Why a Philosophy Professor is Leading an AI program at Stanford

Artificial intelligence is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it’s always being applied appropriately. There have been rising concerns about AI’s performance and its potential for only worsening — or introducing — social issues.

It all comes down to figuring out how to use AI in an ethical manner. Now, it seems some universities are taking on that responsibility themselves.

On Monday, Stanford University announced the launch of a new program dedicated to guiding and developing human-centered artificial tech and applications.

The Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) will incorporate a focus on multidisciplinary collaboration. This is important because the lack of diversity in AI is glaringly apparent. That includes the lack of racial diversity leading to algorithms that do things like mistake Black people for gorillas.

It also pushes back against the notion that tech should exist separate from everything else. When programs are developed, people outside of the tech world aren’t always brought in to consult.

Tech impacts our social lives and it can impact health, laws, and more. That means the future needs to see people at the table who may not be in the tech field itself, but understand how its application impacts other areas.

“Now is our opportunity to shape that future by putting humanists and social scientists alongside people who are developing artificial intelligence,” Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said.

Stanford will partner with industry, governments, and non-governmental organizations who “share the goal of a better future for humanity through AI.”

Stanford’s new institute shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering they recently partnered with other top universities to launch the Public Interest Technology Universities Network.

That program aims to develop curriculum, research agendas, and experiential learning programs so students are trained to better understand tech. In addition, the program is devoted to teaching students to understand where tech intersects with other issues, like criminal justice, civil rights, and more.

There’s no guarantee these programs will lead to radical results, but it is still a start. Hopefully, they will prompt important conversations about tech’s role in people’s lives.

Stanford’s HAI will be led by John Etchemendy, a professor of philosophy and former Stanford University provost, and Fei-Fei Li, a professor of computer science and former director of the Stanford AI Lab.

 

ICE Has Access To a Huge License-Plate Database That It Uses To Track Immigrants, ACLU Reveals

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released documents showing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has access to a huge license-plate database that it uses to track and target immigrants.

The ACLU of Northern California obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that revealed ICE’s use of a automated license plate reader (ALPR) database operated by a company called Vigilant Solutions.

ALPR systems not only pass on license plate information, but they include time, date, and location from thousands of cameras. The ACLU previously outlined how ALPRs record Americans’ movements and called them an emerging form of mass surveillance.

More than 9,200 ICE employees can use the database, which collects upwards of a hundred million license plates each month. According to the ACLU, ICE itself has over 5 billion data points collected by private businesses — such as insurance companies and parking lots. But, ICE can gain access to 1.5 billion more records collected by law enforcement agencies.

License plates are collected from cities across the United States, including New York and Los Angeles, even though both of those cities have laws limiting police cooperation with ICE, as reported by TechCrunch. One email said law enforcement sharing data makes the system “as easy as adding a friend on your favorite social media platform.”

A report published in the documents said more than 80 law enforcement agencies share license plate locations of residents with ICE. That includes sanctuary cities like Union City, California. The ACLU said, “We do not know whether police gave notice to their residents before agreeing to share years of intimate details with ICE.”

This isn’t the first time people have become aware of ICE using a license plate database. That was originally revealed in early 2018, as reported by The Verge. However, these documents show just how expansive ICE’s tracking is and who else is helping them.

“ICE has long embraced technology to target immigrants,”the ACLU said. “Now it’s taking surveillance to an unprecedented level to target vulnerable communities — and sweeping up everyone else in the process.”

As expected, there aren’t really any privacy protections in place. ICE does have Privacy Guidelines but, as noted by the ACLU, it “contains gaping holes” that allow ICE to “infringe on civil liberties.”

The database gives ICE access to up to five years of driver information. The  ACLU argues that “storing that much location information is both a significant invasion of privacy and entirely unnecessary to find someone’s current location.”

In addition, there are no privacy rules stopping ICE from going after other individuals, increasing the likelihood of “baseless stops and false arrests,” according to the ACLU.

Vasudha Talla, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, told TechCrunch, “The public has a right to know when a government agency — especially an immoral and rogue agency such as ICE — is exploiting a mass surveillance database that is a threat to the privacy and safety of drivers across the United States.”

The ACLU is calling for an end of the database system and urging local governments to take immediate action in order to protect their residents.

