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. Today, high stakes software is rarely open to scrutiny, but its code navigates moral questions: Which of a person’s traits are fair to consider as part of a job application? Who deserves priority in accessing scarce public resources, whether those are school seats, housing, or medicine? When someone first appears in a courtroom, how should their freedom be weighed against the risks they might pose to others?
Policymakers and the public often find algorithms to be complex, opaque and intimidating—and it can be tempting to pretend that hard moral questions have simple technological answers. But that approach leaves technical experts holding the moral microphone, and it stops people who lack technical expertise from making their voices heard. Today, policymakers and scholars are seeking better ways to share the moral decisionmaking 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 a relatively 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 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Drawing on interviews with key stakeholders, unpublished archives, and a wide scholarly literature, Robinson shows how this new Kidney Allocation System emerged and evolved over time, as participants gradually built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.
About the Author
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.
"Voices in the Code by David Robinson asks the most urgent question about technology at the appropriate level of abstraction: how do we make algorithms that impact the public accountable to the public? Robinson insists, correctly, that this is not a new question, just a new level of complexity. Dodging the fad appeal of techno-solutionism, he points the reader to profound lessons from publicly accountable algorithms that have been largely resolved, such as kidney transplant lists."
—Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction and founder and CEO, O'Neil Risk Consulting & Algorithmic Auditing (ORCAA)
“How do we share the moral burden of high-stakes digital decision-making? David Robinson’s gripping account of the development of the U.S. kidney allocation system offers promising ways forward: we must promote participation by design, center lived experience, and share power to protect community values. Voices in the Code passionately demonstrates how ethical algorithms, like democracy itself, require constant tending. A must-read.”
—Virginia Eubanks, associate professor of political science, University at Albany, SUNY
“Voices in the Code is essential reading for anyone interested in civil rights, the biases of data, and holding algorithmic systems accountable. Robinson compellingly draws lessons from the struggle to fairly allocate transplant organs to grapple with the moral work of algorithmic governance.”
—danah boyd, partner researcher, Microsoft Research; distinguished visiting professor, Georgetown University; and founder and president, Data & Society