Who Is Making Sure the A.I. Machines Aren’t Racist?

Good overview of the issues and debates (Google’s earlier slogan of “do no evil” seems so quaint):

Hundreds of people gathered for the first lecture at what had become the world’s most important conference on artificial intelligence — row after row of faces. Some were East Asian, a few were Indian, and a few were women. But the vast majority were white men. More than 5,500 people attended the meeting, five years ago in Barcelona, Spain.

Timnit Gebru, then a graduate student at Stanford University, remembers counting only six Black people other than herself, all of whom she knew, all of whom were men.

The homogeneous crowd crystallized for her a glaring issue. The big thinkers of tech say A.I. is the future. It will underpin everything from search engines and email to the software that drives our cars, directs the policing of our streets and helps create our vaccines.

But it is being built in a way that replicates the biases of the almost entirely male, predominantly white work force making it.

In the nearly 10 years I’ve written about artificial intelligence, two things have remained a constant: The technology relentlessly improves in fits and sudden, great leaps forward. And bias is a thread that subtly weaves through that work in a way that tech companies are reluctant to acknowledge.

On her first night home in Menlo Park, Calif., after the Barcelona conference, sitting cross-​legged on the couch with her laptop, Dr. Gebru described the A.I. work force conundrum in a Facebook post.

“I’m not worried about machines taking over the world. I’m worried about groupthink, insularity and arrogance in the A.I. community — especially with the current hype and demand for people in the field,” she wrote. “The people creating the technology are a big part of the system. If many are actively excluded from its creation, this technology will benefit a few while harming a great many.”

The A.I. community buzzed about the mini-manifesto. Soon after, Dr. Gebru helped create a new organization, Black in A.I. After finishing her Ph.D., she was hired by Google.

She teamed with Margaret Mitchell, who was building a group inside Google dedicated to “ethical A.I.” Dr. Mitchell had previously worked in the research lab at Microsoft. She had grabbed attention when she told Bloomberg News in 2016 that A.I. suffered from a “sea of dudes” problem. She estimated that she had worked with hundreds of men over the previous five years and about 10 women.

Their work was hailed as groundbreaking. The nascent A.I. industry, it had become clear, needed minders and people with different perspectives.

About six years ago, A.I. in a Google online photo service organized photos of Black people into a folder called “gorillas.” Four years ago, a researcher at a New York start-up noticed that the A.I. system she was working on was egregiously biased against Black people. Not long after, a Black researcher in Boston discovered that an A.I. system couldn’t identify her face — until she put on a white mask.

In 2018, when I told Google’s public relations staff that I was working on a book about artificial intelligence, it arranged a long talk with Dr. Mitchell to discuss her work. As she described how she built the company’s Ethical A.I. team — and brought Dr. Gebru into the fold — it was refreshing to hear from someone so closely focused on the bias problem.

But nearly three years later, Dr. Gebru was pushed out of the company without a clear explanation. She said she had been firedafter criticizing Google’s approach to minority hiring and, with a research paper, highlighting the harmful biases in the A.I. systems that underpin Google’s search engine and other services.

“Your life starts getting worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people,” Dr. Gebru said in an email before her firing. “You start making the other leaders upset.”

As Dr. Mitchell defended Dr. Gebru, the company removed her, too. She had searched through her own Google email account for material that would support their position and forwarded emails to another account, which somehow got her into trouble. Google declined to comment for this article.

Their departure became a point of contention for A.I. researchers and other tech workers. Some saw a giant company no longer willing to listen, too eager to get technology out the door without considering its implications. I saw an old problem — part technological and part sociological — finally breaking into the open.

It should have been a wake-up call.

In June 2015, a friend sent Jacky Alciné, a 22-year-old software engineer living in Brooklyn, an internet link for snapshots the friend had posted to the new Google Photos service. Google Photos could analyze snapshots and automatically sort them into digital folders based on what was pictured. One folder might be “dogs,” another “birthday party.”

When Mr. Alciné clicked on the link, he noticed one of the folders was labeled “gorillas.” That made no sense to him, so he opened the folder. He found more than 80 photos he had taken nearly a year earlier of a friend during a concert in nearby Prospect Park. That friend was Black.

He might have let it go if Google had mistakenly tagged just one photo. But 80? He posted a screenshot on Twitter. “Google Photos, y’all,” messed up, he wrote, using much saltier language. “My friend is not a gorilla.”

Like facial recognition services, talking digital assistants and conversational “chatbots,” Google Photos relied on an A.I. system that learned its skills by analyzing enormous amounts of digital data.

Called a “neural network,” this mathematical system could learn tasks that engineers could never code into a machine on their own. By analyzing thousands of photos of gorillas, it could learn to recognize a gorilla. It was also capable of egregious mistakes. The onus was on engineers to choose the right data when training these mathematical systems. (In this case, the easiest fix was to eliminate “gorilla” as a photo category.)

As a software engineer, Mr. Alciné understood the problem. He compared it to making lasagna. “If you mess up the lasagna ingredients early, the whole thing is ruined,” he said. “It is the same thing with A.I. You have to be very intentional about what you put into it. Otherwise, it is very difficult to undo.”

In 2017, Deborah Raji, a 21-​year-​old Black woman from Ottawa, sat at a desk inside the New York offices of Clarifai, the start-up where she was working. The company built technology that could automatically recognize objects in digital images and planned to sell it to businesses, police departments and government agencies.

She stared at a screen filled with faces — images the company used to train its facial recognition software.

As she scrolled through page after page of these faces, she realized that most — more than 80 percent — were of white people. More than 70 percent of those white people were male. When Clarifai trained its system on this data, it might do a decent job of recognizing white people, Ms. Raji thought, but it would fail miserably with people of color, and probably women, too.

Clarifai was also building a “content moderation system,” a tool that could automatically identify and remove pornography from images people posted to social networks. The company trained this system on two sets of data: thousands of photos pulled from online pornography sites, and thousands of G‑rated images bought from stock photo services.

The system was supposed to learn the difference between the pornographic and the anodyne. The problem was that the G‑rated images were dominated by white people, and the pornography was not. The system was learning to identify Black people as pornographic.

“The data we use to train these systems matters,” Ms. Raji said. “We can’t just blindly pick our sources.”

This was obvious to her, but to the rest of the company it was not. Because the people choosing the training data were mostly white men, they didn’t realize their data was biased.

“The issue of bias in facial recognition technologies is an evolving and important topic,” Clarifai’s chief executive, Matt Zeiler, said in a statement. Measuring bias, he said, “is an important step.”

Before joining Google, Dr. Gebru collaborated on a study with a young computer scientist, Joy Buolamwini. A graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ms. Buolamwini, who is Black, came from a family of academics. Her grandfather specialized in medicinal chemistry, and so did her father.

She gravitated toward facial recognition technology. Other researchers believed it was reaching maturity, but when she used it, she knew it wasn’t.

In October 2016, a friend invited her for a night out in Boston with several other women. “We’ll do masks,” the friend said. Her friend meant skin care masks at a spa, but Ms. Buolamwini assumed Halloween masks. So she carried a white plastic Halloween mask to her office that morning.

It was still sitting on her desk a few days later as she struggled to finish a project for one of her classes. She was trying to get a detection system to track her face. No matter what she did, she couldn’t quite get it to work.

In her frustration, she picked up the white mask from her desk and pulled it over her head. Before it was all the way on, the system recognized her face — or, at least, it recognized the mask.

“Black Skin, White Masks,” she said in an interview, nodding to the 1952 critique of historical racism from the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. “The metaphor becomes the truth. You have to fit a norm, and that norm is not you.”

Ms. Buolamwini started exploring commercial services designed to analyze faces and identify characteristics like age and sex, including tools from Microsoft and IBM.

She found that when the services read photos of lighter-​skinned men, they misidentified sex about 1 percent of the time. But the darker the skin in the photo, the larger the error rate. It rose particularly high with images of women with dark skin. Microsoft’s error rate was about 21 percent. IBM’s was 35.

Published in the winter of 2018, the study drove a backlash against facial recognition technology and, particularly, its use in law enforcement. Microsoft’s chief legal officer said the company had turned down sales to law enforcement when there was concern the technology could unreasonably infringe on people’s rights, and he made a public call for government regulation.

Twelve months later, Microsoft backed a bill in Washington State that would require notices to be posted in public places using facial recognition and ensure that government agencies obtained a court order when looking for specific people. The bill passed, and it takes effect later this year. The company, which did not respond to a request for comment for this article, did not back other legislation that would have provided stronger protections.

