Get to know Zachary Kilhoffer, PhD student

Zak Kilhoffer
Zachary Kilhoffer

PhD student Zachary (Zak) Kilhoffer sums up his research interests in two words: tech policy. He joined the iSchool in 2021 after working overseas as a labor economist.

Why did you decide to pursue a degree in information sciences?

I was undecided on my PhD field for a long time, as my background is super multidisciplinary. I have two degrees in international relations (a subfield of political science); I worked as a labor economist for around five years; I love coding, even though I started it very late; and I’m primarily interested in researching technology regulation. This could mean I'm suited for computer science, economics, law, public administration, or something else.

I'm not a hardcore technical person with a strong computer science background, and I tend to research whatever feels interesting. Information science stuck out to me because it is as flexible as my research interests, and nowadays there's a lot of focus on questions about what we really learn from AI models, how should we interpret AI-augmented decisions, and how we assure fair and transparent systems design.

To research what I do, I need a good blend of technical and thematic learning, and information science seemed to be the best fit.

Why did you choose the iSchool at Illinois?

There are a lot of reasons. Its national ranking is stellar. I'm originally from Illinois (southwest, 20 minutes across the river from St. Louis), and I missed my home state. I lived seven years in the EU and wanted to come home, at least for a bit.

I looked at a lot of universities, departments, and faculty in the US, UK, and France, and got a ton of great advice from a few good mentors. I determined that a number of iSchool professors at UIUC were solid matches for me with respect to my areas of interest and methodologies. When I reached out to my now-advisor Yang Wang, it was a great chat, and we hit it off. I think the iSchool was interested in my background of researching EU tech policy, especially how algorithms impact the lives of gig workers, how GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] relates to privacy and transparency, accessible digital technology, and so on.

What are your research interests?

In two words: tech policy. More specifically, I think about the ethics of how technology is used, how tech impacts society, and what to do about it.

A few questions often guide my research:

1) Is technology X being used in acceptable ways?
2) Is existing regulation adequate for new and developing technologies?  
3) What is so obviously bad that we can't tolerate it and need to regulate it?

I'm a very practical guy. I think about real-world problems and try to offer solutions for lawmakers and practitioners.

What do you do outside of class?

My biggest hobby is woodworking. It's something tactile, practical, and challenging. It gets me away from screens and allows me to have nice custom things around my apartment. I only started last year, but I learned a lot from YouTube and books I borrowed from the UIUC Library. I’m a regular now at the woodshop in Siebel Center for Design, which is super well-equipped and full of wonderful people. Come and build something with me!

I love sci-fi and video games. I’m learning French and continuing to improve my German. I spend a lot of time with my cats Theodore Roosevelt (Teddy) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Frankie), and sometimes build them cat furniture.

What career plans or goals do you have?

I can see myself taking three paths. First is think tanks, as they're the obvious place to research policy stuff and influence what the government is doing. Second is academia, as I love teaching and research. Third is industry, perhaps helping companies ethically deploy AI. I think some mixture of those three is likely.

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