The Whiteness of AI

This paper focuses on the fact that AI is predominantly portrayed as white—in colour, ethnicity, or both. We first illustrate the prevalent Whiteness

The Whiteness of AI” was mentioned in an online panel following The State of AI Ethics report (October 2020) from the Montreal AI Ethics Institute. This article starts from the observation that if you search Google images for “robot” or “AI” you get predominately images of white (or blue) entities. (Go ahead and try it.) From there it moves to the tendency of “White people; and the persistent tendency of members of that group, who dominate the academy in the US and Europe, to refuse to see themselves as racialised or race as a matter of concern at all.” (p. 686)

The paper then proposes three theories about the whiteness of AI to make it strange and to challenge the myth of colour-blindness that many of us in technology related fields live in. Important reading!

Freedom Online Coalition joint statement on artificial intelligence

The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) has issued a joint statement on artificial intelligence (AI) and human rights.  While the FOC acknowledges that AI systems offer unprecedented opportunities for human development and innovation, the Coalition expresses concern over the documented and ongoing use of AI systems towards repressive and authoritarian purposes, including through facial recognition technology […]

The Freedom Online Coalition is a coalition of countries including Canada that “work closely together to coordinate their diplomatic efforts and engage with civil society and the private sector to support Internet freedom – free expression, association, assembly, and privacy online – worldwide.” It was founded in 2011 at the initiative of the Dutch.

FOC has just released Joint Statement on Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights that calls for “transparency, traceability and accountability” in the design and deployment of AI systems. They also reaffirm that “states must abide by their obligations under international human rights law to ensure that human rights are fully respected and protected.” The statement ends with a series of recommendations or “Calls to action”.

What is important about this statement is the role of the state recommended. This is not a set of vapid principles that developers should voluntarily adhere to. It calls for appropriate legislation.

States should consider how domestic legislation, regulation and policies can identify, prevent, and mitigate risks to human rights posed by the design, development and use of AI systems, and take action where appropriate. These may include national AI and data strategies, human rights codes, privacy laws, data protection measures, responsible business practices, and other measures that may protect the interests of persons or groups facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

I note that yesterday the Liberals introduced a Digital Charter Implementation Act that could significantly change the regulations around data privacy. More on that as I read about it.

Thanks to Florence for pointing this FOC statement out to me.

Why basing universities on digital platforms will lead to their demise – Infolet

I’m republishing here a blog essay originally in Italian that Domenico Fiormonte posted on Infolet that is worth reading,

Why basing universities on digital platforms will lead to their demise

By Domenico Fiormonte

(All links removed. They can be found in the original post – English Translation by Desmond Schmidt)

A group of professors from Italian universities have written an open letter on the consequences of using proprietary digital platforms in distance learning. They hope that a discussion on the future of education will begin as soon as possible and that the investments discussed in recent weeks will be used to create a public digital infrastructure for schools and universities.


Dear colleagues and students,

as you already know, since the COVID-19 emergency began, Italian schools and universities have relied on proprietary platforms and tools for distance learning (including exams), which are mostly produced by the “GAFAM” group of companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon). There are a few exceptions, such as the Politecnico di Torino, which has adopted instead its own custom-built solutions. However, on July 16, 2020 the European Court of Justice issued a very important ruling, which essentially says that US companies do not guarantee user privacy in accordance with the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). As a result, all data transfers from the EU to the United States must be regarded as non-compliant with this regulation, and are therefore illegal.

A debate on this issue is currently underway in the EU, and the European Authority has explicitly invited “institutions, offices, agencies and organizations of the European Union to avoid transfers of personal data to the United States for new procedures or when securing new contracts with service providers.” In fact the Irish Authority has explicitly banned the transfer of Facebook user data to the United States. Finally, some studies underline how the majority of commercial platforms used during the “educational emergency” (primarily G-Suite) pose serious legal problems and represent a “systematic violation of the principles of transparency.”

In this difficult situation, various organizations, including (as stated below) some university professors, are trying to help Italian schools and universities comply with the ruling. They do so in the interests not only of the institutions themselves, but also of teachers and students, who have the right to study, teach and discuss without being surveilled, profiled and catalogued. The inherent risks in outsourcing teaching to multinational companies, who can do as they please with our data, are not only cultural or economic, but also legal: anyone, in this situation, could complain to the privacy authority to the detriment of the institution for which they are working.

However, the question goes beyond our own right, or that of our students, to privacy. In the renewed COVID emergency we know that there are enormous economic interests at stake, and the digital platforms, which in recent months have increased their turnover (see the study published in October by Mediobanca), now have the power to shape the future of education around the world. An example is what is happening in Italian schools with the national “Smart Class” project, financed with EU funds by the Ministry of Education. This is a package of “integrated teaching” where Pearson contributes the content for all the subjects, Google provides the software, and the hardware is the Acer Chromebook. (Incidentally, Pearson is the second largest publisher in the world, with a turnover of more than 4.5 billion euros in 2018.) And for the schools that join, it is not possible to buy other products.

Finally, although it may seem like science fiction, in addition to stabilizing proprietary distance learning as an “offer”, there is already talk of using artificial intelligence to “support” teachers in their work.

