Artificial Stupidity

Big change at Code for America; Sexism and voice assistants; and much more.


  • This is civic tech: On the eve of next week’s Code for America Summit, founder Jen Pahlka is announcing that after ten years of experimentation, learning, growth and impact, she is preparing to step aside as CFA’s founding executive director to make way for a new leader who can grow the organization to a much greater scale. Pahlka notes that she is not leaving CFA, but plans to play an active board role, advising its new leader on strategy, assisting on fundraising and marketing, and also writing a book about the potential and value of the work of fixing government. This is exciting news! Godspeed Jen!

  • Julia Keseru of The Engine Room builds on the work we’ve done looking at failed civic tech projects, arguing that it’s time we need to do a better job “managing our digital waste.” Borrowing from the world of analog waste management, she suggests three options for civic tech to manage our digital waste more responsibly:
    1. Reduce: Dramatically decreasing both the number of new platforms, websites and technical solutions we create and the money we invest in tech innovation.
    2. Reuse: Creating structures that incentivise reuse over creation and conducting research to understand what’s required to effectively reuse existing solutions.
    3. Recycle: Investing in ways to help civil society recycle bits and pieces of already existing solutions – across contexts and communities – even when entire solutions cannot be replicated.  

  • Microsoft and the Clooney Foundation for Justice have teamed up to create TrialWatch, an app designed to help human rights advocates more easily monitor legal proceedings around the world.

  • This is not civic tech: The Department of Homeland Security is collecting the social media handles of 15 million travelers a year (including Americans), and as a major new report from the Brennan Center shows, the analysis of the resulting data not only threatens privacy and free speech, it is also subject to huge errors of interpretation. Most critically, natural language processing generally only has a 70-75% accuracy rate, and algorithmic tone and sentiment analysis is far far worse. To wit:

    A recent study concluded that it could make accurate predictions of political ideology based on users’ Twitter posts only 27 percent of the time, observing that the predictive exercise was “harder and more nuanced than previously reported.” Accuracy plummets even further when the speech being analyzed is not standard English. Indeed, even English speakers using nonstandard dialects or lingo may be misidentified by automated tools as speaking in a different language. One tool flagged posts in English by black and Hispanic users — like “Bored af den my phone finna die!!!!” (which can be loosely translated as “I’m bored as f*** and then my phone is going to die”) — as Danish with 99.9 percent confidence.
  • Virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes, says a new report from Unesco, Megan Specia reports for The New York Times. “Obedient and obliging machines that pretend to be women are entering our homes, cars and offices,” Saniye Gulser Corat, Unesco’s director for gender equality, said in a statement. “The world needs to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether A.I. technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them.” The report adds, ““Siri’s ‘female’ obsequiousness — and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women — provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products.”

  • Here’s an image from the report, showing how voice assistants respond to verbal sexual harassment.

  • Life in Bezosistan: Trillionaire space nut and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos refused to face an organized group of employees at his annual stockholders meeting who wanted him to address their call for more company action about climate change, Brian Merchant reports for Gizmodo. Bezos wants to build space colonies to escape Earth’s energy limits, don’t forget.

  • Amazon is working on a wrist-worn device that would be able to read emotions based on the sound of the human voice, and make recommendations on how the wearer could interact more effectively with others, Matt Day reports for Bloomberg. The project, which may never make it to market (one can hope), codenamed Dylan. This is not an homage to the songwriter, who once wrote, “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”

  • Amazon is on the verge of winning the rights to the .amazon internet domain, after a seven-year battle with the eight Latin American countries that are part of the Amazon river basin, Anthony Boadle of Reuters reports. ICANN is on the verge of the designation, pending a 30-day period of public comment. Most companies that applied for their brand top-level-domain, like .google or .ibm, have bothered launching sites on those URLs.

  • The good folks at the Mozilla Foundation have put together a helpful reading list about the misinformation problem around vaccines (which the World Health Organization has called one of the top 10 health problems facing the world at present).

  • Tech and politics: Flippable, which arose after the 2016 election to channel grassroots Democratic activism to neglected state legislative races, is merging with Swing Left, which works to move that same energy around Congressional races, founder Catherine Vaughan posts on Medium.

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told reporters covering a House Oversight Committee hearing on the use of facial recognition technology that in light of “the political reality that there is a global rise in authoritarianism and fascism….I don’t want to see an authoritarian surveillance state, whether it’s run by a government or whether it’s run by five corporations,” Davey Alba reports for BuzzFeedNews. Interestingly, conservatives on the committee also express concerns about facial recognition, with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) declaring that figuring out how to handle its growing use “hit the sweet spot that brings progressives and conservatives together.”

  • Life in Facebookistan: Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) writes in USA Today that Facebook is “a digital drug” and “addiction is what Mark Zuckerberg is selling.”

  • E-advocacy organization Avaaz has reported more than 500 suspect Facebook pages and groups with millions of followers spreading fake news and hate speech across Europe, Emma Graham-Harrison reports for The Guardian. Many of the accounts are in the process of being taken down.

  • A new study from Consumer Reports finds that out of 94,000 vehicles, one out of six Uber and Lyft cars in New York and Seattle have open safety recalls. “Uber and Lyft are letting down their customers and jeopardizing their trust,” says William Wallace, a CR safety policy advocate. “Uber’s website says people can ‘ride with confidence,’ while Lyft promises ‘peace of mind,’ yet both companies fail to ensure that rideshare cars are free from safety defects that could put passengers at risk.” Some of the vehicles have deadly Takata airbags that could hurt or kill riders as well as unfixed defects that could cause engines to lose power entirely. (Full disclosure: I serve on the CR board.)

  • Deep thoughts: Might email, an open protocol that anyone can connect to, be the basis for rejuvenating the open web in an age dominated by platforms? That’s the intriguing thesis of Aaron Travis of UX Collective, inspired, he notes, by hearing Anil Dash talk about the State of the Internet 2019 here at Civic Hall a few months ago.

  • Might personal smart-phones supporting a decentralized network of services be the path to a better future? That’s the argument Ross Schulman makes in this essay on his “Think Deeply and Rebuild Things” site.

  • End times: Now AI can make a talking head from a few still photos! Click here that technique applied to the Mona Lisa.

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