Ms. Buolamwini began to collaborate with Ms. Raji, who moved to M.I.T. They started testing facial recognition technology from a third American tech giant: Amazon. The company had started to market its technology to police departments and government agencies under the name Amazon Rekognition.

Ms. Buolamwini and Ms. Raji published a study showing that an Amazon face service also had trouble identifying the sex of female and darker-​skinned faces. According to the study, the service mistook women for men 19 percent of the time and misidentified darker-​skinned women for men 31 percent of the time. For lighter-​skinned males, the error rate was zero.

Amazon called for government regulation of facial recognition. It also attacked the researchers in private emails and public blog posts.

“The answer to anxieties over new technology is not to run ‘tests’ inconsistent with how the service is designed to be used, and to amplify the test’s false and misleading conclusions through the news media,” an Amazon executive, Matt Wood, wrote in a blog post that disputed the study and a New York Times article that described it.

In an open letter, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Gebru rejected Amazon’s argument and called on it to stop selling to law enforcement. The letter was signed by 25 artificial intelligence researchers from Google, Microsoft and academia.

Last June, Amazon backed down. It announced that it would not let the police use its technology for at least a year, saying it wanted to give Congress time to create rules for the ethical use of the technology. Congress has yet to take up the issue. Amazon declined to comment for this article.

Dr. Gebru and Dr. Mitchell had less success fighting for change inside their own company. Corporate gatekeepers at Google were heading them off with a new review system that had lawyers and even communications staff vetting research papers.

Dr. Gebru’s dismissal in December stemmed, she said, from the company’s treatment of a research paper she wrote alongside six other researchers, including Dr. Mitchell and three others at Google. The paper discussed ways that a new type of language technology, including a system built by Google that underpins its search engine, can show bias against women and people of color.

After she submitted the paper to an academic conference, Dr. Gebru said, a Google manager demanded that she either retract the paper or remove the names of Google employees. She said she would resign if the company could not tell her why it wanted her to retract the paper and answer other concerns.

The response: Her resignation was accepted immediately, and Google revoked her access to company email and other services. A month later, it removed Dr. Mitchell’s access after she searched through her own email in an effort to defend Dr. Gebru.

In a Google staff meeting last month, just after the company fired Dr. Mitchell, the head of the Google A.I. lab, Jeff Dean, said the company would create strict rules meant to limit its review of sensitive research papers. He also defended the reviews. He declined to discuss the details of Dr. Mitchell’s dismissal but said she had violated the company’s code of conduct and security policies.

One of Mr. Dean’s new lieutenants, Zoubin Ghahramani, said the company must be willing to tackle hard issues. There are “uncomfortable things that responsible A.I. will inevitably bring up,” he said. “We need to be comfortable with that discomfort.”

But it will be difficult for Google to regain trust — both inside the company and out.

“They think they can get away with firing these people and it will not hurt them in the end, but they are absolutely shooting themselves in the foot,” said Alex Hanna, a longtime part of Google’s 10-member Ethical A.I. team. “What they have done is incredibly myopic.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/15/technology/artificial-intelligence-google-bias.html

The Robots Are Coming for Phil in Accounting

Implications for many white collar workers, including in government given the nature of repetitive operational work:

The robots are coming. Not to kill you with lasers, or beat you in chess, or even to ferry you around town in a driverless Uber.

These robots are here to merge purchase orders into columns J and K of next quarter’s revenue forecast, and transfer customer data from the invoicing software to the Oracle database. They are unassuming software programs with names like “Auxiliobits — DataTable To Json String,” and they are becoming the star employees at many American companies.

Some of these tools are simple apps, downloaded from online stores and installed by corporate I.T. departments, that do the dull-but-critical tasks that someone named Phil in Accounting used to do: reconciling bank statements, approving expense reports, reviewing tax forms. Others are expensive, custom-built software packages, armed with more sophisticated types of artificial intelligence, that are capable of doing the kinds of cognitive work that once required teams of highly-paid humans.

White-collar workers, armed with college degrees and specialized training, once felt relatively safe from automation. But recent advances in A.I. and machine learning have created algorithms capable of outperforming doctorslawyers and bankers at certain parts of their jobs. And as bots learn to do higher-value tasks, they are climbing the corporate ladder.

The trend — quietly building for years, but accelerating to warp speed since the pandemic — goes by the sleepy moniker “robotic process automation.” And it is transforming workplaces at a pace that few outsiders appreciate. Nearly 8 in 10 corporate executives surveyed by Deloitte last year said they had implemented some form of R.P.A. Another 16 percent said they planned to do so within three years.

Most of this automation is being done by companies you’ve probably never heard of. UiPath, the largest stand-alone automation firm, is valued at $35 billion — roughly the size of eBay — and is slated to go public later this year. Other companies like Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, which have Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola and Walgreens Boots Alliance as clients, are also enjoying breakneck growth, and tech giants like Microsoft have recently introduced their own automation products to get in on the action.

Executives generally spin these bots as being good for everyone, “streamlining operations” while “liberating workers” from mundane and repetitive tasks. But they are also liberating plenty of people from their jobs. Independent experts say that major corporate R.P.A. initiatives have been followed by rounds of layoffs, and that cutting costs, not improving workplace conditions, is usually the driving factor behind the decision to automate. 

Craig Le Clair, an analyst with Forrester Research who studies the corporate automation market, said that for executives, much of the appeal of R.P.A. bots is that they are cheap, easy to use and compatible with their existing back-end systems. He said that companies often rely on them to juice short-term profits, rather than embarking on more expensive tech upgrades that might take years to pay for themselves.

“It’s not a moonshot project like a lot of A.I., so companies are doing it like crazy,” Mr. Le Clair said. “With R.P.A., you can build a bot that costs $10,000 a year and take out two to four humans.”

Covid-19 has led some companies to turn to automation to deal with growing demand, closed offices, or budget constraints. But for other companies, the pandemic has provided cover for executives to implement ambitious automation plans they dreamed up long ago.

“Automation is more politically acceptable now,” said Raul Vega, the chief executive of Auxis, a firm that helps companies automate their operations.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Vega said, some executives turned down offers to automate their call centers, or shrink their finance departments, because they worried about scaring their remaining workers or provoking a backlash like the one that followed the outsourcing boom of the 1990s, when C.E.O.s became villains for sending jobs to Bangalore and Shenzhen.

But those concerns matter less now, with millions of people already out of work and many businesses struggling to stay afloat.

Now, Mr. Vega said, “they don’t really care, they’re just going to do what’s right for their business,” Mr. Vega said.

Sales of automation software are expected to rise by 20 percent this year, after increasing by 12 percent last year, according to the research firm Gartner. And the consulting firm McKinsey, which predicted before the pandemic that 37 million U.S. workers would be displaced by automation by 2030, recently increased its projection to 45 million.

A white-collar wake-up call

Not all bots are the job-destroying kind. Holly Uhl, a technology manager at State Auto Insurance Companies, said that her firm has used automation to do 173,000 hours’ worth of work in areas like underwriting and human resources without laying anyone off.

“People are concerned that there’s a possibility of losing their jobs, or not having anything to do,” she said. “But once we have a bot in the area, and people see how automation is applied, they’re truly thrilled that they don’t have to do that work anymore.”

As bots become capable of complex decision-making, rather than doing single repetitive tasks, their disruptive potential is growing.

Recent studies by researchers at Stanford University and the Brookings Institution compared the text of job listings with the wording of A.I.-related patents, looking for phrases like “make prediction” and “generate recommendation” that appeared in both. They found that the groups with the highest exposure to A.I. were better-paid, better-educated workers in technical and supervisory roles, with men, white and Asian-American workers, and midcareer professionals being some of the most endangered. Workers with bachelor’s or graduate degrees were nearly four times as exposed to A.I. risk as those with just a high school degree, the researchers found, and residents of high-tech cities like Seattle and Salt Lake City were more vulnerable than workers in smaller, more rural communities.

“A lot of professional work combines some element of routine information processing with an element of judgment and discretion,” said David Autor, an economist at M.I.T. who studies the labor effects of automation. “That’s where software has always fallen short. But with A.I., that type of work is much more in the kill path.”

Many of those vulnerable workers don’t see this coming, in part because the effects of white-collar automation are often couched in jargon and euphemism. On their websites, R.P.A. firms promote glowing testimonials from their customers, often glossing over the parts that involve actual humans.

“Sprint Automates 50 Business Processes In Just Six Months.” (Possible translation: Sprint replaced 300 people in the billing department.)

