Inside Story

Digital dreams

Can computer technology be relied on to increase equality?

Julian Vido Books 17 March 2023 1960 words

“Yes, technology has its perils,” says Orly Lobel, “but it also has great potential to empower and increase inclusion.” wakila/iStockphoto

In the early 1990s, with concern deepening about the impact of computerisation, American technologist Mark Weiser began putting into practice his concept of “ubiquitous computing.” He wanted to introduce computing into all facets of life in a manner that maintained people’s privacy and their capacity to remain present in the company of others and their environment.

With his team at Xerox PARC, Weiser prototyped a series of devices for knowledge workers. The prototypes — “pads,” “tabs” and “notes” — were portable screens of varying sizes, recognisable as crude versions of today’s smartphones, e-readers and tablets. Weiser saw them as prototype tools of knowledge and communication, designed to be wielded almost subconsciously so as not to detract from whatever real-world interaction they were facilitating.

Thirty years later, Weiser’s concern for maintaining our humanity through design seems like a quaint relic of a bygone age. The consequences of computer technology’s proliferation and its demands on our attention have begun to feel acute and sinister, inspiring increasing antipathy towards the Big 5 (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft) and the culture they are exporting by way of their technology and their stranglehold on the business zeitgeist.

Orly Lobel thinks this “techlash” is an overcorrection. Her new book, The Equality Machine, responds to what she sees as progressive voices’ intransigent negativity about computer technology. Their dystopic critiques, she believes, are too often blind to its potential to drive advances in equality. In a refreshingly direct manner, she posits a middle way. Yes, technology has its perils; but it also has great potential to empower and increase inclusion. The difference lies in the design choices we make.

Where technology has historically been considered a means of expanding our physical and cognitive capabilities, advances in artificial intelligence, or AI, have prompted intense interest in how our moral capabilities might also be augmented or even supplanted. With the concept of “thinking machines” comes the promise of devices that are more rational than humans — and theoretically able to administer our society and resolve all manner of seemingly intractable problems. This perspective is often referred to as techno-optimism.

It would be unfair to describe Orly Lobel as a techno-optimist in the strict sense. As the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego and the founder and director of the Center for Employment and Labor Policy, she is an expert in ethical tech policy. Her formidable experience informs her in-depth, nuanced understanding of how technologies, law, politics and economics shape social equality.

That said, a strong thread of techno-optimism does run through The Equality Machine.

Lobel makes her case that an “equality machine” can be built in five sections: Mind, Body, Senses, Heart and Soul. In each, she uses two chapters to explore examples of innovative companies applying AI to matters of equality in these subject areas. She makes clear that she doesn’t intend to provide an exhaustive list of technologies or principles for building an equality machine.

Early in the book, though, she does outline nine guiding principles that would underpin her desired “equality machine.” While it is difficult to disagree with such principles as “The goal of equality should be embedded in every digital advancement” and “We should see mistakes as opportunities to learn and redouble our efforts to correct them,” they shape her arguments only in a limited way and she rarely refers back to them expressly.

Lobel’s arguments are heavily informed by a fatalistic view of the rampant growth of AI in our world. “The train has left the station,” she writes. “AI is here to stay. AI is here to expand.” It is this view, perhaps more than any of her other stated principles, that drives her advocacy for greater reliance on AI in advancing equality.

Her examples of where AI is advancing equality are often compelling. Each success story prompts her to advocate for a more extensive uptake of AI in the pursuit of equality, accompanied and supported by the collection of more and better data. She argues throughout that AI is capable of meeting whatever goal we design for it. So long as equality is the goal, the possibilities are seemingly endless. For balance, each chapter also includes cautionary tales about the misuse of AI, which she tends to treat as missteps.

Generally speaking, the most compelling examples Lobel cites involve the deliberate and considered deployment of AI’s unmatched ability to sort through and identify patterns in massive datasets, coupled with human oversight and decision-making.

Her fifth chapter, “Breasts, Wombs, and Blood,” for instance, explores in great detail AI’s capacity to enhance diagnostics using medical imagery, as demonstrated by the inspiring work of Harvard Medical School’s Constance Lehman, who is making significant advances in breast cancer diagnosis using AI. Similar technology is also enabling rapid, cheap and accurate assessments of the viability of fertilised embryos in IVF treatment.

Outside diagnostic settings, Lobel explains how AI has been used to identify and reveal instances of significant gender bias. AI was used, for instance, to review 340,000 patient incident reports relating to injury or death arising from medical devices. Sixty-seven per cent were found to involve women and only 33 per cent men. Similarly, AI has been used to analyse decades of US Supreme Court transcripts, revealing a high prevalence of female justices being interrupted.

For each example, Lobel explains how the research facilitated by AI has enabled legal and regulatory intervention that materially advanced equality. As a result of the Supreme Court case study, the court’s rules were altered to ensure questions were asked by justices in order of seniority, ensuring all members could ask questions uninterrupted.