Spotify Accuses Apple of Stifling Competition in Antitrust Complaint

This morning, Spotify announced it has filed a complaint against Apple with the European Union’s antitrust branch, accusing Apple of stifling competition through its “Apple tax.”

A spokesman for the European Commission, the EU’s antitrust arm, confirmed with The Wall Street Journal that they’d received a Spotify complaint they are “assessing under our standard procedures.”

Spotify’s main complaint centers around two things. First, the company alleges that Apple is restricting music-streaming services in competition with its own Apple Music. In addition, Spotify has beef with Apple’s notorious 30 percent “tax.”

Apple takes a 30 percent cut from any subscriptions that are made via the App Store. In the past, this has led to tension with companies like Netflix, who removed the iTunes billing option in December 2018.

“In recent years, Apple has introduced rules to the app store that purposefully limit choice and stifle innovation at the expense of the user experience,” Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek’s said in Spotify’s announcement, “essentially acting as both a player and referee to deliberately disadvantage other app developers.”

Spotify also launched a website outlining Apple’s unfair behavior and a YouTube video called “Time to Play Fair” explaining the company’s position.

In its complaint, Spotify alleges that this “tax” makes it so its pricing cannot remain competitive. To make a profit, Spotify and other streaming services have to “artificially inflate” prices “well above the price of Apple Music.” If Spotify tries to skip paying, Apple applies “a series of technical and experience-limiting restrictions.”

According to Ek, other apps like Uber and Deliveroo — notably, apps who are not in competition with any Apple services — aren’t subject to the tax.

This announcement comes only a day after Spotify released a new bundle with Hulu. Some wondered if the $9.99 bundle was as a pre-emptive move from the two platforms because there are rumors that Apple will reveal its video service later this month and bundle that with Apple Music.

There’s currently no way to know what will happen with Spotify’s complaint. However, the European Union has cracked down on big tech and anti-competitive behavior over the past few years. In 2018, Google was fined a record $5 million for antitrust violations.

Considering that, Spotify’s campaign may actually have an impact.

Big Tech Companies Need Antitrust Rules, UK Government Report Finds

A new U.K. government report has found that big tech companies — like Amazon, Google, and Facebook — are in need of some serious new antitrust rules.

Commissioned by Britain’s finance minister, the Digital Competition Expert Panel’s report pushes back against the idea that digital platforms produce “natural monopolies.”

Instead, the report points out how big tech companies are stifling competition and innovation, calling for the U.K.’s laws to be “updated for the digital age” because competition among digital platforms is “not only necessary but also possible.”

Jason Furman, former chief economic advisor to Barack Obama, chaired the group behind the report. He told CNBC, “The digital sector has created substantial benefits but these have come at the cost of increasing dominance of the few companies which is limiting competition and consumer choice and innovation.”

Take some of the recent mergers in big tech as an example — Amazon now owns WholeFoods plus Facebook acquired both Instagram and Whatsapp.

The report specifically notes the anti-competitive nature of these mergers, stating, “It appears that some of these acquisitions have been of platforms and other companies that could have provided much-needed competition in these concentrated markets.”

The report says a new “digital market unit” should be established to put pro-competition rules in place and have the power to enforce them. It also calls for data mobility, allowing people to switch between platforms with ease. That means big companies would have to share users’ personal data with competitors.

“These pro-competition tools offer a better, more targeted, more pro-business and pro-consumer solution to fostering competition in digital markets than one based upon changing antitrust law to drive breakup or structural separation of dominant businesses,” the report said.

This report is coming on the back of a wave of people across Europe looking at big tech companies with a new level of scrutiny. Last year, the European Commission hit Google with a record $5 million fine for antitrust violations, as reported by The Verge. Last week, France introduced a 3 percent digital tax specifically aimed at big tech.

The report also proposed a “code of conduct” for companies, which worries some. TechUK, which represents more than 900 tech companies, said it would need more details on that kind of code.

“Bad regulation can be as big a barrier to competition and innovation as monopolistic activities,” TechUk’s CEO Julian David said, according to Reuters. “The UK must remain a welcoming place for digital business from around the world, and ensure that the UK competition and wider regulatory framework is not in conflict with the other leading digital economics with which we must compete.”

