School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Algorithms can cause biases – Meet Dr. Sachil Singh

Postdoctoral Fellow  

by Phil Gaudreau, November 2020

Sachil SinghIn a Canadian healthcare system that strives to prioritize patient care, the apps that healthcare practitioners use to inform patient diagnosis and treatment may unintentionally incorporate racist biases.

Sachil Singh, PhD’16, is a Queen’s Assistant Professor and post-doctoral fellow who is looking at how algorithms prompt healthcare practitioners to focus on race even in cases where this might lead to racial profiling.

“The common thread in all my work is how algorithms are implemented as ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’, but actually have significant social impacts, such as on race,” says Dr. Singh.

His post-doctoral research combines elements of medical sociology, critical race studies, and surveillance. Dr. Singh also completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Ottawa. He teaches for the Queen’s Faculty of Arts and Science, where he has taught one of the university’s largest courses, Introduction to Sociology, since 2018.

Originally from South Africa, a country with a well known history of racial inequalities, Dr. Singh has been interested in surveillance and racial categorization since he was a young boy.

“The government would determine where you could live or which school you could go to, for example, based on your skin colour,” he says. “I grew up at the tail end of this system yet it still shaped my life. Racial discrimination was normalized in my early school years. My kindergarten teachers taught me that I was inferior based on my skin colour, and as a kid, you accept that as part of who you are.”

After completing his masters in economic history in South Africa, Dr. Singh sought to further his education. His supervisor recommended that he speak to David Lyon, a highly regarded sociologist who is Director of the world renowned Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s.

Under Dr. Lyon’s supervision, he completed his PhD in Sociology in 2016. His research focused on credit scoring in South Africa, and a suite of technologies that the government supported since the late 90s as a way to overcome historical inequalities. Dr. Singh demonstrated in his dissertation that the technologies actually helped reproduce historical inequalities.

“The government wants to use credit scoring as a way to overcome various kinds of inequality that plagued the country for decades,” explains Dr. Singh. “Unfortunately, credit scoring is not objective or neutral as they claim. In fact, the algorithms impact people based on race, gender, sexuality, religion and so on.”

Dr. Singh has a co-authored forthcoming article in Social Science & Medicine that examines the racial biases in the apps that healthcare practitioners use to inform patient care. He also recently published an article in The Conversation that cautions against collecting race data in health research. He expresses his concerns with the ways in which race is increasingly turned to as a focus for how COVID-19 should be tracked.

“In the context of the pandemic, I’m concerned that the spread of the virus is increasingly tracked by race because this logic is built into the algorithms to predict outbreaks,” says Dr. Singh. “My concern is that this can lead to inaccuracies in terms of who is deemed high risk because of a focus on race rather than on good health practice.”

When he is not focused on his academics, Dr. Singh is honing his karate skills; a martial art that he has practised for 28 years. He has been involved with the Queen’s Karate Club for 10 years and became the Sensei (instructor) of the club in 2017.

“If I’m not teaching or researching, I’m either doing karate in my head, training in a park, or teaching karate in the ARC on campus,” says Dr. Singh.

To learn more about graduate studies in Sociology at Queen’s, visit the Department of Sociology’s website.

To learn more about the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s, visit their website.