Voices in the Code: A Story about People, Their Values, and the Algorithm They Made
David G. Robinson
Russell Sage Foundation
September 2022, 212 pages
Algorithms—rules written into software—shape key moments in our lives: from who gets hired or admitted to a top public school, to who should go to jail or receive scarce public benefits. Such decisions are both technical and moral. Today, the logic of high stakes software is rarely open to scrutiny, and central moral questions are often left for the technical experts to answer. Policymakers and scholars are seeking better ways to share the moral decision making within high stakes software—exploring ideas like public participation, transparency, forecasting, and algorithmic audits. But there are few real examples of those techniques in use.
In Voices in the Code, scholar David G. Robinson tells the story of how one community built a life-and-death algorithm in an inclusive, accountable way. Between 2004 and 2014, a diverse group of patients, surgeons, clinicians, data scientists, public officials and advocates collaborated and compromised to build a new kidney transplant matching algorithm—a system to offer donated kidneys to particular patients from the U.S. national waiting list. Drawing on interviews with key stakeholders, unpublished archives, and a wide scholarly literature, Robinson shows how this new Kidney Allocation System emerged and evolved over time, as participants gradually built a shared understanding both of what was possible, and of what would be fair. Robinson finds much to criticize, but also much to admire, in this story. It ultimately illustrates both the promise and the limits of participation, transparency, forecasting and auditing of high stakes software. The book’s final chapter draws out lessons for the broader struggle to build technology in a democratic and accountable way.
David G. Robinson is a visiting scholar at the Social Science Matrix at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the faculty at Apple University. From 2018 to 2021, he developed this book as a Visiting Scientist at Cornell’s AI Policy and Practice Project. Earlier, Robinson co-founded and led Upturn, an NGO that partners with civil rights organizations to advance equity and justice in the design, governance, and use of digital technology.