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Histories of Artificial Intelligence: A Genealogy of Power


Cierra Robson is a doctoral student in the Sociology and Social Policy program and a Malcolm Hewitt Wiener PhD Research Fellow in Poverty and Justice. Cierra holds a BA in African American Studies from Princeton University, where she specialized in studies of race and public policy and pursued a minor in Technology and Society. She is the Associate Director of the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab where she guides research teams in partnership with community organizations to explore how data can be retooled for racial justice. Broadly, her research explores the ways in which technological advancements both reinforce and revolutionize racial inequality in the United States, particularly within the criminal justice system. Her most recent project explores modern public-private collaborations to create predictive policing technologies and their impact on the marginalized communities in the United States.

Research overview

Cierra's research explores how governments use algorithmic tools, a trend that has widely proliferated in recent decades. In the United States especially, such algorithms have been used to distribute both opportunity and material resources such as welfare benefits (Eubanks 2018), healthcare outcomes (Obermeyer et al. 2019), and job outcomes (Bogen 2019). The present study addresses the use of algorithmic and surveillance tools in the criminal justice system.

While many studies have focused on how police departments use algorithmic tools within the United States (Benjamin 2019; Brayne 2017; Roberts 2019; Brayne and Christin 2020), little work explores how these tools are created. Most algorithmic tools used by police departments in the United States are created by multinational software companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, yet these corporate actors receive little analytical attention. Even more, the history of the relationship between police departments and corporations is underexplored: little is known about the political and social context in which police departments began collaborating with these companies, the economic incentives that shaped these collaborations, or the nation-wide trends in these collaborations over time.

This study extends the existing literature by exploring the changing nature of relationships between police departments and technology companies. Specifically, it asks how has the relationship between private companies and police departments in the United States developed over time? What social, economic, legal and political processes prompted this evolution? And how might these changes exacerbate data inequity in racialized communities?

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