Author: Sean Welsh

The White of the AI

“It is a truth little acknowledged that a machine in possession of intelligence must be white.” I do appreciate a Jane Austen reference and so I read on, hoping to find a stylish argument, only to be disappointed. The very next lines of the paper by Stephen Cave & Kanta Dihal in Philosophy and Technology said this: In this paper, we problematize the often unnoticed and unremarked-upon fact that intelligent machines are predominantly conceived and portrayed as White. We argue that this Whiteness both illuminates particularities of what (Anglophone Western) society hopes for and fears from these machines, and situates these affects within long-standing ideological structures that relate race and technology. The paper is entitled “The Whiteness of AI,” and the authors explain that they will use “white” and “black” for colour and “White” and “Black” for race. They go on to argue that AI is White on the basis that images of AI have a lot of white in them. This Whiteness, the authors suggest, discourages non-Whites from getting into AI. They say their article aims to …

Standing on the Shoulders of Ogres

There is neither merit nor justice in the posthumous dishonouring of the eminent biologists Francis Galton, who coined the phrase “nature or nurture,” and Ronald Fisher, who advised that “correlation is not causation.” In a recent article in the Journal of Physical Anthropology, Adam Rutherford, author of How to Argue with a Racist, provides reasons for supporting the recent “de-naming” of Galton and Fisher by various institutions. These reasons are historically inaccurate and morally dubious. Standing on the shoulders of bastards: I wrote a paper about cancel culture, accusations of the erasure of history, on how we deal with great scientists who also held outmoded and baleful views. https://t.co/PKr1KNP3xO pic.twitter.com/gQ9u100R4M — Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) December 18, 2020 The crimes of Galton and Fisher, as vaguely framed by Rutherford, seem to be conducting research on eugenics (inventing “pseudoscience”) and making recommendations about eugenic policy. Rutherford tars Galton with the Nazi brush even though he died 32 years before Hitler came to power in 1933. He argues that eugenics was a causal factor in the emergence of …

COVID-19 Returns to New Zealand

On August 9th, headlines in London, Washington, and around the world announced that New Zealand had gone for 100 days without a single case of COVID-19 resulting from a community transmission. There had been a few imported cases discovered during the mandatory 14-day border quarantine period but these were already in isolation. Even so, laudatory headlines were tempered with notes of caution. Looking across the Tasman at the resurgence of the virus in Melbourne, officials and epidemiologists used the milestone to reiterate that people needed to be prepared for further outbreaks. Almost on cue, the streak ended after 102 days, with the discovery of a community transmission in Auckland. Within hours of the test results, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced there would be a three-day Level 3 lockdown for Auckland and the rest of New Zealand would revert to Level 2. This was later extended to 14 days. This followed the established government policy of “go hard, go early” in the face of COVID-19 outbreaks. The strategy is to eliminate COVID-19 in New Zealand. …

How New Zealand Is Beating COVID-19

Things are getting back to normal in New Zealand. In the past two months, every time I have been to my local supermarket the rules have changed. At the start of Lockdown Level 4, a two-meter spaced queue had been marked out and a long tent had been erected to accommodate it. There was a “one trolley, one person” rule, an insistence on a single “designated shopper” per household, and a ban on bringing recyclable bags into the supermarket. Contactless payment was preferred and cash was discouraged. Customers were required to maintain two meters distance from the person in front of them at the checkout. All staff wore some kind of PPE, and some wore face visors. Perspex barriers appeared at the deli counter and the checkout. There were shortages of baking products, yeast was for some reason unobtainable, customers could purchase no more than two packets of pasta or tins of tomatoes, and messages were broadcast over the Tannoy system instructing customers to shop normally. In response to the sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 …

The Case for a Mandatory COVID-19 App

COVID-19 offers governments no attractive policy options. Those in power are in a no-win situation. The choice is not between good and bad, nor even between bad and worse, but between grim and catastrophic. On one hand, there is the “butcher’s bill” of death that results from inaction or inadequate action in the face of the virus. On the other, there is the “banker’s bill” of bail-out and bankruptcy that results from quarantine measures. The “butcher’s bill” that results from delay or inaction in the face of the virus is grim. The butcher bills fortnightly. Two weeks of inaction or delay in the face of COVID-19 can kill thousands. The banker moves at a more leisurely pace, billing quarterly. Most businesses can survive without revenue for a fortnight. Fewer can survive one quarter let alone three or four without income. “Stay home: Save lives” is the message promoted by New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, the Western leader whose response to COVID-19 has been among the most successful. The secret of this success? Ardern also …

Lies, Damned Lies, and STEM Statistics

Concerns about the number of women in STEM are misplaced for three reasons. First, the definition of the “T” is STEM is narrow and arbitrary (a lie); second, the definition of the “S” in STEM is narrow, arbitrary, and flagrantly wrong (a damned lie); and, third, while the causal attribution of sexism to explain low numbers of women in STEM (narrowly defined) is undoubtedly true in particular cases, it is unconvincing as a general explanation of the relative low numbers of women in some broad fields of PhD study. Better explanations for these disparities are readily available. Victory for Women in US PhD Awards Nine Years Running In the US, women have earned more PhDs than men for the past nine years. The most recent figures are shown in Table 1. Based on the data, I have added a column labelled “Parity.” A broad field is classified as having parity if the female percentage figure is in the range 40-60. If the female percentage figure is greater than 60 it is classified as female majority. …

Brotopia—Analysis and Review

A review of Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang. Portfolio (February 2018) 320 pages.  Brotopia: Breaking up the Boy’s Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang subjects the software business to vigorous criticism. The dust jacket claims Silicon Valley is a “Brotopia” where “men hold all the cards and make all the rules.” Women are “vastly outnumbered” and face “toxic workplaces rife with discrimination and sexual harassment” where apparently “investors take meetings in hot tubs and network at sex parties.”  Her call to action is to break up the “boy’s club” and establish gender parity in software. Alas, such argument as the book offers is colourful mud-slinging on the basis of anecdotes. The book does not support its claims with any statistical or causal analysis. When such analysis is done Chang’s claims can be dismissed as lurid gossip based on harmful stereotypes. Employment Complaint Statistics in California Every year the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) publishes an annual report that gives figures on employment and housing complaints within the …

In Defence of Combat Robots

Next week in Geneva, diplomats will assemble to discuss Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). The precise definition of LAWS is contested but the Pentagon speaks of “weapons that once activated can select and engage targets without further human intervention.” Activists striving for a ban on LAWS call them ‘killer robots,’ language some find emotive but which is nevertheless useful for grabbing headlines. To illustrate, Disney/Lucasfilm’s K2SO is a ‘killer robot’ as is R2D2. In the Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, K2SO—a reprogrammed Imperial droid fighting for the Rebel Alliance—kills about a dozen Imperial Stormtroopers with a grenade, a blaster, and his bare robot hands. More pertinently, existing systems like Aegis and Patriot running in ‘auto-fire’ mode also qualify as LAWS under the Pentagon’s definition.  Unsurprisingly, nations fielding Aegis and Patriot think that banning LAWS would be premature. Some analysts have suggested that we drop the word ‘lethal’ and speak instead of non-lethal as well as lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (AWS). In what follows I will discuss AWS or ‘combat robots’ that can deter, capture, wound, or kill. A …