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Beth M. Semel, PhD


anthropologist of science, technology, and language


bio

A little bit about me.


research

Past, present, and ongoing projects.


Talks, Presentations, & What's Next

A selection of previous and upcoming talks and other news.

bio


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I am an anthropologist of science and technology who conducts ethnographic research on the language and communication sciences, biomedicine (especially mental health care), and computing in the contemporary United States. My research concerns the intersection of language, technoscience, and power, with a focus on the sociopolitical life of automated listening and voice-based biometric technologies.

Currently, I am a Post-Doctoral Associate in the Anthropology Department at MIT, where I teach Language, Communication, and Culture and serve as the Associate Director of the Language and Technology Lab, which I co-founded with Graham Jones.

My research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Society for Psychological Anthropology/Robert Lemelson Foundation. From 2018-2019, I was a Weatherhead Residential Fellow at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I received my PhD in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society (HASTS) at MIT, my MA in Anthropology at Brandeis University, and my BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College. I first became interested in studying technoscience and language anthropologically after reading Michel Degraff's article on the fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism in an undergraduate sociolinguistics course.

Research


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PROJECTS

My research and teaching integrate linguistic and medical anthropology with feminist STS, sound studies, and disability studies.


Speech, Signal, Symptom: Machine Listening and the Re-coding of Psychiatric Sorting

My book project traces how automation impacts frameworks of language, listening, practices of care, and labor in the contemporary U.S., as the expertise and ethos of Silicon Valley are increasingly called upon to solve psychiatry’s epistemic and political economic ills.

It follows teams of psychiatric and engineering professionals collaborating to build AI-enabled technologies to screen for mental illness based on how a person sounds, rather than what they say. Dominant discourses surrounding these biometric technologies depict them as more objective, accurate, and efficient than conventional screening, due to their ability to supposedly pinpoint subtle, acoustic indicators of psychiatric distress, or "vocal biomarkers."

The book complicates this techno-optimist narrative, focusing on the hidden, feminized and racialized communicative labor central to the search for vocal biomarkers and the automation of psychiatric screening. Through a behind-the-screen account of the everyday work and hierarchies of value involved in rendering the sounds of mental illness computationally tractable, I approach the making of algorithmic listening as key sites where people negotiate, enforce, and contest dominant ideas about illness, language, and embodied difference.


Suspicious and Synthetic Speech

Since the spring of 2020, I have been working on two new projects. One project traces the history of voice stress analysis in criminal-legal applications and the popular imagination from 1956 to the present in the United States. Additionally, I have begun exploratory research on a project that explores the auditory equivalent of "deep fakes"—also known as vocal deep fakes—from a critical disability studies perspective. The project considers the relationships between vocal deep fakes and other forms of synthetic, imitative speech as well as historical and contemporary practices of phreaking (telephone-based hacking).


PUBLIC SCHOLARSHIP AND MEDIA

I am committed to applied research and organizing work, especially when it involves collaborations that cut across STEM and the humanities and social sciences. To read more of my thoughts about working with computational practitioners and tech workers, check out my interview of visual artist and critical computer scientist Jonathan Zong. The interview is part of an ongoing, online series about digital psychiatry that I am co-editing with Dörte Bemme and Natassia Brenman.

I was a participant of a 2019 Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue on Artificial Intelligence and Mental Health Care at the University of Ottawa and a panelist/moderator on the Ethics of Technology Panel at Tufts University’s Women in Technology Conference. I also co-organized a teach-in at MIT, “#AICantFixThis: MIT, Imperialism, and the Future of AI.”

As a member of the Coalition for Critical Technology, along with over 20 other academic and technology workers, I co-wrote and facilitated an open letter condemning the use of criminal legal data to build algorithmic systems to “predict criminality.” The letter underscores the long, multidisciplinary legacy of research debunking predictive policing and related carceral technologies. If you would like to use the letter for teaching purposes, you may download an accessible PDF here.

I was recently a guest on an episode of Metastasis (in conversation with Yesmar Oyarzun) and quoted in Vice.


