Algorithmic justice — these are two words that sound almost poetic together. But imagine if you were among the incarcerated. Maybe you are innocent. Maybe you are repentant. Maybe you have gone through rehabilitation. The question is, would you want an artificial intelligence system determining your risk potential to the world and to control your future’s outcome? 

Sure, an algorithm can help determine your next impulsive internet purchase, but would you want it to set your bail, decide whether you are a match for parole, or organize your movements within the prison structure? This is just one of many questions that the Virginia Tech Department of Science, Technology, and Society explores. Such investigations are also what makes it an exciting time to be the department’s new chair.

“AI systems are trained on historical records of people who have been brought into the criminal justice system, which we understand already is deeply racialized,” said Saul Halfon, who has begun his service as chair of the department. “So basically these systems are being trained with racial bias.”

Then he cites another example — the COVID-19 pandemic and questions of health care, biosecurity, and disability. All make up a form of health justice, including all the determinants involved with the pandemic and the deep questions about vaccines. Halfon cautions that vaccine hesitancy or people’s reaction to vaccines are all tied to complex social lives, histories, and politics, and these are not just simple communication problems. 

“These are just a few examples of what our department studies,” he said. “Over the last decade, people have become more aware of the issues. But just because you’re aware of a problem, doesn’t mean you can fix it. You can’t just throw a bunch of blank checks at it because that brings on other kinds of problems. There are all kinds of justice and equity issues that are not necessarily just black and white — they are subtle and complex. So, the people in our department engage with these questions, locally, nationally, and internationally, and are well situated to help think them through.”

Halfon said the focus of the department is on thinking about new ways to solve problems. He sees the department’s transdisciplinary nature as a great strength, which is directly within its moniker. Often department or school names speak of a certain subject area — history, philosophy, sociology, political science, communication, or performing arts. But then there are the programs whose titles reflect an amalgamation of areas. These units are inherently transdisciplinary, such as Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management or Science, Technology, and Society. 

“We’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time,” Halfon said about one of the oldest programs of its kind, “really thinking about the intersection of science, technology, or what we might call forms of knowledge and technical practices, and the social world. Both in and outside of the academy, people have taken note of how science and technology shape our world and how deeply integrated they are in our lives. 

“Just looking across the university, there is a real proliferation of people who are thinking about these intersections. This is an opportunity for our program because we have relevance across the college and across the university. But we also must think about what our role is among all these other people. We tend to think of ourselves as a very collaborative, open, outward-looking department. So, the challenge for us is thinking about partnerships and collaborations and how we can help and facilitate others doing this kind of work.”

Halfon, who received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and the Science in Society Program at Wesleyan University, found himself drawn to topics at the intersection of science and sociology. Choosing to pursue this track, he received his doctorate in science and technology studies at Cornell University.

He began his career as a science education analyst for the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., and was a visiting lecturer for the Environmental Studies Program and the Department of Political Science at Swarthmore College. During this time, he co-edited “Changing Life: Genomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities,” published by the University of Minnesota Press.

In 2000, he started his tenure at Virginia Tech as a visiting assistant professor in science and technology studies in the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. The following year, he accepted an assistant professorship in the center, which later became the Department of Science and Technology in Society. He became an associate professor in 2008, and the department name changed to Science, Technology, and Society ten years later. 

In his third year at the university, he became an affiliated faculty member of the Women’s Studies Program. In 2006, he published “The Cairo Consensus: Demographic Surveys, Women’s Empowerment, and Regime Change in Population Policy” through Lexington Books.

By 2014, the department appointed Halfon as graduate director. This latter appointment, he said, helped him feel ready for the challenges of becoming a department chair. 

“I see myself as a facilitator in this role,” he said, “facilitating the department, our faculty, and our students to find and take advantage of opportunities to be part of the university’s transdisciplinary conversations and to participate in initiatives that are relevant to questions about the interface of science, technology, and social, political, and cultural systems.”

Another goal Halfon has for his department is to help enable diversity across the university. Much of the research of the department’s faculty members focuses on questions of equity and justice in relation to emerging technologies or in relation to science, such as algorithmic justice or COVID-19 pandemic-related issues. He hopes not only to inspire representational diversity within his department, but also to make sure there is intellectual diversity.

“Technical programs at the university that are not diverse produce technical knowledge that fails to account for the needs of the whole population,” he said. “Our job is not just about teaching people how to think better; it’s thinking with people, engaging with their experience of the world, to find better ways to approach problems.”

Written by Leslie King