For all these reasons, a group of professors from various Italian universities decided to take action. Our initiative is not currently aimed at presenting an immediate complaint to the data protection officer, but at avoiding it, by allowing teachers and students to create spaces for discussion and encourage them to make choices that combine their freedom of teaching with their right to study. Only if the institutional response is insufficient or absent, we will register, as a last resort, a complaint to the national privacy authority. In this case the first step will be to exploit the “flaw” opened by the EU court ruling to push the Italian privacy authority to intervene (indeed, the former President, Antonello Soro, had already done so, but received no response). The purpose of these actions is certainly not to “block” the platforms that provide distance learning and those who use them, but to push the government to finally invest in the creation of a public infrastructure based on free software for scientific communication and teaching (on the model of what is proposed here and
which is already a reality for example in France, Spain and other European countries).

As we said above, before appealing to the national authority, a preliminary stage is necessary. Everyone must write to the data protection officer (DPO) requesting some information (attached here is the facsimile of the form for teachers we have prepared). If no response is received within thirty days, or if the response is considered unsatisfactory, we can proceed with the complaint to the national authority. At that point, the conversation will change, because the complaint to the national authority can be made not only by individuals, but also by groups or associations. It is important to emphasize that, even in this avoidable scenario, the question to the data controller is not necessarily a “protest” against the institution, but an attempt to turn it into a better working and study environment for everyone, conforming to European standards.

Creating ethical AI from Indigenous perspectives | Folio

Last week KIAS, AI 4 Society and SKIPP jointly sponsored Jason Lewis presenting on “Reflections on the Indigenous Protocol & Artificial Intelligence Position Paper”.

Prof. Jason Edward Lewis led the Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence Working Group in providing a starting place for those who want to design and create AI from an ethical position that centres Indigenous perspectives. Dr. Maggie Spivey- Faulkner provided a response.

Lewis talked about the importance of creative explorations from indigenous people experimenting with AI.

The Folio has published a short story on the talk, Creating ethical AI from Indigenous perspectives. The video should be up soon.

Why Uber’s business model is doomed

Like other ridesharing companies, it made a big bet on an automated future that has failed to materialise, says Aaron Benanav, a researcher at Humboldt University

Aaron Benanav has an important opinion piece in The Guardian about Why Uber’s business model is doomed. Benanav argues that Uber and Lyft’s business model is to capture market share and then ditch the drivers they have employed for self-driving cars as they become reliable. In other words they are first disrupting the human taxi services so as to capitalize on driverless technology when it comes. Their current business is losing money as they feast on venture capital to get market share and if they can’t make the switch to driverless it is likely they go bankrupt.

This raises the question of whether we will see driverless technology good enough to oust the human drivers? I suspect that we will see it for certain geo-fenced zones where Uber and Lyft can pressure local governments to discipline the streets so as to be safe for driverless. In countries with chaotic and hard to accurately map streets (think medieval Italian towns) it may never work well enough.

All of this raises the deeper ethical issue of how driverless vehicles in particular and AI in general are being imagined and implemented. While there may be nothing unethical about driverless cars per se, there IS something unethical about a company deliberately bypassing government regulations, sucking up capital, driving out the small human taxi businesses, all in order to monopolize a market that they can then profit on by firing the drivers that got them there for driverless cars. Why is this the way AI is being commercialized rather than trying to create better public transit systems or better systems for helping people with disabilities? Who do we hold responsible for the decisions or lack of decisions that sees driverless AI technology implemented in a particularly brutal and illegal fashion. (See Benanav on the illegality of what Uber and Lyft are doing by forcing drivers to be self-employed contractors despite rulings to the contrary.)

It is this deeper set of issues around the imagination, implementation, and commercialization of AI that needs to be addressed. I imagine most developers won’t intentionally create unethical AIs, but many will create cool technologies that are commercialized by someone else in brutal and disruptive ways. Those commercializing and their financial backers (which are often all of us and our pension plans) will also feel no moral responsibility because we are just benefiting from (mostly) legal innovative businesses. Corporate social responsibility is a myth. At most corporate ethics is conceived of as a mix of public relations and legal constraints. Everything else is just fair game and the inevitable disruptions in the marketplace. Those who suffer are losers.

This then raises the issue of the ethics of anticipation. What is missing is imagination, anticipation and planning. If the corporate sector is rewarded for finding ways to use new technologies to game the system, then who is rewarded for planning for the disruption and, at a minimum, lessening the impact on the rest of us? Governments have planning units like city planning units, but in every city I’ve lived in these units are bypassed by real money from developers unless there is that rare thing – a citizen’s revolt. Look at our cities and their spread – despite all sorts of research and a history of spread, there is still very little discipline or planning to constrain the developers. In an age when government is seen as essentially untrustworthy planning departments start from a deficit of trust. Companies, entrepreneurs, innovation and yes, even disruption, are blessed with innocence as if, like children, they just do their thing and can’t be expected to anticipate the consequences or have to pick up after their play. We therefore wait for some disaster to remind everyone of the importance of planning and systems of resilience.