Watching European countries develop regulations is important, because they serve as inspiration for the United States. The celebrated California Consumer Protection Act is modeled off the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, for example.

As Congress begins looking into a federal data privacy law, what happens around the world can definitely impact the laws made here.

Children’s Online Privacy Is at Risk Every Day. These Lawmakers Want To Do Something About it

This week, two senators proposed an update to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that, if passed, will significantly strengthen the protection of kids online.

The bill was introduced as a bipartisan effort by Sens. Ed Markey (D-WA) and Josh Hawley (R-MO). One aim of the bill is to introduce an “eraser button” so parents can remove their kids’ data from a service. If a parent uses it, a platform could not discontinue service to the user.

For example, if a parent had their kids’ data removed from Facebook or TikTok, the platform couldn’t try to force the kid off.

Currently, COPPA makes it so companies can’t collect personal data or location information from kids under the age of 13 without explicit parental consent. The bill strengthens this protection by extending it to kids up to the age of 15. For kids ages 13 to 15, companies will now require their consent in order to collect any data.

“Big tech companies know too much about our kids, and even as parents, we know too little about what they are doing with our kids’ personal data. It’s time to hold them accountable,” Hawley said in a statement, according to The Hill. “Congress needs to get serious about keeping our children’s information safe, and it begins with safeguarding their digital footprint online.”

In addition, the bill wants any internet-connected devices aimed at kids to meet “robust cyber security standards.” This is due to growing concerns around smart toys potentially spying on kids.

In 2017, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned parents that “internet-connected toys could present privacy and contact concerns for children.”

The bill also wants to ban any advertising targeted at kids, and it will establish a Youth Privacy and Marketing Division at the Federal Trade Commission.

Privacy concerns regarding kids have been steadily mounting. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission hit TikTok’s parent company with a $5.7 million fine for violating COPPA. According to the FTC, TikTok didn’t get parental permission before collecting personal data from kids under 13.

“In the 21st century, we need to pass bipartisan and bicameral COPPA 2.0 legislation that puts children’s well-being at the top of Congress’s priority list,” Hawley said, according to The Hill. “If we can agree on anything, it should be that children deserve strong and effective protections online.”

 

Virtual Assistants Can Reinforce Sexist Stereotypes. These Researchers Want To Change That

If you have virtual assistance, chances are high that it’s been gendered. From leading assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana, virtual assistants generally default to a female voice, and that’s a problem.

Although it may seem trivial, tech can reinforce old stereotypes, even as it innovates. That includes stereotypes of women who only exist to follow orders and please others. In some ways, virtual assistants are like having the ideal stereotype of a secretary sitting on your dresser.

To combat this trend, a Denmark-based team recently presented a new voice at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals in Texas, as reported by Reuters. Unlike leading voices, this one is designed to be neither male nor female.

Everybody, meet Q.

“Hi, I’m Q, the world’s first genderless voice assistant,” Q says for an introduction. “I’m created for a future where we are no longer defined by gender, but rather how we define ourselves.”

Q is a joint venture between Vice Media’s Virtue creative agency and Copenhagen Pride. For the project, the team purposefully recorded 22 transgender and non-binary people as the voice’s basis, according to Reuters.

“Technology companies often choose to gender technology believing it will make people more comfortable adopting it,” Q’s website reads. “Unfortunately this reinforces a binary perception of gender, and perpetuates stereotypes that many have fought hard to progress.”

By creating a voice meant to be genderless, and including both trans and non-binary people in the process, the team behind Q has taken one big step towards tackling gender biases in tech.

Before launch, Q was tested by more than 4,000 volunteers, Reuters reported. About half of them said they couldn’t decipher by gender for the voice and, for the half who tried, they were evenly split between guessing if it was male or female.

“We aim to get the attention of leading technological companies that work with AI to ensure they are aware that a gender binary normativity excludes many people and to inspire them by showing how easy it would actually be to recognize that more than two genders exist when developing artificial intelligence,” Thomas Rasmussen, head of communication for Copenhagen Pride said, according to CNBC.

Right now, people can only interact with Q on a website. Hopefully, it will lead other companies to start including genderless voices in their digital assistance.

LaTesha Blair Named CIO of Law Firm Burr & Forman LLP

Law firm, Burr & Forman LLP has named LaTesha Blair its new Chief Information Officer to oversee the company’s tech services and resources.