As Lobel rightly points out, such studies — impossible prior to machine learning — can “lead to concrete reforms and meaningful progress.” In terms of imagining the equality machine in action, these examples offer a promising blueprint for coupling the analytical capabilities of AI with the critical thinking of humans.

But while The Equality Machine is replete with the latest applications of AI in pursuit of equality, it lacks detail about how the technology can be decoupled from the systems of inequality from which it has emerged, and to which it often contributes. Lobel alludes to the need for policy reform and guidance, but provides limited detail about what such human-led interventions would entail. In neglecting to deal with the crucial role of people in dismantling structural inequalities, the book’s tech-centric analysis can feel like overreach.

Take, for example, her discussion of the #MeToo movement. Referring to the sexual assault crimes of Harvey Weinstein, she refers to the Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalism of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who broke the story. Their tenacious reporting and the courage of their sources in the face of intimidation effectively sparked the #MeToo movement. Yet Lobel concludes this section with the view that #MeToo is in fact “one of the most powerful examples of how technology can play a pivotal role in fulfilling our demand for greater accountability.”

Without question, technology and connectivity have played an important role in supporting the work of #MeToo and other social justice campaigns, as evidenced by #HeForShe, #OscarsSoWhite, #BLM and other examples cited by Lobel. Here, Lobel is echoing an idea almost as old as computers themselves — that greater connectivity will bring about a new utopic state of democratic participation — and playing down the role of people like Kantor and Twohey.

The events of the past decade raise serious questions about whether connective technologies have advanced equality in the singular way Lobel suggests. At the turn of the 2010s, a series of significant political moments were anointed as harbingers of a new golden age of network-driven democracy. Social media was credited with enabling the Arab Spring, which saw the overthrow of a number of oppressive regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. Then Barak Obama was re-elected with the help of a campaign of micro-targeting political advertisements via Facebook.

Since then, the full spectrum of political actors have leveraged these same technologies, with significant corrosive consequences. Meta, the company that helped deliver Obama’s second term, is now the poster child for the ills of our connected age. Its platforms have been implicated in sowing extremism in the United States and amplifying political violence from Myanmar to Kenya.

Lobel doesn’t dwell on these matters. Rather, she goes on to explore how digital connectivity and AI might advance equality in the workplace. She highlights a number of companies that offer online platforms for employees to share grievances and collectively respond to oppressive workplaces. Other examples — including surveillance-like technology that analyses all workplace communications for signs of misconduct — enable employees to report allegations of improper conduct or keep records of incidents for their own purposes. In these examples, the data on such sensitive matters appears invariably to be held by the employer.

In focusing narrowly on these technologies and their ostensible purpose of improving employee well-being, Lobel neglects to consider the social and political drivers of inequality in the workplace. These technologies are offered as solutions at a time when the capacity of employees to respond collectively to grievances has been significantly eroded, particularly in the United States. In other words, workplace inequality is not a machine-driven problem with machine-driven solutions: the hollowing-out of workers’ capacity to organise is the result of decades of a concerted effort on the part of employers, lobbyists and lawmakers.

Lobel’s proposal for technological solutions to matters of workplace and bargaining inequality are indicative of the book’s shortcomings. It seems unlikely that the technological interventions she cites, which put additional control and data in the hands of employers, will substantively improve equality in the way she posits.

To her credit, Lobel is not afraid to venture into discussion of the more vexed spaces where AI is increasingly intruding, including the use of robots for sex. Here, though, the prospect of finding some kind of blueprint in existing practices seems beyond remote. Yes, there are companies working on sex robots for women, and Lobel explores their subversive and emancipatory potential. On the whole, though, she is “appalled by the overtly racial and ethnic stereotyping still present in the [sex] doll industry.”

Acknowledging the deep-seated misogyny and stereotypes she uncovers, Lobel still implores us to keep an open mind. Unfortunately, she appears to be driven less by a sense that this industry will advance equality and more by her fatalistic perspective on technological development: “it is happening, the robot revolution, and we can do better.”

Ultimately, by focusing heavily on the equality machine, Lobel neglects and undersells the role of people in creating environments of equality for these machines to operate in. Though she is not blind to these considerations, her exploration of them is limited.

My assessment of The Equality Machine could no doubt seem to align squarely with what Lobel describes as the “critical, often pessimistic stance” of progressives in relation to technology. But that isn’t my intention.

Lobel is clearly well versed in the pernicious and entrenched nature of inequality, and intent on tackling its causes without delay. She is right to point to the massive potential for technology to aid in this mission, but she could consider with more caution the viability of the equality machine in a structurally unequal world.

Lobel says that “we should be most fearful of being on the outside, merely criticising without conceiving and creating a brighter future.” But this fear is misplaced. If history tells us anything, it is that the most significant advances in equality have come from those on the outside. Building the equality machine should be no different. •

The Equality Machine: Harnessing Digital Technology for a Brighter, More Inclusive Future
By Orly Lobel | Public Affairs | $45 | 368 page