Now … how can teach this form of deeper ethics without sliding into political thought?

Automatic grading and how to game it

Edgenuity involves short answers graded by an algorithm, and students have already cracked it

The Verge has a story on how students are figuring out how to game automatic marking systems like Edgenuity. The story is titled, These students figured out their tests were graded by AI — and the easy way to cheat. The story describes a keyword salad approach where you just enter a list of words that the grader may be looking for. The grader doesn’t know whether what your wrote is legible or nonsense, it just looks for the right words. The students in turn get good as skimming the study materials for the keywords needed (or find lists shared by other students online.)

Perhaps we could build a tool called Edgenorance which you could feed the study materials to and it would generate the keyword list automatically. It could watch the lectures for you, do the speech recognition, then extract the relevant keywords based on the text of the question.

None of this should be surprising. Companies have been promoting algorithms that were probably word based for a while. The algorithm works if it is not understood and thus not gamed. Perhaps we will get AIs that can genuinely understand a short paragraph answer and assess it, but that will be close to an artificial general intelligence and such an AGI will change everything.

AI Dungeon

AI Dungeon, an infinitely generated text adventure powered by deep learning.

Robert told me about AI Dungeon, a text adventure system that uses GPT-2, a language model from OpenAI that got a lot of attention when it was “released” in 2019. OpenAI felt it was too good to release openly as it could be misused. Instead they released a toy version. Now they have GPT-3, about which I wrote before.

AI Dungeon allows you to choose the type of world you want to play in (fantasy, zombies …). It then generates an infinite game by basically generating responses to your input. I assume there is some memory as it repeats my name and the basic setting.

Replaying Japan 2020

Replaying Japan is an international conference dedicated to the study of Japanese video games. For the first time this year, the conference is held online and will combine various types of research contents (videos, texts, livestreams) on the theme of esport and competitive gaming in Japan.

This year the Replaying Japan conference was held online. The conference was originally going to be in Liège, Belgium at the Liège Game Lab. We were going to get to try Belgian fries and beer and learn more about the Game Lab. Alas, with the pandemic, the organizers had to pivot and organize an online conference. They did a great job using technologies like Twitch and Minecraft.

Keiji Amano, Tsugumi (Mimi) Okabe, and I had a paper on Ethics and Gaming: A Content Analysis of Annual Reports of the Japanese Game Industry presented by Prof. Amano. (To read the longer conferencer paper you need to have access to the conference materials, but they will be opening that up.) We looked at how major Japanese game companies frame ethical or CSR (corporate social responsibility) issues which is not how ethics is being discussed in the academy.

The two keynotes were both excellent in different ways. Florent Georges talked about First Steps of Japanese ESports. His talk introduced a number of important early video game competitions. 

Susana Tosca gave the closing keynote. She presented a nuanced and fascinating talk on Mediating the Promised Gameland (see video). She looked at how game tourists visit Japan and interviewed people about this phenomenon of content tourism. This was wrapped in reflections on methodology and tourism. Very interesting, though it raised some ethical issues about how we watch tourists. She was sensitive to the way that ethnographers are tourists of a sort and we need to be careful not to mock our subjects as we watch them. As someone who loves to travel and is therefore often a tourist, I’m probably sensitive on this issue.

Leaving Humanist

I just read Dr. Bethan Tovey-Walsh’s post on her blog about why she is Leaving Humanist and it raises important issues. Willard McCarty, the moderator of Humanist, a discussion list going since 1987, allowed the posting of a dubious note that made claims about anti-white racism and then refused to publish rebuttals for fear that an argument would erupt. We know about this thanks to Twitter, where Tovey-Walsh tweeted about it. I should add that her reasoning is balanced and avoids calling names. Specifically she argued that,

If Gabriel’s post is allowed to sit unchallenged, this both suggests that such content is acceptable for Humanist, and leaves list members thinking that nobody else wished to speak against it. There are, no doubt, many list members who would not feel confident in challenging a senior academic, and some of those will be people of colour; it would be immoral to leave them with the impression that nobody cares to stand up on their behalf.

I think Willard needs to make some sort of public statement or the list risks being seen as a place where potentially racist ideas go uncommented.

August 11 Update: Willard McCarty has apologized and published some of the correspondence he received, including something from Tovey-Walsh. He ends with a proposal that he not stand in the way of the concerns voiced about racism, but he proposes a condition to expanded dialogue.

I strongly suggest one condition to this expanded scope, apart from care always to respect those with whom we disagree. That condition is relevance to digital humanities as a subject of enquiry. The connection between subject and society is, to paraphrase Kathy Harris (below), that algorithms are not pure, timelessly ideal, culturally neutral expressions but are as we are.

OSS advise on how to sabotage organizations or conferences

On Twitter someone posted a link to a 1944 OSS Simple Sabotage Field Manual. This includes simple, but brilliant advice on how to sabotage organizations or conferences.

This sounds a lot like what we all do when we academics normally do as a matter of principle. I particularly like the advice to “Make ‘speeches.'” I imagine many will see themselves in their less cooperative moments in this list of actions or their committee meetings.

The OSS (Office of Strategic Services) was the US office that turned into the CIA.