“Dai-ichi Life Insurance Saves 132,000 Hours Annually” (Bye-bye, claims adjusters.)

“600% Productivity Gain for Credit Reporting Giant with R.P.A.”(Don’t let the door hit you, data analysts.)

Jason Kingdon, the chief executive of the R.P.A. firm Blue Prism, speaks in the softened vernacular of displacement too. He refers to his company’s bots as “digital workers,” and he explained that the economic shock of the pandemic had “massively raised awareness” among executives about the variety of work that no longer requires human involvement.

“We think any business process can be automated,” he said.

Mr. Kingdon tells business leaders that between half and two-thirds of all the tasks currently being done at their companies can be done by machines. Ultimately, he sees a future in which humans will collaborate side-by-side with teams of digital employees, with plenty of work for everyone, although he conceded that the robots have certain natural advantages.

“A digital worker,” he said, “can be scaled in a vastly more flexible way.”

Humans have feared losing our jobs to machines for millennia. (In 350 BCE, Aristotle worried that self-playing harps would make musicians obsolete.) And yet, automation has never created mass unemployment, in part because technology has always generated new jobs to replace the ones it destroyed.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, some lamplighters and blacksmiths became obsolete, but more people were able to make a living as electricians and car dealers. And today’s A.I. optimists argue that while new technology may displace some workers, it will spur economic growth and create better, more fulfilling jobs, just as it has in the past.

But that is no guarantee, and there is growing evidence that this time may be different.

In a series of recent studies, Daron Acemoglu of M.I.T. and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University, two well-respected economists who have researched the history of automation, found that for most of the 20th century, the optimistic take on automation prevailed — on average, in industries that implemented automation, new tasks were created faster than old ones were destroyed.

Since the late 1980s, they found, the equation had flipped — tasks have been disappearing to automation faster than new ones are appearing.

This shift may be related to the popularity of what they call “so-so automation” — technology that is just barely good enough to replace human workers, but not good enough to create new jobs or make companies significantly more productive.

A common example of so-so automation is the grocery store self-checkout machine. These machines don’t cause customers to buy more groceries, or help them shop significantly faster — they simply allow store owners to staff slightly fewer employees on a shift. This simple, substitutive kind of automation, Mr. Acemoglu and Mr. Restrepo wrote, threatens not just individual workers, but the economy as a whole.

“The real danger for labor,” they wrote, “may come not from highly productive but from ‘so-so’ automation technologies that are just productive enough to be adopted and cause displacement.”

Only the most devoted Luddites would argue against automating any job, no matter how menial or dangerous. But not all automation is created equal, and much of the automation being done in white-collar workplaces today is the kind that may not help workers over the long run.

During past eras of technological change, governments and labor unions have stepped in to fight for automation-prone workers, or support them while they trained for new jobs. But this time, there is less in the way of help. Congress has rejected calls to fund federal worker retraining programs for years, and while some of the money in the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill Democrats hope to pass this week will go to laid-off and furloughed workers, none of it is specifically earmarked for job training programs that could help displaced workers get back on their feet.

Another key difference is that in the past, automation arrived gradually, factory machine by factory machine. But today’s white-collar automation is so sudden — and often, so deliberately obscured by management — that few workers have time to prepare.

“The rate of progression of this technology is faster than any previous automation,” said Mr. Le Clair, the Forrester analyst, who thinks we are closer to the beginning than the end of the corporate A.I. boom.

“We haven’t hit the exponential point of this stuff yet,” he added. “And when we do, it’s going to be dramatic.”

The corporate world’s automation fever isn’t purely about getting rid of workers. Executives have shareholders and boards to satisfy, and competitors to keep up with. And some automation does, in fact, lift all boats, making workers’ jobs better and more interesting while allowing companies to do more with less.

But as A.I. enters the corporate world, it is forcing workers at all levels to adapt, and focus on developing the kinds of distinctly human skills that machines can’t easily replicate.

Ellen Wengert, a former data processor at an Australian insurance firm, learned this lesson four years ago, when she arrived at work one day to find a bot-builder sitting in her seat.

The man, coincidentally an old classmate of hers, worked for a consulting firm that specialized in R.P.A. He explained that he’d been hired to automate her job, which mostly involved moving customer data from one database to another. He then asked her to, essentially, train her own replacement — teaching him how to do the steps involved in her job so that he, in turn, could program a bot to do the same thing.

Ms. Wengert wasn’t exactly surprised. She’d known that her job was straightforward and repetitive, making it low-hanging fruit for automation. But she was annoyed that her managers seemed so eager to hand it over to a machine.

“They were desperate to create this sense of excitement around automation,” she said. “Most of my colleagues got on board with that pretty readily, but I found it really jarring, to be feigning excitement about us all potentially losing our jobs.”

For Ms. Wengert, 27, the experience was a wake-up call. She had a college degree and was early in her career. But some of her colleagues had been happily doing the same job for years, and she worried that they would fall through the cracks.

“Even though these aren’t glamorous jobs, there are a lot of people doing them,” she said.

She left the insurance company after her contract ended. And she now works as a second-grade teacher — a job she says she sought out, in part, because it seemed harder to automate.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/06/business/the-robots-are-coming-for-phil-in-accounting.html

India’s Vaccine Rollout Stumbles as COVID-19 Cases Decline. That’s Bad News for the Rest of the World

Of note:

India’s COVID-19 vaccination scheme looked set for success.

For the “pharmacy of the world,” which produced 60% of the vaccines for global use before the pandemic, supply was never going to be a problem. The country already had the world’s largest immunization program, delivering 390 million doses annually to protect against diseases like tuberculosis and measles, and an existing infrastructure that would make COVID-19 vaccine distribution easier. Ahead of the launch, the government organized dry runs, put up billboards touting the vaccines and replaced phone ringing tones with a message urging people to get vaccinated.

And yet, one month into its vaccination campaign, India is struggling to get even its health workers to line up for shots. In early January, India announced a goal to inoculate 300 million people by August. Just 8.4 million received a vaccine in the first month, less than a quarter of the number needed to stay on pace for the government’s goal. So far, vaccinations are only available for frontline health workers, and in some places police officers and soldiers.

And even that initial interest might be waning. India’s vaccine scheme relies on a mobile phone app that schedules vaccination appointments. On the first day doses were administered, Jan. 16, some 191,000 people showed up. But four weeks later, when those people were summoned for the second dose, only only 4% returned.

A. Valsala, a community health worker in the southern city of Kollam who spent months fighting COVID-19 door-to-door, skipped her appointment to get her first dose of the vaccine after a hectic day on Feb. 12. “I don’t feel the need to rush because the worst is over,” she says. “So there is a sense that it is okay to wait and watch since there are concerns about how these vaccines were developed so fast.”

A. Valsala’s comments point to a troubling trend—one reflected in TIME’s interviews with health workers across India. A combination of waning COVID-19 cases nationwide, questions over the efficacy of one of the two vaccines currently authorized for use in the country and complacency are resulting in growing hesitancy to get vaccinated.

“There is a reduced perception of threat with regard to the virus,” says Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, a New Delhi-based epidemiologist. “Had the same vaccines been available during the peak of the pandemic in September and October, the uptake would have been different.”

A troubling sign for the rest of the world

Public health experts are now concerned that the sluggish start could impact the subsequent phases of the vaccination drive, especially when the vaccination scheme is widened next month to include older people and those with preexisting conditions.

“In India, people have an inherent trust in doctors,” says Dr. Smisha Agarwal, Research Director at the Johns Hopkins Global mHealth Initiative. “So when [doctors] don’t turn up to get vaccines, it reaffirms any doubts that the general public might have.”

In an effort to accelerate the vaccination drive, the government started walk-in vaccinations as opposed to allowing only those scheduled for the day to get the shots. It also set up new vaccination centers across the country.

For now, India might be an outlier: a country with a surfeit of vaccines with few takers. But its experience shows that, while the first challenge is stocking up on vaccine supplies, convincing people to take them can be its own huge task. It might be a portent for the rest of the world as the number of COVID-19 cases decline globally and vaccines become more widely available, warns Dr. Paul Griffin, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

It’s easy to be complacent about getting a vaccine when cases are declining,Griffin says, “but now, when the trajectory looks favorable, is the right time to step back and realize that this will be our reality for a long time if we don’t speed up the vaccinations at this moment.”

