The Social Scientist's Guide to a Career in AI
Are you a social science student, passionate about understanding the human condition, in its numerous dispositions? Do you find the study of technical, material structures and their impacts on individuals within society interesting? Have you ever considered the impact that digital technology has had on our perceptions of Self and Other, and in turn our dynamic interplay with equipment and worldhood?
More specifically, do you have thoughts about the ethics of robots, data privacy, biases in machine learning models, or how we can involve humanoid robots in our conceptions of ‘lived experience’ and integrate them into our legal, social lives? That is, of course, if machines can be “conscious” at all!
If any of these questions sparked a light in you, or had you re-interrogating the real-life applicability of your supposedly “abstract studies”, then a career in tech might be right for you.
With each passing year, the role that technology plays in our daily lives grows at an exponential rate globally - and Egypt is no exception. Think of the country’s Vision 2030, placing digital transformation at the forefront of Egypt’s national agenda over the coming decade. There’s a growing need - now, more than ever - for an understanding of the complex ways in which technology intersects with society and in turn impacts the way governments govern, companies do business, individuals interact and relate with one another, and the fabric of society more broadly. It’s no wonder that countless new fields of interdisciplinary study are emerging to satiate this thirst - from digital sociology, the social science of the internet, and the philosophy of AI.
So, what exactly do you need to know to enter the field of tech? Here’s the advice our resident social scientists have to offer; from the varying ways your discipline can be applied to the field, the skills you might want to hone, and the academic and professional paths worth exploring.
Know your study’s indispensable relevance to the world of AI
The different social science disciplines can each be applied to the world of tech to help us design, implement, and interrogate digital technologies in a very real and very needed way.
Can your studies provide a crucial foundation for the production of digital technologies that are usable, equitable, and fair? Let’s check:
Political scientists play a vital role in the field of tech. Arguably the most foundational of the social sciences, political science equips graduates with the ability to think laterally about the applications of technology across the spectrum of governance, privacy, policy, law, and power (to name a few). A political scientist looking to work in the field can apply themselves to a number of jobs, ranging from setting organisational structures for tech companies, developing legal frameworks that prioritise equity of tech solutions, to ensuring privacy-preserving measures are set and followed in novel technologies.
Anthropologists and sociologists alike can utilise their unique understanding of the interplay between individuals, their cultures, and their societies to inform the ethical and responsible design and implementation of digital technology. A digital anthropologist and digital sociologist can apply themselves to an incredibly broad range of jobs within the field of tech - from drawing parallels between online and offline behaviour to inform user-interaction (UI) and user-experience (UX) research and design, to assessing and developing pertinent digital methods for the application of equitable technological solutions to policy, healthcare, social enterprises, and more.
Psychologists can employ their specialised knowledge of the human mind and behaviour - paired with their systematic approach to research design and implementation - in a wide variety of tech jobs. Much like anthropologists and sociologists, psychologists’ unique perspectives on human interactions and behaviours lend themselves incredibly well to UI research, as well as applied research on human-computer interaction (HCI). The work that psychologists can do is vital and ample. For example, graduates can work as industrial-organisation (IO) psychologists, applying their specialised skills to resolving workplace conflict, identifying and executing trainings based on organisational needs, and coaching employees. They can also apply their skills to assessing the impacts of different digital technologies on mental health, and the implications of these outcomes on well-being and human flourishing. The work psychologists do is also rudimentary for setting actionable policy that ensures technology works for the greater benefit of humanity, rather than at its detriment.
Economists can utilise their quantitative research skills and expertise in an especially wide range of tech jobs. Economics graduates can employ their nuanced understanding of human economic behaviour to inform the production and distribution of tech services and products, and to forecast use and consumption of these services and products. Your empirical understanding of behavioural and statistical trends, ability to infer causality through data, and identify new routes for market entry accordingly is invaluable to tech companies looking to break ground and establish a customer base. Don’t just take our word for it - check out this journal article highlighting the countless, crucial ways in which economists are an asset to tech companies, and in which they are currently leveraging their strengths in the field.
