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Mark Díaz

How Mark Díaz Applies HCI to Social Science

Díaz, who earned his PhD in Northwestern’s Technology and Social Behavior program, discussed his career and how he uses HCI to think rigorously about social and ethical problems.

After Mark Díaz earned his undergraduate degree from Stanford, he was intrigued by Northwestern’s PhD program in Technology and Social Behavior (TSB) because of its breadth of research. The rapport among faculty members, along with the racial and gender diversity of the students in the joint doctoral program between Computer Science and Communication Studies, made his decision to attend clear.

Now a research scientist with the Ethical Artificial Intelligence team at Google, Díaz (’20) applies his TSB education to professional goals, including developing artificial intelligence (AI) technologies that benefit all social groups equally without harming marginalized communities.

Your research focuses on “social bias and the use of algorithmic technologies to analyze human behavior, particularly the behaviors of underrepresented social groups.” Why is this important and how can it be applied?

My work is directly informed by the ways in which marginalized communities are disproportionately harmed by technologies that are not designed or robustly tested with them in mind. Generally, my work aims to support the design and development of AI systems that operate fairly for all social groups. More specifically, I’m focusing on best practices for curating data annotators and designing annotation prompts to produce higher quality data labels. Data annotations are a crucial component of many AI systems and are one of many stages where harmful biases can emerge.

Describe your career path.

I consider myself first and foremost to be a social scientist. I started taking courses in human-computer interaction (HCI) as an undergraduate because it touched on so many topics and it paired my interest in social behavior with my interest in emerging tech. I got involved in a virtual reality (VR) research lab and continued prototyping apps using VR and wearable tech in my first job out of college as a research and development senior analyst at Accenture Tech Labs. I enjoyed the work but felt I would be happier back in research.

I decided to pursue a PhD to get back into research while developing skills to think rigorously about social and ethical problems. Social justice has always been one of my primary investments, and computer science and HCI research have been one means toward that end. 

What was your experience like at Northwestern?

A PhD is a long haul with lots of ups and downs. I'm grateful to have had a great group of folks in my cohort and research lab that offered support. I also came in with relatively little work experience, so I enjoyed the flexibility to explore career options and pursue projects that introduced me to work across academia, industry, and the nonprofit sector.

How do you envision the future of human-computer interaction?

HCI is already a broad, interdisciplinary field and I only see that expanding. I am particularly hopeful that the field will deepen its engagement with perspectives from critical race and gender scholars. The tech adage of ‘fail fast, fail often’ underplays the disproportionate cost of failure to historically marginalized groups, and I think HCI is well positioned as a bridge between critical scholarship and technology development.

What advice would you give a student just starting in the program?

Giving yourself “off” time, whether on the weekend or after a certain time of day. Having time outside of research is just as important as publishing that paper. Also, don't respond to emails late at night or on the weekend, otherwise people will think you're always available for a quick task. If you feel guilty, schedule the email to send the next morning!

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