How India fell behind on vaccinations

Despite being well-positioned, India’s vaccination drive got off to a rough start. The hasty approval of the country’s homegrown vaccine, Covaxin, with little data available while Phase 3 trials were still underway (those remain ongoing) drew criticism from health workers and scientists. The mainstay of India’s vaccination scheme is Covishield, the Indian variant of the vaccine developed by University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, which has been approved by regulators in the U.K., the E.U. and elsewhere. However, Covaxin is the only vaccine on offer in some vaccination centers in urban areas and health workers don’t get to choose which jab they receive.

“Covaxin might be efficacious but what guides me is data,” says Dr. Nirmalya Mohapatra at the Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in New Delhi, where only Covaxin is available. “We also want vaccines faster because we have seen deaths because of this disease but that doesn’t mean we should cut corners with the data.” Mohapatra has refused to take Covaxin until more data is available.

But even for Covishield, there aren’t as many takers as expected. In the western city of Nagpur, fewer than 36% of those scheduled to take the vaccine turned up Feb. 11, as per a Times of India report. In the north, the city of Chandigarh is planning to set up counselling centres to dispel fearsabout the vaccines. In a hospital in the southern city of Thrissur, Dr. Pradeep Gopalakrishnan was the last one to get the vaccine on the morning of Feb. 8. “No one came in after me, so around 69 doses set aside for the day remained unused,” he says.

Experts say the lack of enthusiasm could also be attributed to a decline in cases. India’s daily case average has dropped to less than 12,000—down from more than 90,000 in September. At the peak of the pandemic, health care systems were overwhelmed, with shortages of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders being reported across the country. India’s official COVID-19 tally, now at nearly 11 million, surged to No. 2 in the world, behind the U.S (where it remains to this day).

In a Feb. 4 press conference, the Indian Council of Medical Research said that more than 20% of subjects over age 18 from across the country tested in late December and early January had antibodies for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, meaning they likely had the disease and recovered. Similar studies in Mumbai and Delhi showed even higher levels of antibodies—up to 56%, according to Delhi’s health minister. Several health workers interviewed by TIME said they contracted COVID-19, and were less concerned about getting the vaccine immediately because they believe they have immunity.

But health experts warn India is far from herd immunity. And many worry that people not taking vaccines seriously might not bode well for India, given that other countries’ later waves of COVID-19 were even more severe than those early in the pandemic. Already, Maharashtra, the worst-hit state in the country, has seen a COVID-19 spike in recent days, with daily casesabove 5,000 on Feb. 18 for the first in two and a half months

‘The worst is not over yet’

On a global level too, the tendency to let the guard down might hamper efforts to bring the pandemic under control. Experts say vaccination is necessary not only to get long-term immunity but to also reduce the potential for new mutations, which are largely behind recent surges in cases in the U.K and Brazil.

“High vaccination coverage rate reduces the potential for new variants,” says Griffin of the University of Queensland. “The more cases we have in circulation, the more chances there are of generating mutations that confer some kind of benefit to the virus.”

Even in countries like the U.S. and the U.K., where vaccination started during a surge in cases, there is a risk that people lose enthusiasm once cases decline. Experts emphasize the need for better communication with the public to ensure that vaccination drives don’t slow down with COVID-19 case counts.

“There isn’t any time to wait because the worst is not over yet,” says Agarwal of Johns Hopkins. “Despite the fatigue, ramping up the vaccination is the only and best weapon we have against what might otherwise be a very long winter.”

Source: India’s Vaccine Rollout Stumbles as COVID-19 Cases Decline. That’s Bad News for the Rest of the World

American Life Expectancy Dropped By A Full Year In The First Half Of 2020

Telling. Haven’t seen any comparative Canadian data but likely a similar but smaller effect:

The average U.S. life expectancy dropped by a year in the first half of 2020, according to a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Life expectancy at birth for the total U.S. population was 77.8 years – a decline of 1 year from 78.8 in 2019. For males, the life expectancy at birth was 75.1 – a decline of 1.2 years from 2019. For females, life expectancy declined to 80.5 years, a 0.9 year decrease from 2019.

Deaths from COVID-19 are the main factor in the overall drop in U.S. life expectancy between January and June 2020, the CDC says. But it’s not the only one: a surge in drug overdose deaths are a part of the decline, too.

“If you’ll recall, in recent pre-pandemic years there were slight drops in life expectancy due in part to the rise in overdose deaths,” explains NCHC spokesperson Jeff Lancashire in an email to NPR. “So they are likely contributing here as well but we don’t know to what degree. COVID-19 is responsible for an estimated 2/3 of all excess deaths in 2020, and excess deaths are driving the decline.”

The group that suffered the largest decline was non-Hispanic Black males, whose life expectancy dropped by 3 years. Hispanic males also saw a large decrease in life expectancy, with a decline of 2.4 years. Non-Hispanic Black females saw a life expectancy decline of 2.3 years, and Hispanic females faced a decline of 1.1 years.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Black and Latino Americans have died from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates.

The life expectancy decline was less pronounced among non-Hispanic whites: males in that group had a decline of life expectancy of 0.8 year, while for white females the decline was 0.7 year.

Women tend to live longer than men, and in the first half of 2020, that margin grew: the difference in their life expectancy widened to 5.4 years, from 5.1 in 2019.

The report estimated life expectancy in the U.S. based on provisional death counts for January to June 2020. Because the NCHS wanted to assess the effects of 2020’s increase in deaths, for the first time it published its life expectancy tables based on provisional death certificate data, rather than final counts.

Its authors point out a few limitations in these estimates. One is that the data is from the first six months of 2020 – so it does not reflect the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is also seasonality in death patterns, with more deaths generally happening in winter than summer. This half-year data does not account for that.

Another limitation is that the COVID-19 pandemic struck different parts of the U.S. at different times in the year. The areas most affected in the first half of 2020 are more urban and have different demographics than the areas hit hard by the virus later in the year.

As a result, the authors write, “life expectancy at birth for the first half of 2020 may be underestimated since the populations more severely affected, Hispanic and non-Hispanic black populations, are more likely to live in urban areas.”

The report parallels the findings published last month by researchers at the University of Southern California and Princeton University, which found that the deaths caused by COVID-19 have reduced overall life expectancy by 1.13 years.

In the U.S., more than 488,000 people have died from COVID-19. The latest estimates from the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation predict 614,503 U.S. deaths by June 1.

Source: American Life Expectancy Dropped By A Full Year In The First Half Of 2020

To Understand This Era, You Need to Think in Systems

Good interview and insights by Tufekci that applies in so many areas, including racism and discrimination:

As a million media theorists have argued, in a few short decades (or, at most, centuries) we’ve moved from information scarcity, the problem that defined most of human history, to information abundance, the problem that defines our present. We know too much, and it’s paralyzing. The people worth following right now are those who seem able to find the signal in the noise. Few have a better track record of that in recent years than Zeynep Tufekci.

As my colleague Ben Smith wrote in an August profile, Tufekci has “made a habit of being right on the big things.” She saw the threat of the coronavirus early and clearly. She saw that the public health community was ignoring the evidence on masking, and raised the alarm persuasively enough that she tipped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention toward new, lifesaving guidance. Before Tufekci was being prescient about the coronavirus, she was being prescient about disinformation online, about the way social media was changing political organizing, about the rising threat of authoritarianism in America.

So I asked Tufekci — who is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, as well as a columnist at The Atlantic and a contributor to New York Times Opinion — to come on “The Ezra Klein Show” for a conversation about how she thinks, and what the rest of us can learn from it.

Tufekci describes herself as a “systems thinker.” She tries to learn about systems, and think about how they interact with one another. For instance, she studied authoritarian systems, and one rule for understanding them is that “you want to look at what they do and not what they say,” she said. So when China, after downplaying the severity of the virus early on, locked down Wuhan, she took it seriously.

“If a country like China is closing down a city of 11 million,” she told me, “this is a big deal. It is spreading, it is deadly, and we’re going to get hit.” Even then, many public health experts in the United States thought the Chinese were wrong, or lying, when they warned that the virus was spreading through asymptomatic transmission. But Tufekci knew that authoritarian systems tend to hide internal problems from the rest of the world. Only a true emergency would force them to change their public messaging. “There’s a principle called the principle of embarrassment,” she explained. “If a story is really embarrassing to the teller, they might be telling the truth.”