SELECTED WRITING

Peer-Reviewed

Semel, Beth. n.d. “Listening Like a Computer: Attentional tensions and mechanized care in psychiatric digital phenotyping.” STHV: Science, Technology & Human Values, Special Issue, "Shifting Attention” (editors Rebecca Jablonsky, Tero Karppi, and Nick Seaver). [Forthcoming]

Jones, Graham M., Beth Semel, and Audrey Le. 2015. “‘There’s no rules. It’s hackathon.’: Negotiating Commitment in a Context of Volatile Sociality.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 25(3):322–345.


Other Writing

Semel, Beth. 2020. "The Body Audible: From Vocal Biomarkers to a Phrenology of the Throat." Somatosphere.

Bemme, Dörte, Natassia Brenman, and Beth Semel. 2020. “The subject of digital psychiatry.” Somtasphere


Talks, Presentations, & What's Next


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A more complete list of speaking engagements and my CV are available upon request. Please feel free to reach out regarding speaking and guest lecturing inquiries.


CONFERENCE TALKS

Upcoming

(2021). "Stressed and Suspect: The Criminological Creep of Psychiatric Voice Biometrics." Society for the Social Studies of Science Annual Meeting, Toronto/Virtual [accepted]
Past

2021. “Ear from Nowhere: The Listening Subject of Automated Psychiatric Screening.” American Association for Applied Linguistics Annual Meeting (virtual)2019. “Listening like a computer: In/attention and the automation of psychiatric assessment.” American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Vancouver, BC (Nov. 20)2019. “Listening/Not Listening: Educations of Inattention in the Automation of Psychiatric Assessment.” Society for Social Studies of Science Annual Meeting, New Orleans, LA. (Sept. 5)2018. “‘I’m not a therapist, but…’ Interactional illusions and the virtually human listener.” American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, San José, CA. (Nov. 16)2017. “Do androids dream of electric speech? Professional listening and the automation of psychiatric assessment.” American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Washington, DC. (Dec. 3)2017. “Sound of mind: the automation of psychiatric listening and assessment.” Society for the Social Studies of Science Annual Meeting, Boston, MA. (Aug. 31)2015. “Good data/good care: speculative psychiatrics after DSM.” American Anthropological Association Annual meeting. Denver, CO. (Nov. 21)2014. “From numerical minds to neurological brains: translating efficacy and producing new evidence in evidence-based psychotherapies.” American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Washington, DC. (Dec. 5)2014. “Tracking the self, installing expertise: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and the auto-regulating subject.” Society for Social Studies of Science Annual Meeting, in conjunction with Sociedad Latinoamericana de Estudios Sociales de la Ciencia y la Tecnología, Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Aug. 21)

INVITED TALKS

Upcoming
2021. Héctor Beltrán, Beth Semel, Marc Aidinoff, Stefan Helmreich, Heather Paxson. "Making, Unmaking, and Hacking Race and Data: Views from Anthropology." Systematic Racism and Computing Workshop, MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society." (May 12)
Past
2021. "Science, Technology, and Antiracism: A Researchers' Roundtable." Anti-Racist STS Working Group, Department of Science, Technology, and Society, Humanities Scholars Program, Cornell University. (May 10)2021. "Gendered Labor, Post-racial Fantasies, and the Robot Therapist Panic in U.S. Mental Health Care Tech." Guest Lecture, Queer Robotics (Instructor Prof. Mitali Thakor) Wesleyan University. (Apr. 15)2020. "AI in U.S. Mental Health Care: Automation, Labor, and Hierarchies of Value." Guest Lecture, Introduction to Medical Humanities (Instructor Prof. Lan Li) Rice University. (Oct. 20)2019. “Vocal Biomarkers and the Engineering Approach to Mental Illness.” STS @ Tufts, Tufts University. (Dec. 6)2019. “Listening Like a Computer: Computational Psychiatry and the Re-coding of Psychiatric Screening.” STS Circle, Harvard University. (Dec. 2)2019. “Linguistic Labor and Technologies of Care: Automating Assessment in U.S. Psychiatry.” Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts Amherst (Feb. 11)2018. “Do androids dream of electric speech? Listening practices in automated psychiatric assessment.” Scholar Colloquia, School for Advanced Research. (Nov. 7) (video)2013. “Cultural Competence Training and DSM-IV.” Guest Lecture, Psychological Anthropology (Instructor Prof. Janet McIntosh) Brandeis University