A spotlight on our researchers – Elmira van den Broek

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This week, we feature Elmira van den Broek, a PhD researcher at KIN with a background in sociology, economics, and business. She has been studying the development and implementation of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) application in recruitment within a large multinational company and their AI vendor. Her research focuses on understanding how organizations develop and use algorithmic technologies in practice and the challenges they face when doing so.

Shauna: What brought you to KIN, Center for Digital Innovation?

Elmira: I started one and a half years ago as a PhD student at the KIN center. Before starting the PhD, I completed a two year Research Master in “Business in Society” which is also part of the business school here. I met Marleen and Anastasia, my current supervisors, and collaborated on a research project around the use of digital technologies in the healthcare sector. We looked at how transparency in medical records to patients changes the physician patient relationship. 

The project was very different from the type of research I was used to during my bachelor studies in Sociology and Economics & Business Economics, which was mainly focused on quantitative research using survey methods and historical datasets. It was a great experience to gain some first insights into what qualitative research, specifically what doing ethnography, would entail… really going inside an organization and observing daily work around a technology. I would be there a couple of days a week to observe and talk to physicians and patients and focus on how they interacted with the technology. 

Shauna: And what about your PhD research? What are you working on?

Elmira: Currently, my research is focused on the development and use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in human resources (HR). There are a lot of debates about how these very big, powerful tech companies that have a lot of influence design and make choices around technology. But, in our case, we focus on a scale-up AI vendor and their clients. We look at how people actually develop these applications in practice, and how building AI-systems can create new challenges for developers. 

Next to our focus on developers, we also study the use of AI in recruitment in practice. Currently, I am spending time at one of the main clients of the vendor, a large multinational company that recently implemented AI to support hiring decisions about their candidates. They ask new applicants to record videos of themselves and play games. From that, an algorithm extracts certain traits and skills of candidates. The videos focus on “micro-expressions” in the faces of candidates, the games look at cognitive, emotional, and social traits and skills, such as short-term memory, risk-behaviour, and leadership. 

Shauna: What is a key insight you’d like to share about your research?

Elmira: I think one important insight is around ethics and AI…you have two camps. The first says, “AI will help us to create a more ethical world.” I often hear this in the meetups I attend. The second camp accuses AI of committing ethical violations, such as discrimination and privacy infringement. One of the ideas then, is to create ethics by design…that we should come with ethical regulations and design technologies in such a way that they can make ethical decisions. 

I think one of the lessons from my research is that this won’t work, because the idea of what is fair and objective, changes through interaction with the technology itself. So, when people begin to develop and use AI in their daily work, they start to negotiate and reconsider what they understand as ethical in the first place. Going inside these organizations is crucial to understand how ethics and AI actually plays out in practice. 

Shauna: Can you share a book recommendation with us? What are you reading right now for fun? 

Elmira: I enjoy reading absurdist novels. Right now, I’m reading “The Castle”, by Kafka. It’s about a man who arrives in a small village located near a castle. The man is determined to accomplish a task for which he was summoned, but he is confronted with mysterious authorities which make his goal unattainable. With my book club we are now diving into “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” of Zuboff. A must-read, but great to have some support along the way to read through this massive work! 

Stay tuned! The longer interview will be released in the next few weeks as a part of our series on how AI is changing the nature of work in organizations. Follow our Medium channel and sign up to our newsletter to find out more.

Interested in the theme AI in HR? Elmira will be organizing a special panel at our Reshaping Work conference, March 6th, 2020. 

Author: Shauna Jin

About KIN:

The KIN Center for Digital Innovation is part of the School of Business and Economics (SBE) at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU).

Our research focuses on the development, use, implications and business value of digital innovations. We are a multi-disciplinary group of researchers with academic backgrounds in business administration, sociology, communication science, anthropology, philosophy, engineering, industrial design, and computer science.