searching for jobs, how does artificial intelligence (AI) affect the daily lives of Western students?

That’s a question third-year philosophy student Nathalie DiBerardino explored this past summer, working with Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) professor Luke Stark as part of an interdisciplinary development initiative (IDI) exploring the social impacts of AI in Canada and around the world.

DiBerardino will share her findings at Artificial Intelligence, Harm and You , the official launch of the IDI, Thursday, Nov. 25 from 11:00 a.m. to noon.

The virtual event will also feature a panel discussion on the ’data harms’ algorithms can cause. The panel includes Rotman Institute of Philosophy members Carolyn McLeod , professor and chair, department of philosophy in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities; and Joanna Redden , professor at FIMS. Heather Stewart , PhD’21, a 2021 Governor General Gold Medal recipient , will also join the discussion, moderated by Jacquelyn Burkell , professor and associate vice-president (research).­­­­

’What happens to my data?’

DiBerardino, a scholars’ electives student, investigated the social and ethical impacts of AI and machine learning technology as an undergraduate summer research intern.

Her work supports Stark’s larger project, AI and You: How Artificial Intelligence Impacts the Western Community .

DiBerardino created an in-depth infographic poster for Western students to illustrate what happens to their data as they use social media throughout a typical day.

"Algorithms affect us right from waking up and checking Facebook to calling an Uber to get to campus and coming home and starting a job hunt," she said.

DiBerardino points to the Facebook newsfeed as a good example of an "on-the-ground harm" affecting the Western community and the world daily. "The feed is curated by an algorithm, with advertisers targeting ads based on certain demographics," she said. "It was found landlords in the United States were able to illegally exclude Black and Hispanic people, by isolating and targeting certain groups with housing ads."

Her infographic also cites Redden’s research around the 2015 Facebook suspension of accounts of Native Americans.

"The algorithm didn’t recognize their names as being ’real,’" DiBerardino said, "It assumed they were robots."

In the end, that injustice hurt everyone, she added. "It’s a social harm to everyone if voices are being suppressed, or if people aren’t being treated fairly on these platforms."

The social harms are not restricted to Facebook, however, with DiBerardino closing her poster with a TikTok check at the end of a student’s day. The platforms "For You" page, also curated by an algorithm, recently came under fire for suppressing pro-LGBT content by banning it on the site.

"Algorithms that moderate what we do and don’t see undergird the social media we’re exposed to everyday," DiBerardino said. "It’s important to remain wary of what’s going on behind the scenes."

Pool of experts

Stark said research by DiBerardino and other students across FIMS and Arts and Humanities play a big part in supporting Western’s large and growing pool of world-class expertise on the ethical and social impacts of AI.

"Nathalie’s work is a brilliant way to bring the realities of our digitally mediated world home to Western students, staff and faculty. Our IDI is focused on exploring the real-world impacts of AI systems - they’re not androids from science fiction, they’re pattern-matching machines that can unjustly constrain our options, and ­­­­­­which often help the already-powerful stay in power."

DiBerardino is eager to remain active, exploring the impacts of AI as the rise of automation continues.

"I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface," she said. "There’s always going to be something more to learn and think about, and more interdisciplinary work to be done."

Those wishing to attend Artificial Intelligence, Harm and You are asked to register in advance.

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