Here are a few other frameworks Tufekci told me she finds helpful:

  • Herding effects. Public health experts — including figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci who are lauded today — were slow to change guidance on disruptive measures like masking and travel bans. That led to a cascade of media failures that reflected what journalists were hearing from expert sources. One reason Tufekci was willing to challenge that consensus was she saw experts as reflecting social pressure, not just empirical data. “The players in the institution look at each other to decide what the norm is,” she said. The problem is social frameworks “have a lot of inertia to them,” because everyone is waiting for others to break the norm. That cost precious time in this crisis.
  • Thinking in exponents. The difficulty of exponential growth, as in the fable of the chessboard and the wheat, is that early phases of growth are modest and manageable, and then, seemingly all of a sudden, tip into numbers that are shocking in size — or, in this case, viral spread that is catastrophic in its scale. “My original area of study is social media,” Tufekci said, and that’s another area where the math tends to be exponential. This was, she said, a reason some in Silicon Valley were quick to see the danger of the virus. “A lot of venture capitalism, the VC world and the software people, they’re looking for that next exponential effect … so they had some intuition because of the field they were in.”
  • Population versus individual. In clinical medicine, Tufekci said, “we tend to really think about individual outcomes rather than public health and what we need at the population level.” But thinking at the population level changes the situation dramatically. For instance, a test with a high rate of false positives may be a terrible diagnostic tool for a doctor’s office. But if it could be done cheaply, and repeatedly, and at home, it could be a very useful tool for a population because it would give people a bit more information at a mass scale. Thinking in individual terms versus public health terms is, Tufekci said, why the Food and Drug Administration has been so resistant to approving rapid at-home antigen testing (though that is, at last, beginning to change).

There’s much more in our full conversation, of course, including Tufekci’s systems-level view of the Republican Party, why she thinks media coverage of the vaccines is too pessimistic, why Asian countries so decisively outperformed Western Europe and the United States in containing the coronavirus, and her favorite vegetarian Turkish food. You can listen by subscribing to “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts, or pressing play at the top of this post.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/opinion/ezra-klein-podcast-zeynep-tufecki.html?showTranscript=1

Boswell: O’Toole’s anti-cancel-culture campaign is really a defence of commemorative status quo

Good contrast between virtue signalling on historical figures versus having a more meaningful discussion on options, ranging from removal or relocation accompanied by interpretive placques:

Erin O’Toole launched his campaign for the leadership of the federal Conservatives one year ago today — on Jan. 27, 2020 — with a video message in which he positioned himself as a champion of Canadian heritage and an avowed enemy of “cancel culture”.

The video was filmed in a snowy Major’s Hill Park in downtown Ottawa, with the Parliament Buildings and a statue of Rideau Canal builder Lt.-Col. John By providing background scenery.

Shots of O’Toole walking and talking about his campaign against this evocative backdrop were interspersed with file footage of a controversial statue of Sir John A. Macdonald being hauled away from the entrance of Victoria City Hall after demands from B.C. Indigenous leaders in 2018.

“Who’s going to defend our history, our institutions,” O’Toole asks, “against attacks from cancel culture and the radical left?”

Since O’Toole’s campaign launch 12 months ago with that one-minute, 46-second video — leading up to and following his unexpected victory in the Tory leadership contest in August — the Ontario MP has repeatedly cast himself as a courageous cultural warrior (with a military pedigree, as we are constantly reminded) who is not afraid to fight those bent on “erasing our history.”

It’s become part of O’Toole’s personal brand as party leader and it’s now a central message in Conservative recruitment and fundraising strategies.

The party’s website features a “Stop Cancel Culture” pitch for donations and new members — superimposed on a photo of the recently beheaded Montreal statue of Macdonald — that echoes O’Toole’s mantra: “We can’t keep destroying our history.”

It’s time for a reality check — and a reminder that what O’Toole monolithically characterizes as “our history” is better understood in 21st-century Canada as a multitude of competing versions of the past, seen from a variety of ethnocultural, regional and other perspectives, many of which have really only begun to find expression in Canada’s landscape of commemoration.

O’Toole and his party are misusing the term “cancel culture” to stoke anger, attract followers and cash, and generally energize a reactionary campaign that could thwart a long overdue, orderly reassessment of how we commemorate history in Canada’s public spaces and honourary nomenclature.

Yes, unthinking vandals like those who knocked down the Macdonald statue in Montreal last summer, or have spray-painted graffiti on other Macdonald monuments in Kingston and elsewhere in recent years, have unwittingly given oxygen to O’Toole’s campaign.

But that’s just the extreme end of a broad spectrum of reformists who recognize that hundreds of years of embedded racism in Canadian society is quite unsurprisingly reflected in place names and monuments and other landmarks honouring the 18th– and 19th-century elites of imperial Britain and colonial Canada.

Defacers and destroyers of public monuments should be punished for their crimes, and those who may sympathize with such counterproductive attacks should direct their reformist energies to legitimate processes — at city halls, provincial legislatures, universities — to push for constructive changes to public commemoration.

Unfortunately, O’Toole has also condemned these kinds of moderate reform efforts, conflating his criticism of extremist actions with his attacks on thoughtful, informed, consultative, democratic decision-making that has also been occurring and which must be at the heart of rethinking and revitalizing our public memorials.

This is, in fact, the kind of fair and open process that is being undertaken to determine the fate of the Macdonald statue in Victoria.

The statue had been erected just a few metres from the front entrance of Victoria’s municipal headquarters in 1982 after it was gifted to the city by the B.C.-based Sir John A. Macdonald Historical Society.

To B.C. Indigenous leaders, who had to pass the statue every time they attended meetings of a city committee crafting Victoria’s reconciliation strategy, the unavoidable sight of a bronze tribute to the man they hold chiefly responsible for the cultural genocide of their peoples posed a serious obstacle to their participation in that process.

A 2018 decision by city council to remove the monument was followed by further public consultations in March 2020 about its possible relocation. Then the pandemic put the issue on pause. The statue is likely to be relocated and adorned with a history-balancing plaque once the pandemic eases and final consultations can proceed.

A similar multi-stage decision-making effort was made at Queen’s University in Kingston, where there was overwhelming support from students and faculty members — despite some well-argued dissent during an extensive consultation process — to rename John A. Macdonald Hall, the main law building on campus, out of respect for Indigenous law students.

O’Toole’s churlish reaction? “Another victim of cancel culture,” he tweeted when Queen’s announced the decision, just as he has repeatedly lambasted Victoria for what he falsely insists is “erasing history.”

In a similar case with a different outcome, the citizens of Picton, Ont., were consulted about what should happen to a Macdonald statue in the centre of that town before municipal councillors cast their decisive vote in November. The bronze tribute to Macdonald’s early law career will remain in place alongside “respectful and historically accurate messaging” to be displayed on a plaque offering a more balanced perspective on Macdonald’s legacy. Other initiatives will be undertaken to promote “anti-racist attitudes and inclusiveness of marginalized peoples.”

People of good conscience will disagree. Some communities will remove statues or names. Others will choose a different path. But local decisions for local reasons should prevail, once the public has had an informed, reasoned discussion about the challenges involved in both preserving and balancing Canada’s complicated history in our public commemorations.

Why dismiss such moderate measures as “cancel culture”? Because that’s a term that increasingly conjures negative reactions from free-speech advocates and the broader public. It typically describes a mob-like, online ostracizing of an individual that can happen to just about anyone perceived to have publicly uttered some irredeemably wrong-headed, hurtful remark — or to have committed some unforgivable act — that exposed that person’s alleged racism, misogyny, homophobia or transphobia.

If it seems odd that O’Toole and such luminaries of progressive politics as Noam Chomsky and Gloria Steinem are on the same side of a contemporary cultural debate as opponents of “cancel culture,” be reassured they’re really not.

Conservative politicians in both Canada and the U.S. have appropriated the term for their own purposes.

O’Toole has suggested on several occasions that he is aligned with the likes of Chomsky and Steinem, J.K. Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell and the other signatories of an open letter against increased “censoriousness,” “public shaming” and “illiberalism” in society, which was publishedin Harper’s Magazine last July.

They sounded an alarm about preserving space and freedom in public discourse for thoughtful dissent from absolutist stances on various social, cultural and political issues without fear of ostracization, firing and other forms of career cancellation.

Significantly, the signatories emphasized their support for “powerful protests for racial and social justice” and “wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society,” but expressed worry that certain intolerant voices on the left are pushing their “own brand of dogma or coercion — which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting.”

Canada’s Conservative leader (who typically neglects to mention Margaret Atwood and former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as Harper’ssignatories) obviously has a much different agenda than those decidedly non-Conservative individuals do — one that has no real relationship to the internet bullying that the letter-writers are campaigning against.

