Jennifer Golbeck considers herself a private person, but she also specializes in technology with the potential to exploit personal information to an unthinkable degree.
As director of the Social Intelligence Lab at the University of Maryland, Golbeck studies the intersection of the two. His research focuses on social media-driven analytics and attribute prediction, work that helps him design and build systems that improve how people interact with information online – and protect their privacy. .
Golbeck sat down with The Baltimore Sun ahead of her keynote at the Women to Watch networking event in October to talk politics, privacy and how to attract more women to her male-dominated field. .
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What don’t people understand about artificial intelligence?
You hear the term everywhere. On the one hand, we are pushed this matrix, Terminator AI will dominate the world narrative. And that is definitely wrong. The AI is really dumb in many ways. We’re not far from it and I don’t think we’ll ever get close.
The problem is that when you put the AI in the hands of people who can use it to get more power and money, they can find out all kinds of things about you that are incredibly intrusive and use it to do all kinds of manipulative or unethical things. It’s happening right now, but it’s so far behind the scenes that we don’t know it most of the time. This is actually the thing we should be concerned about.
How can AI be better integrated into healthcare without incentivizing profits at the expense of patient care?
Scary things are happening with AI in healthcare. We see a lot of concern…about how [women’s] period monitoring data will be used. Will companies use AI to predict that [a woman] got an abortion and gave this [information] to law enforcement?
At the same time, there is life-changing work. There was a study where they had all this historical data from a brain and memory clinic. They trained an algorithm to review the scans and predict whether people would develop Alzheimer’s disease. The algorithm could do this with 99% accuracy. He could make this prediction six years before a human doctor could see him on a CT scan.
It’s not that the AI is the problem. This is the application of it.
AI has been used during the COVID pandemic. What lessons have we learned?
At the start of the pandemic, Apple and Google worked together to bring contact tracing to phones. There could be a million ways for it to go wrong, but they’ve found some great privacy-friendly ways to do it when your personal data isn’t being shared.
Many people did not accept. It was a totally rational choice given how bad every tech company has been with their use of our data. I think everyone came out of the pandemic with less faith in institutions.
In the tech space, we could have done some very powerful things to make things better, and there was a lack of political will in some places and a well-deserved lack of trust in tech companies. It’s a real challenge because if and when the next pandemic comes, we’ve learned so much and we have a lot of great tools we can use. I think, quite rightly, a lot of people think there’s no way, and that’s what we have to sort out. We need a really strong policy change to protect our privacy, so we know these companies can’t circumvent what is a fair and ethical thing to do.
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How are women represented in your field?
It’s awful. When I was a graduate student, I was pretty much always the only woman in the room. It’s a bit like a network of old boys. It’s culturally difficult to be a woman in these spaces. I think people underestimate that a lot of women steer clear of fields where they’re constantly told they don’t belong or are harassed when they’re in it, whether it’s IT or something else.
We need more women. Many places have recognized this as a problem. It’s a big fight, but we’re trying. We arouse the interest of children from an early age. I think working on this cultural shift and having powerful voices saying “all this bad acting is not OK”. This is going to be the really necessary thing to get a big change.
(This interview was edited for space.)
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