Philosophers can do a lot. If it sounds like we’re a little biased, it’s because we are. Aside from weaponizing the exceptional analytical skills that they spend years cultivating in research-oriented tech jobs, philosophers can apply themselves to AI in a multitude of specialization-specific ways. Philosophers of ethics, as you can guess, can easily use their multifaceted knowledge of ethics and value theory to become AI ethicists—to navigate the internal and external range of algorithmic biases the company engages with. Similarly, those who specialize in digital philosophy can apply themselves to the AI field by doing just that - applied digital philosophy. On a more specialization-specific note, phenomenologists (our personal favorite) can indulge in the inquiry into the possibility of intelligence, the human mind and its artificial counterpart, and partake in questioning the consciousness (or lack thereof) of machines. Phenomenologists’ capacity to draw from first-hand experience and induce sound theoretical frameworks surrounding man/machine’s ability of perception and intelligence is key in the very development of AI—to capture and then implement cognition. But is achieving high-level cognitive processing harmless to society at large? Political philosophers can offer insight into the socio-legal frameworks necessary to navigate such questions about regulation, use and abuse, and ultimate impact of sentient machinery on mankind.
With their specialized knowledge of existing legal systems and frameworks related to technology and innovation, legal practitioners are best positioned to deal with questions related to the ethics and governance of emerging technologies across different industries: What role does our legal system play in the regulation and protection of personal data obtained by corporations and social media platforms? Can AI agents be granted legal personhood? How to ensure that surveillance tools, such as facial recognition technology, do not infringe on fundamental human rights? In embarking on a career as a lawyer or legal scholar, you can contribute directly to the drafting of policies, strategies and laws that best answer these questions, developing not only domestic but also international legal infrastructures to ensure they can keep up with rapidly emerging technologies.
2. Identify your strengths and hone them.
Critical thinking approach to research and analysis:
While the field of social science is varied, spanning a wide and complex range of disciplines, one of the commonalities between all social science practitioners is their ability to think critically, analyze, and communicate. Don’t underestimate the importance of a critical approach to research and analysis, and focus on strengthening your critical thinking skills and communication. Technology has fundamentally reconfigured the structures of societies, and digital technology has expounded that reconfiguration. Today, there is a growing need for a critical and nuanced analysis of that change.
Analytical and quantitative skills:
Although the natural sciences tend to be more numerically inclined, quantitative research skills play an integral role in social science research. If you don’t already have a quantitative foundation, consider strengthening your analytical skills; programming languages like R and Python, and statistical analysis programmes like Stata and SPSS are used widely by social scientists and allow for more robust research.
3. Pair your degree with a second major or a minor.
The social sciences lend themselves well to other disciplines, like the natural sciences. Consider choosing a minor or a second major that will allow you to exercise the skills you learnt through your degree into other disciplines and contexts.
4. There are multiple paths available to you - explore them and identify the one that excites you the most.
Are you interested in academic research? Are you interested in informal research that requires interacting closely with people on a daily basis? Are you interested in exploring how digital technology impacts organisational change?
Identify the positions that interest you the most, and focus on the skills and requirements that each position requires. Which do you currently have? Which could you strengthen? We’ve put together some of the routes that might be available to you depending on your interests:
Academic research: social science degrees are well-suited for academic research. Whether you decide to pursue further graduate studies - masters, PhD, post-doctoral degrees - or apply your acquired knowledge to research within a wider organisation, academic research underpins almost any technological innovation and is a prerequisite for ensuring the development of usable and equitable tech. This route applies to you whether you are interested in academia or industry.
Research and development (R&D): the acquisition and transfer of fundamental and applied knowledge between academia and industry is crucial for growth and innovation within the tech sector - this pathway is available to you if you’re interested in utilising your skills to help shape ideas, products, and business decisions.
Social network analysis: the analysis of networks through the use of research techniques and softwares that map out networks and their relationships to one another - consider this pathway if you’re interested in analysis, identifying patterns, and inferring meaning from qualitative and quantitative data.
HCI: closest to UX and UI, HCI is the interdisciplinary study of technologies’ designs, their interfaces, and how we interact with them - this pathway might be especially relevant to you if you’re interested in understanding how the material (the design of a technology) shapes the immaterial (our behaviours).
This guide was brought to you by techQualia’s social scientists: Aliah Yacoub and Youmna Hashem.
Aliah initially double-majored in Political Science and Philosophy before pursuing her post-graduate studies in Philosophy of Mind and AI - a field that she gravitated towards ever since she learnt that her favorite philosopher thought machine consciousness impossible. As Synapse’s resident AI Philosopher, Aliah started its publication, techQualia, with the hopes of fostering a regional dialogue about the philosophy of AI.
Youmna studied Mass Communication at an undergraduate level, with a minor in History. She always felt more drawn towards the social sciences, and after an exploratory career journey which saw her dabbling in teaching, she found herself (both literally and metaphorically) in the field of critical tech studies. She went on to do her masters in Digital Sociology, and continues to discover new and important ways to apply herself to this field she feels so passionately about.