Yet O’Toole enjoys the supposed company of Atwood, Ignatieff et al. The public figure O’Toole wants to save from social media de-platforming — a certain booze-loving Father of Confederation who genuinely deserves great credit for overcoming linguistic, religious and geographic challenges in forging modern Canada — has been dead since 1891.

“When I launched my campaign in January and said I wanted to stand up to cancel culture and the erosion of our history, the media mocked me for that,” O’Toole said in an Aug. 1 interview.  “And now a few weeks ago … J.K. Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell, 150 prominent authors all signed a letter saying we need to fight back against cancel culture.”

What O’Toole is really doing is exploiting the “cancel culture” debate to rally opposition to anyone messing with the reputation of Macdonald and other Conservative luminaries. In effect, he’s shutting down opportunities to have civil discussions about reconsidering how we do commemoration in Canada, ill-advisedly suggesting citizens should rally around one version of “our history,” and to condemn “erasing our history,” even reasonable efforts to update, diversify and (yes, in some cases) deodorize our commemorative landscape.

Does anyone really think 19th-century slave owners who resisted abolition efforts in Britain and Upper Canada — and were relatively minor figures in Canadian history anyway — should be honoured in the names of Eastern Ontario’s Russell Township, Ottawa’s Rideau-Goulbourn municipal ward, or Vaughan Secondary School in Thornhill?

O’Toole’s interventions in the debate over statues, landmarks and placenames have focused primarily on the reputational fate of Macdonald. But his recent, unguarded remarks on 19th-century Residential Schools promoter Egerton Ryerson — in that ill-fated, leaked November video call to Ryerson University’s young Tories, when he said Residential Schools were “meant to try and provide education” to Indigenous children — were in keeping with O’Toole’s broader aim to defend Canada’s pantheon of patriarchs from adversaries whom he sees as “erasing” such figures from the country’s collective memory.

For O’Toole, this is a partisan battle. The Conservative leader wants to make sure Conservative historical figures such as Macdonald and Hector-Louis Langevin — both men key players in the Confederation story but also tarnished as authors of the Residential Schools tragedy and other racist policies of the 19th century — are held no more responsible for the sins of Canadian history than Liberal icons like Wilfrid Laurier and Pierre Trudeau.

The latter is routinely (and gleefully) mentioned by O’Toole as having been prime minister when several residential schools were opened. This was a key theme in a Facebook Live video he recorded last summer in front of the former Langevin Block in Ottawa, where O’Toole took aim at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s June 2017 renaming of the building as the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council.

“I was the only one who publicly took a stand against him, because I said if we start this trend of eliminating the history to meet his political narrative, where is it going to end?” he said in a June 30 Facebook Live video message.

“You know who opened more residential schools that Hector Langevin? Your father, Justin! … I don’t see the left demanding Trudeau’s airport be renamed in Montreal. Where do they take their attack? To Conservative icons like Langevin, like Sir John A. Macdonald statues.”

Trudeau’s renaming of Langevin Block was made unilaterally — and thus foolishly — without public consultation or transparency. That’s the kind of move, however well-intentioned, that fuels O’Toole’s torqued rhetoric.

And it’s why communities that have thoughtfully, deliberately, honestly examined the darker chapters of Canadian history are providing a good model for reimagining our commemorative landscape — despite the Conservative leader’s campaign of resistance to change.

Randy Boswell is a Carleton University journalism professor and a former Ottawa Citizen and Postmedia News reporter.

Source: O’Toole’s anti-cancel-culture campaign is really a defence of commemorative status quo

Quebec to wait up to 90 days to give second dose of COVID-19 vaccines

The province that has the highest infection and death rates, comparable to some of the worst hit G7 countries, is taking this risky approach. This will generate some good comparative data regarding following the Pharma companies advice and not doing so. But as someone who follows the instructions on my meds, question the wisdom: 

Quebec will wait up to 90 days before giving a COVID-19 vaccine booster to people who have received a first shot, Health Minister Christian Dube said Thursday.

That delay goes far beyond the recommendations of vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna, which propose intervals of 21 and 28 days respectively, and is more than double the 42-day maximum proposed by Canada’s national vaccine advisory committee.

Dube told a news conference that the decision was made in order to vaccinate as many vulnerable people as possible and to reduce the pressure on the health system.

“In our context, this is the best strategy, because we have to contend with (having) very few vaccines, and we’re in a race against the clock,” Dube said at a news conference.

Dube said the province had discussed the decision with both vaccine manufacturers and federal public health officials. He said the latter acknowledged that the 42-day recommended maximum can be extended depending on the disease’s progression in a particular province.

He said the high rate of community transmission, hospitalizations and deaths in Quebec justified the change.

“In Quebec we don’t have the same situation as in New Brunswick or British Columbia,” he said.

Richard Masse, a senior public health adviser, said the change would allow up to 500,000 seniors who are most at risk of complications — including those in private residences and those aged 80 and up — to receive their vaccine several weeks earlier than originally thought.

He said the justification to extend the interval was based on the “experience of working with many vaccines through time,” which shows that vaccine immunity does not suddenly drop off within a month or two.

However, he said the province was carefully monitoring the efficacy of the shot and would immediately give second doses if it saw evidence of decreased immunity in certain groups, such as the elderly.

Both Masse and Dube said the province would work to shorten the interval between first and second doses once the province begins to receive larger quantities of vaccine.

Meanwhile, the province was reporting some regions of the province have few or no doses of COVID-19 vaccine remaining as the vaccination effort outpaces the speed of delivery.

Quebec says as of Thursday morning, the Gaspe region, Iles-de-la-Madeleine, Nord-du-Quebec and the James Bay Cree Nation territories are out or almost out of vaccine; the province expects new deliveries Friday or Saturday.

Four other regions had almost used up all their doses but received new supplies Tuesday.

The province reported 2,132 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and 64 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including 15 that occurred in the previous 24 hours.

One death previously attributed to COVID-19 was removed from the total after it was determined to be unrelated. Quebec has reported a total of 236,827 infections and 8,878 deaths linked to the virus.

Jean Morin, a spokesman for the Gaspe region’s health authority, said the vaccination campaign was going “exceedingly well” despite the fact nearly all the doses have been used.

Morin said there are logistical challenges to vaccinating people in the vast and thinly populated region, including having to transport people to clinics to receive their shots.

He says he expects the highest-priority groups in the region will be vaccinated by the end of January.

Source: Quebec to wait up to 90 days to give second dose of COVID-19 vaccines

Google Researcher Says She Was Fired Over Paper Highlighting Bias in A.I.

Of note:

A well-respected Google researcher said she was fired by the company after criticizing its approach to minority hiring and the biases built into today’s artificial intelligence systems.

Timnit Gebru, who was a co-leader of Google’s Ethical A.I. team, said in a tweet on Wednesday evening that she was fired because of an email she had sent a day earlier to a group that included company employees.

In the email, reviewed by The New York Times, she expressed exasperation over Google’s response to efforts by her and other employees to increase minority hiring and draw attention to bias in artificial intelligence.

“Your life starts getting worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people. You start making the other leaders upset,” the email read. “There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything.”

Her departure from Google highlights growing tension between Google’s outspoken work force and its buttoned-up senior management, while raising concerns over the company’s efforts to build fair and reliable technology. It may also have a chilling effect on both Black tech workers and researchers who have left academia in recent years for high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley.

“Her firing only indicates that scientists, activists and scholars who want to work in this field — and are Black women — are not welcome in Silicon Valley,” said Mutale Nkonde, a fellow with the Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab. “It is very disappointing.”

A Google spokesman declined to comment. In an email sent to Google employees, Jeff Dean, who oversees Google’s A.I. work, including that of Dr. Gebru and her team, called her departure “a difficult moment, especially given the important research topics she was involved in, and how deeply we care about responsible A.I. research as an org and as a company.”

After years of an anything-goes environment where employees engaged in freewheeling discussions in companywide meetings and online message boards, Google has started to crack down on workplace discourse. Many Google employees have bristled at the new restrictions and have argued that the company has broken from a tradition of transparency and free debate.

On Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board said Google had most likely violated labor law when it fired two employees who were involved in labor organizing. The federal agency said Google illegally surveilled the employees before firing them.

Google’s battles with its workers, who have spoken out in recent years about the company’s handling of sexual harassment and its work with the Defense Department and federal border agencies, have diminished its reputation as a utopia for tech workers with generous salaries, perks and workplace freedom.

Like other technology companies, Google has also faced criticism for not doing enough to resolve the lack of women and racial minorities among its ranks.

