It was a move that ended a dramatic period in Hanna’s professional life. In late 2020, its manager, Timnit Gebru, had been fired from his position as co-leader of the AI Ethics team after writing a paper questioning the ethics of major language models (including there are Google’s). A few months later, Hanna’s next manager, Meg Mitchell, was also shown the door.
DAIR, which was founded by Gebru in late 2021 and is funded by several philanthropies, aims to challenge the 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 doing AI, one that didn’t have the same institutional constraints as corporate research and a lot of academic research,” says Hanna, who is the group’s research director. Although this type of research is slower, he says, “it allows for research for community members: different kinds of knowledge that are respected and rewarded, and used for community work.
Less than a year in, DAIR is still sorting out its approach, Hanna says. But the investigation is ongoing. The institute has three full-time staff and five fellows: a mix of academics, activists and practitioners who come in with their own research agendas, but also help develop the institute’s programs. DAIR Fellow Raesetje Sefala is using satellite imagery and computer vision technology to focus on neighborhood change in post-apartheid South Africa, for example. His project is analyzing the impact of desegregation and mapping low-income areas. Another DAIR intern, 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 coming into tech companies, reside in the Global South and are typically paid quite a bit.
For Hanna, DAIR feels like a natural fit. His self-described “non-traditional path to technology” began with a PhD in sociology and work on labor justice. In graduate school, he used machine learning tools to study how activists connected with each other during the 2008 revolution in Egypt, where his family is from. “People said [the revolution] it happened on Facebook and Twitter, but you can’t pull a movement out of thin air,” says Hanna. “I started interviewing activists and understanding what they’re doing on the ground, apart from online activity.”
DAIR aims for major structural change by using research to clarify issues that might not otherwise be explored and to disseminate knowledge that would otherwise not be valued. “In my resignation letter from Google, I pointed out how tech organizations embody many white supremacist values and practices,” says Hanna. “Unresting this means interrogating what those perspectives are and navigating how to undo those organizational practices.” These are values, he says, that DAIR champions.
Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist and founder of Perspective magazine, based in Lahore, Pakistan.