Can the use of machine learning software to screen résumés amplify existing biases against job candidates from underrepresented populations? Alia ElKattan focused her learning at NYU Abu Dhabi on finding solutions to problems like this that bring to light technology’s power to encourage or dissuade socially responsible outcomes. “I care a lot about causes that promote justice, equality, and accessibility,” says Alia. “Since I’m also passionate about technology, I particularly enjoy working on initiatives that lie at the intersection of these areas.”
“I believe technology is a powerful tool, and the way we use it doesn’t necessarily reflect what the technology is but who we are.”
Socially Responsible Tech in Action
At NYU Abu Dhabi, Alia developed skills in virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) and explored the impact of these technologies on society. Along with classmates Gábor Csapó, Jihyun Kim, and Miha Klasinc, she created the web-based interactive game Survival of the Best Fit to illustrate how the blind use of AI can support inequality in hiring decisions. While playing, users operate an algorithm that allows them to see firsthand how machine learning software can favor attributes like white-sounding names or prioritize male résumés over those of females. The team recently won Mozilla’s Creative Media Award, a $25,000 prize given to projects that illuminate AI’s influence on the world.
On campus, Alia prioritized getting involved in activities that allow her to make an impact through technology. As a sophomore at NYU Abu Dhabi, Alia started a regional branch of Botball, the robotics competition she was involved in during high school that first made her realize she wanted to study computer science. “I wanted kids in the UAE to have the same opportunity to be exposed to the field that I had,” she explains. “We held the first Botball UAE at NYU Abu Dhabi in March 2018.” Alia also joined weSTEM (Women Empowered in STEM), a student club that promotes opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields.
Academics That Open Possibilities
When it comes to her classes, Alia, who declared three minors (Interactive Media, Political Science, and Sound and Music Computing), chose ones that allowed her to explore the many possibilities of her Computer Science major. For example, Politics of Code changed the way she thought about technology as well as many of the issues of daily life. “The class was incredibly eye-opening. It was where I started learning more about things like how automated decisions could be biased and the possible negative effects of facial recognition technology.” In Alternate Realities, an interactive media class that teaches students how to develop their own VR applications, Alia realized how broadly she could apply her computer science education. “It showed me how to bridge my computer science learning with a lot of fun, creativity, and experimentation,” she says.
Alia credits much of her success to the supportive community she’s surrounded by at NYU Abu Dhabi. She says, “The Mozilla project grew out of my Politics of Code class, where I met my teammates, and the continuous support of our professor. I appreciate a lot about my time here, but I appreciate nothing more than the chance to learn from so many inspiring people.”
Alia’s postgraduation plan is to continue exploring the ways in which technology intersects with social issues. “I either want to work on technology that advances a cause I care about, like economic development or accessibility, or contribute to academic research on the relationship between politics and technology,” she says. “I believe technology is a powerful tool, and the way we use it doesn’t necessarily reflect what the technology is but who we are.”