The problems of racial inequality, especially the mistreatment of Black employees at technology companies, has plagued Silicon Valley for years. Coinbase, the most valuable cryptocurrency start-up, has experienced an exodus of Black employees in the last two years over what the workers said was racist and discriminatory treatment.

Researchers worry that the people who are building artificial intelligence systems may be building their own biases into the technology. Over the past several years, several public experiments have shown that the systems often interact differently with people of color — perhaps because they are underrepresented among the developers who create those systems.

Dr. Gebru, 37, was born and raised in Ethiopia. In 2018, while a researcher at Stanford University, she helped write a paper that is widely seen as a turning point in efforts to pinpoint and remove bias in artificial intelligence. She joined Google later that year, and helped build the Ethical A.I. team.

After hiring researchers like Dr. Gebru, Google has painted itself as a company dedicated to “ethical” A.I. But it is often reluctant to publicly acknowledge flaws in its own systems.

In an interview with The Times, Dr. Gebru said her exasperation stemmed from the company’s treatment of a research paper she had written with six other researchers, four of them at Google. The paper, also reviewed by The Times, pinpointed flaws in a new breed of language technology, including a system built by Google that underpins the company’s search engine.

These systems learn the vagaries of language by analyzing enormous amounts of text, including thousands of books, Wikipedia entries and other online documents. Because this text includes biased and sometimes hateful language, the technology may end up generating biased and hateful language.

After she and the other researchers submitted the paper to an academic conference, Dr. Gebru said, a Google manager demanded that she either retract the paper from the conference or remove her name and the names of the other Google employees. She refused to do so without further discussion and, in the email sent Tuesday evening, said she would resign after an appropriate amount of time if the company could not explain why it wanted her to retract the paper and answer other concerns.

The company responded to her email, she said, by saying it could not meet her demands and that her resignation was accepted immediately. Her access to company email and other services was immediately revoked.

In his note to employees, Mr. Dean said Google respected “her decision to resign.” Mr. Dean also said that the paper did not acknowledge recent research showing ways of mitigating bias in such systems.

“It was dehumanizing,” Dr. Gebru said. “They may have reasons for shutting down our research. But what is most upsetting is that they refuse to have a discussion about why.”

Dr. Gebru’s departure from Google comes at a time when A.I. technology is playing a bigger role in nearly every facet of Google’s business. The company has hitched its future to artificial intelligence — whether with its voice-enabled digital assistant or its automated placement of advertising for marketers — as the breakthrough technology to make the next generation of services and devices smarter and more capable.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has compared the advent of artificial intelligence to that of electricity or fire, and has said that it is essential to the future of the company and computing. Earlier this year, Mr. Pichai called for greater regulation and responsible handling of artificial intelligence, arguing that society needs to balance potential harms with new opportunities.

Google has repeatedly committed to eliminating bias in its systems. The trouble, Dr. Gebru said, is that most of the people making the ultimate decisions are men. “They are not only failing to prioritize hiring more people from minority communities, they are quashing their voices,” she said.

Julien Cornebise, an honorary associate professor at University College London and a former researcher with DeepMind, a prominent A.I. lab owned by the same parent company as Google’s, was among many artificial intelligence researchers who said Dr. Gebru’s departure reflected a larger problem in the industry.

“This shows how some large tech companies only support ethics and fairness and other A.I.-for-social-good causes as long as their positive P.R. impact outweighs the extra scrutiny they bring,” he said. “Timnit is a brilliant researcher. We need more like her in our field.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/03/technology/google-researcher-timnit-gebru.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Business

Wajahat Ali: ‘Reach Out to Trump Supporters,’ They Said. I Tried.

Still better to reach out and listen.

Dialogue doesn’t have to lead to agreement but should improve understanding of the issues and perspectives if entered in good faith on all sides and a willingness to look at the evidence and facts (not “alternative facts”).

But agreed given some of the cultish aspects of Trump followers, hard to break through:

73 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. He doubled down on all his worst vices, and he was rewarded for it with 10 million more votes than he received in 2016.

The majority of people of color rejected his cruelty and vulgarity. But along with others who voted for Joe Biden, we are now being lectured by a chorus of voices including Pete Buttigieg and Ian Bremmer, to “reach out” to Trump voters and “empathize” with their pain.

This is the same advice that was given after Trump’s 2016 victory, and for nearly four years, I attempted to take it. Believe me, it’s not worth it.

The Quran asks Muslims to respond to disagreements and arguments “in a better way” and to “repel evil with good.” I tried. “You might not like me, and I might not like you, but we share the same real estate. So, here’s me reaching out across the aisle. American to American,” I said in a video message to Trump supporters published the day after the election.

I really thought it might work. Growing up, I often talked about my Islamic faith with my non-Muslim friends, and I like to think that might have helped to inoculate them from the Islamophobic propaganda and conspiracy theories that later become popular. So I assumed I could win over some Trump supporters whose frustrations and grievances had been manipulated by those intent on seeing people like me as invaders intent on replacing them.

So in late 2016, I told my speaking agency to book me for events in the states where Trump won. I wanted to talk to the people the media calls “real Americans” from the “heartland,” — which is of course America’s synonym for white people, Trump’s most fervent base. Over the next four years I gave more than a dozen talks to universities, companies and a variety of faith-based communities.

I reminded them that those who are now considered white, such as Irish Catholics, Eastern European Jews, Greeks and Italians, were once the boogeyman. I warned them that supporting white nationalism and Trump, in particular, would be self destructive, an act of self-immolation, that will neither help their families or America become great again.

And I listened. Those in the audience who supported Trump came up to me and assured me they weren’t racist. They often said they’d enjoyed the talk, if not my politics. Still, not one told me they’d wavered in their support for him. Instead, they repeated conspiracy theories and Fox News talking points about “crooked Hillary.” Others made comments like, “You’re a good, moderate Muslim. How come others aren’t like you?”

In Ohio, I spent 90 minutes on a drive to the airport with a retired Trump supporter. We were cordial to each other, we made jokes and we shared stories about our families. But neither of us changed our outlook. “They’ll never take my guns. Ever,” he told me, explaining that his Facebook feed was filled with articles about how Clinton and Democrats would kill the Second Amendment and steal his guns. Although he didn’t like some of Trump’s “tone” and comments, he didn’t believe he was a racist “in his heart.” I’m not a cardiologist, so I wasn’t qualified to challenge that.

In 2017, I was invited by the Aspen Institute — which hosts a festival known for attracting the wealthy and powerful — to discuss racism in America. At a private dinner after the event, I was introduced to a donor who I learned was a Trump supporter. As soon as I said “white privilege,” she began shooting me passive aggressive quips about the virtues of meritocracy and hard work. She recommended I read “Hillbilly Elegy” — the best-selling book that has been criticized by those living in Appalachia as glorified poverty porn promoting simplistic stereotypes about a diverse region.

I’ve even tried and failed to have productive conversations with Muslims who voted for Trump. Some love him for the tax cuts. Others listen only to Fox News, say “both sides” are the same, or believe he hasn’t bombed Muslim countries. (They’re wrong.) Many believe they are the “good immigrants,” as they chase whiteness and run away from Blackness, all the way to the suburbs. I can’t make people realize they have Black and brown skin and will never be accepted as white.

I did my part. What was my reward? Listening to Trump’s base chant, “Send her back!” in reference to Representative Ilhan Omar, a black Muslim woman, who came to America as a refugee. I saw the Republican Party transform the McCloskeys into victims, even though the wealthy St. Louis couple illegally brandished firearmsagainst peaceful BLM protesters. Their bellicosity was rewarded with a prime time slot at the Republican National Convention where they warned about “chaos” in the suburbs being invaded by people of color. Their speech would have fit well in ”The Birth of a Nation.”

We cannot help people who refuse to help themselves. Trump is an extension of their id, their culture, their values, their greed. He is their defender and savior. He is their blunt instrument. He is their destructive drug of choice.

Don’t waste your time reaching out to Trump voters like I did. Instead, invest your time organizing your community, registering new voters and supporting candidates who reflect progressive values that uplift everyone, not just those who wear MAGA hats, in local and state elections. Work also to protect Americans against lies and conspiracy theories churned out by the right wing media and political ecosystem. One step would be to continue pressuring social media giants like Twitter and Facebook to deplatform hatemongers, such as Steve Bannon, and censor disinformation. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

Or, you can just watch “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix while downing your favorite pint of ice cream and call it a day.

