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Meet 2023 Forward Award Recipient Alex Hanna MS’13, PhD’16

On Valentine’s Day 2011, graduate student Alex Hanna helped to lead a crowd into the office of Governor Scott Walker and dump 3,000 “We ♥ UW” valentines on his desk.

Alex Hanna MS’13, PhD’16

UW Major: Sociology
Director of Research, Distributed AI Research Institute

On Valentine’s Day 2011, graduate student Alex Hanna helped to lead a crowd into the office of Governor Scott Walker and dump 3,000 “We ♥ UW” valentines on his desk. The cards were the first organized action against a controversial budget bill to curtail collective bargaining rights for state employees, among other education and labor-related changes. Within days, the historic labor protest swelled to an estimated 100,000 people, and for almost two weeks, Hanna and others from the Teaching Assistants’ Association, the UW’s graduate student union, slept at the capitol, coordinated food and information distribution, and spearheaded efforts to keep the building clean.

Though Hanna was already an experienced organizer and social-movement scholar when the Wisconsin protests began, her experiences at the capitol were an especially formative time. “It was a whirlwind, and Wisconsin became this flashpoint of politics and intellectual labor,” she says. Lately, she’s been thinking about those protests again in her role as a technologist for the Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR), an independent tech nonprofit that aims to both shine a light on current practices in Big Tech and to model community-rooted, rather than corporate profit-driven, methods for building and implementing AI tools.

One of the many topics Hanna explores at DAIR is the impact of AI on labor issues. “[AI’s current trillion-dollar valuation] is based on a hope and a promise that tech will cut costs or be labor-saving devices,” she says. “But the end of that process, the people who are going to feel the brunt of this will be workers, and AI will exacerbate a labor underclass of people worldwide who have to babysit these tools.”

Hanna’s interdisciplinary mind-set toward AI is rooted in her unconventional path through academia and the tech industry. At the UW, she pioneered a unique line of research that examined social-media organizing with computational analysis tools to obtain a doctorate in sociology with a minor in journalism and mass media. Hanna is Egyptian American, and her dissertation focused on Facebook organizing during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, along with other pro-democracy protests in the early 2010s, known as the Arab Spring.

“Since my early 20s, I’ve thought a lot about the nexus of society and technology, which runs through everything I’ve done,” she says.

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