February 13, 2024

Welcome Aylin Caliskan as new TPL co-director

The co-directors of UW’s Tech Policy Lab are familiar with breaking ground and testing new ideas together. Since 2013, they have partnered in research and education to guide conversations around topics with no clear path to an answer or oftentimes even a precedent.

This prepared them well for the task of replacing one of their own.

For a few years, Information School Professor Batya Friedman had been planning her transition away from university work, which meant also stepping down from her role as co-director of TPL. This was new terrain for the Lab, which had been governed by the same trio since its founding: Friedman; Ryan Calo, professor in the School of Law and the Information School; and Tadayoshi Kohno, professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

Inviting in someone new meant taking a look at what made the threesome so successful. In addition to all being collaborative and open-minded about technology, it boiled down to the ever-elusive “chemistry.”

“You can have people who look fabulous on paper but when you put them in the same room together … they don’t spark each other’s creativity,” Friedman said. “We have so much fun when we get together, and our ideas just quickly ripple and riff off each other. It’s almost effortless in a certain sort of way.”

They have taken a unique approach to their roles, structuring the Lab in a way that allows them to focus on research.

“In a lot of models success is how many people do you have, how big is your budget. The three of us have been very agile, deep thinkers together, and instead of becoming administrators supporting a much larger group of people, we’ve got our hands in the dirt, so to speak. That suits all of us and … positions the Lab to be really quite different from most entities.”

This meant their new colleague would need to be the rare combination of visionary and tactician. Thankfully, they didn’t have to look far.

Each co-director was independently already collaborating in some way with Aylin Caliskan, who joined the UW faculty in 2021 and holds an assistant professorship at the Information School and an adjunct assistant professorship at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. Friedman said it was a natural next step to start thinking about a bigger partnership.

“You just start to think, let’s explore this. Let’s plant some seeds and get to know each other better,” Friedman said. “Aylin has that kind of mind that moves between larger, broader conceptualizations and theoretical moves and then sees how the rubber hits the road, the details.”

Caliskan’s work focuses on machine learning, natural language processing and AI ethics, and she is already a leading voice in the field, as a nonresident fellow with the Brookings Institute and widely published expert.

“We are overjoyed that Aylin has joined us as co-director,” Calo said. “Her groundbreaking, interdisciplinary research uncovering and addressing technological biases dovetails perfectly with the Lab’s mission to promote human flourishing through wiser, more inclusive tech policy.”

Even before coming to UW, Caliskan was familiar with the work of the Tech Policy Lab leaders, specifically research Friedman published in the 1990s around bias in computer systems, and was “very excited” to partner.

“I have always wanted to work with creative and inspiring people. To me, that is the most satisfying thing,” Caliskan said. “My ultimate goal is to see a society where tech is helping people feel better and making our lives better, especially contributing to justice, fairness, and giving people opportunity so they can flourish.”

Caliskan officially took on her role as co-director on Jan. 1, and Friedman will continue as co-director and provide mentorship through the end of the summer as she winds down her involvement as a Lab decision maker. (Read more about Friedman’s groundbreaking career and next steps.)

“I feel grateful that I have such an amazing role model,” Caliskan said. “Working with someone who embodies the values and norms you would like to see in the space creates a great learning opportunity. I am able to learn from her perspectives … around value sensitive design and incorporating that into the more technical work I do. I am extremely privileged and humbled that I have the opportunity to learn from masterminds.”

Friedman sees the intergenerational aspect of the Lab as one of its strengths and the directorship transition as an opportunity to continue to learn and grow.

“In our next decade, we’re enabled to do deeper, better, more effective work. We tend to live in a world where people like the new shiny thing. … What you can do when you have 10 or 15 years of experience together is qualitatively different than what you can do in the first three to five years.”

And Caliskan, too, is looking toward the future, with an eye toward the impact the Lab can make via the UW student community.

“We are at the initial stages of tech policy formation, especially when it comes to AI. There is so much interest in this topic and many students are interested in conducting research in this space. These people are the ones that are developing and deploying the tech. If they are well informed about their impact … I believe that will be a wonderful contribution.”

Friedman knows the future is in excellent hands with Caliskan.

“She has an extraordinary intellect,” Friedman said. “She’s a really careful thinker. She really cares about people and society. She thinks systemically. She’s interested in this linkage between technology and policy. She doesn’t overly attach to (any one idea) as much as what’s really going to help make things better.

“I’m just excited. I feel like Aylin is a wonderful person to carry things forward with Ryan and Yoshi. I think we got very lucky. The chemistry is the most important piece, in a way, and yet it’s just mysterious. They’ll do incredible things. I’m mostly just excited to sit back and watch.”