Just as in 2016, I don’t need Trump supporters to be humiliated to feel great again. I want them to have health insurance, decent paying jobs and security for their family. I do not want them to suffer, but I also refuse to spend any more time trying to understand and help the architects of my oppression.

I will move forward along with the majority who want progress, equality and justice for all Americans. If Trump supporters decide they want the same, they can always reach out to me. They know where to find me. Ahead of them.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/19/opinion/trump-supporters.html?surface=most-popular&fellback=false&req_id=943976581&algo=bandit-all-surfaces&imp_id=846925651&action=click&module=Most%20Popular&pgtype=Homepage

CNN, MSNBC Insiders Shudder at Idea of Hiring MAGA Mouthpieces

Of note:

If soon-to-be former Trump White House officials were hoping to snag paid talking-head roles at the major television networks, they may be in for a rude awakening.

It’s become a political ritual every four years: After each presidential election cycle, cable and broadcast news executives race to woo outgoing administration officials or top figures from the winning and losing campaigns for cushy roles as talking heads.

Not this time. With Trump’s top aides and advisers all taking their sycophancy to perilous new heights, actively participating in the outgoing president’s efforts to undermine the integrity of the vote, their utility as political pundits may have expired.

The Daily Beast spoke with executives and insiders from many of the top cable and broadcast news networks including CNN, MSNBC, CBS News, and ABC News, and most relayed the same message: Unless they retreat to the comforts of Fox News or even far-right outlets like Newsmax or One America News Network, the former Trump officials who have repeatedly lied to or denigrated reporters shouldn’t expect to land a network paycheck.

CNN, in particular, has traditionally been a safe landing spot for former top campaign officials, regardless of party affiliation. Just days after he exited Trump’s 2016 campaign team, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski landed a commentator gig at CNN, despite his at-times physically aggressive relationship with the press and the fact that he had a non-disparagement agreement preventing him from speaking freely about the president. His colleague, Trump 2016 spokesman Jason Miller, was also hired by CNN, until being canned in 2018 over allegations (which he vehemently denied) that he impregnated a woman and secretly slipped her an abortion pill.

But the post-2020 outlook for former Trump campaign and administration officials will likely not be as friendly.

“Most of us probably are hoping that we will be seeing very little of these people—unless they are willing to be more honest,” a well-placed CNN insider told The Daily Beast. “The ones that are still out there who are well-known creeps like Jason Miller and Boris Epshteyn—nobody is going to be hiring these people.”

People who work with CNN chief Jeff Zucker relayed that he has been personally offended by the frequent and vicious attacks on CNN from Trumpworld figures, who’ve flamed any and all news outlets reporting remotely negative information on the president. Throughout the Trump era, the network became increasingly emboldened in taking the fight back to a hostile administration. Aside from on-air chyrons fact-checking various Trump lies in real-time, some of the network’s top news personalities have been publicly critical of the administration, in some cases abruptly ending interviews mid-broadcast when Trump officials refuse to substantively engage with the questions, and instead launch ad hominem attacks against journalists.

CNN insiders who spoke with The Daily Beast said there would likely be internal discontent if network bosses decided to pay ex-Trump officials who’ve repeatedly denigrated the network and are now working to undermine the 2020 election on behalf of the outgoing president. There seems to be zero interest, these sources said, in trying to poach even the most visible Trump campaign and White House staffers like Hogan Gidley and Tim Murtaugh—who both have extensive comms backgrounds in D.C.—or Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, a career right-wing pundit with previous stints at Fox News and CNN.

But Zucker himself may not be a part of the network’s future for long. It’s widely known in media circles that the CNN boss is unhappy with parent company WarnerMedia’s restructuring moves, which reduced his role, and has not yet re-upped his soon-to-expire contract. It’s possible that a CNN without Zucker—who personally meets with and vets many on-air contributors—could be more receptive to some ex-Trump officials, sources cautioned.

Unlike CNN, MSNBC does not have the same extensive history of paying partisan contributors for on-air appearances, though throughout Trump’s term the network cultivated a stable of so-called “Never Trump” Republicans. Multiple network insiders said the liberal-leaning, Comcast-owned cable network is unlikely to welcome any high-profile Trump loyalists, even gratis, to share their insights into the ongoing failures of a Joe Biden presidency.

“If you’re a person who was a career government official who happened to serve the Trump administration—somebody like Mark Esper or Elliott Abrams—we might have them on,” said an MSNBC insider, “but it’s likely that if Kayleigh McEnany has a book she’s selling, she will definitely be blacklisted. The same goes for someone like Hogan Gidley.”

But it’s not as though they aren’t already trying to get back into the professional pundit class. Even as top Trump officials entertain the president’s “voter fraud” delusions, one agent told The Daily Beast, “They’re all emailing saying, ‘Can you come meet up next week?’” Fox News reported on Wednesdaythat Trump’s communications director Alyssa Farah has been interviewing TV agents, pursuing a job after her White House exit. (Farah declined to respond to The Daily Beast on the record.)

Another MSNBC insider suggested that some shows like Morning Joe would consider booking less aggressive Trump supporters like former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, currently a contributor at ABC News, “because he has had enough access to be in the room for Trump’s debate prep and get COVID, but at least he’s rooted in reality.”

Meanwhile, predictions that MSNBC’s and for that matter CNN’s ratings are likely to decline under the relative normalcy of a Biden administration might be inoperative if Trump—as seems likely—continues to exert political and cultural influence and presides over a kind of resistance shadow presidency after leaving the White House on Jan. 20.

MSNBC, for one, found a solid business model over the past four years in the relentless narrative, especially in primetime, that Trump was a malevolent force whose presidency was apt to end at any moment in impeachment.

It’s possible, said one cable-news executive, that Trump could still drive ratings even when out of office. “It remains to be seen whether that would compel people to watch obsessively every day like they’ve been doing for the last four years,” the exec said.

Some networks also now have the added concern that Trump-loving contributors could use their perch to feed inside information to anti-media activists as part of Trumpworld’s ongoing efforts to discredit any and all of his critics.

“As a news org, how do you allow someone in your news organization who could James O’Keefe you in a second?” one network executive wondered, referring to the founder of Project Veritas, a right-wing group that uses hidden-camera footage to attempt to show bias at media organizations.

Of course, lack of network interest likely won’t stop some of the most high-profile Trump White House and admin figures from ever popping up again on television.

Gidley, McEnany, Murtagh, and others already get top billing when they appear on Fox News, where they could well join former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who regularly appears on-air and has a network contributor contract. Other former administration officials like Sean Spicer have found gigs at Newsmax, while others like Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon—the federally indicted (for alleged fundraising fraud) former White House chief strategist—have expended their talking-head energies in right-wing radio and podcasting.

“Can I see Mark Meadows appearing as an analyst on MSNBC? No, but on Fox News, yeah, for sure,” one network executive remarked, singling out Trump’s pugnacious chief of staff. Another cable-news insider suggested Fox News might look to hire several MAGA officials to boost its suddenly lagging credibility with Trumpkins angry with the network for calling the election for Biden and not fully playing along with the president’s baseless voter-fraud allegations.

And for networks like CNN and MSNBC—self-styled guardians of democratic norms and civil discourse—President-elect Joe Biden’s reconciliatory Saturday evening victory speech may loom large over decisions on whether to extend an olive branch to ex-Trump henchmen and women.

“Let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again,” he implored. “To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”

“Obviously there are 71 million people who voted for the president and there should be someone that represents their views and can talk about the political landscape,” another network executive told The Daily Beast.

And the networks are already seeking workarounds for representing conservative views on their air without hiring toxic ex-Trump officials. One TV industry insider said there has already been interest from various outlets in hiring the Republican Senate candidates who lost this year, as well as other outgoing GOP members of Congress. Like former Sen. Rick Santorum—a CNN contributor who essentially acts as a the network’s pro-Trump punching bag—these outgoing conservative lawmakers would likely be expected to speak about Republican politics as well as the ravings of the soon-to-be former president and his devoted base.

But some cable-newsers are skeptical that even the most repulsive ex-Trump officials will be totally shunned from a career in punditry.

“I won’t be surprised if some of the folks who were most reviled by mainstream media, Democrats, the resistance, etc., find pretty good jobs when this is over—in the media and in Washington—because ultimately politics is transactional,” said one CNN insider. “And the impulse to punish people leaving the Trump administration will be overshadowed by the impulse to profit off the people leaving the Trump administration.”

Source: CNN, MSNBC Insiders Shudder at Idea of Hiring MAGA Mouthpieces