She will continue to drive innovation and assess firm-wide technology strategy to ensure security and efficiency.

“LaTesha’s leadership and vision will guide Burr & Forman’s next phase of development in the rapidly changing technology arena,” said Burr & Forman CEO Ed Christian in a press release.  “Our goal is to improve service and functionality for not only our employees but also our clients.”

Blair joins the firm from McNair Law Firm in Columbia, South Carolina where she served as the director of information technology. She has over 20 years of technology experience including IT roles at Lexington Medical Center and the South Carolina Department of Commerce.

Blair earned her undergraduate degree in management information systems from the University of Charlotte Belk College of Business.

Techstars’ Startup Weekend in New York Will Focus On Diverse Talent

Accelerator program Techstars is bringing underrepresented tech talent together for a weekend of brainstorming and prototyping in New York City.

Techstars Startup Weekend is a 54-hour long event for participants of diverse backgrounds to form teams and pitch new business ideas to a panel of judges from the startup and VC industry.

Startup Weekend organizers are using the weekend to create a space for women and minority innovators to access resources in the startup world. Through targeting this underrepresented audience, Techstars hopes to address the gaps in funding and opportunity in tech.

“Once we bring everyone together and they get to work, we have no doubt that the outcome will be a display of capable and qualified entrepreneurs of all types– with ideas that can shape tomorrow,” they wrote on the event site.

Last month, the accelerator announced its partnership with digitalundivided—an entrepreneurship incubator for Black and Latinx women founders—to increase support for women entrepreneurs.

Digitalundivided’s groundbreaking ProjectDiane2018 report shows Black women-led startups have raised $289 million in venture capital funding since 2009, while Latinx-owned startups led by women raised a total of $1.36 billion in venture capital funding.

This accounts for .0006 percent and 0.32 percent of the $424.7 billion in total venture funding raised since 2009.

Startup Weekend will feature speakers like Jason Leder, Head of VC & Startup Partnerships at Google and Marcia Mitchell Partner Operations Manager at ff Venture Capital. Participants will also work alongside mentors to help develop ideas.

First place teams will have an opportunity to be interviewed for a series on Entrepreneur.com.

Get full event details and purchase a ticket to claim your spot.

How Stripe’s Valerie Williams Thinks About Diversity and Inclusion

The pipeline problem in tech is a myth, and while the issue of diversity and inclusion garners plenty of attention, tech giants—and the industry overall—make small strides towards progress as reports show modest or stalled growth.

D&I tech executive Valerie Williams says, “It’s not that hard.”

“When people talk about the pipeline problem, they don’t look at the nontechnical roles within the industry,” said Williams, the current global head of diversity and inclusion of Stripe, an online payment software company. “It seems to be a cop out when they say they can’t find talented people of color.”

A study released last year by Glassdoor found nearly half (43 percent) of open roles at tech companies are non-technical. However, countless diversity reports reveal tech companies are still struggling to find and retain diverse talent.  

Williams, who has a degree in engineering from Georgia Tech and an MBA from Emory, has long been a champion of diversity and inclusion. She began her career at Hewlett-Packard (HP) where she worked in supply chain and helped minority business owners acquire contracts before redirecting her career towards her true passion—investing in human capital.

“With my work in supplier diversity, I found myself spending a lot of time with the people who didn’t get those contracts awarded to them—like women and people of color,” she recalled. “I wanted to help those who had been locked outside of the industry.”

In her current role at Stripe, Williams thinks about diversity and inclusion on a global scale. While some of her efforts focus on internal diversity initiatives like recruiting and employee resource groups, her external diversity projects include leveraging Stripe’s Atlas program to create more underrepresented entrepreneurs worldwide.

“Global economic access for underrepresented communities is the right move for the discussion in the industry when you think about long term impact,” she said on building Atlas–a platform making it easy for entrepreneurs everywhere to start an online business. “We can give people the tools to create wealth for themselves.”

Williams consulted on technical recruiting at Google and created talent search strategies at Russell Reynolds Associates before landing a gig as a recruiter for Airbnb in 2015.

Williams worked to make sure people felt welcomed internally. She also addressed diversity challenges on the platform. For instance, in 2015 a report showed guests with “black-sounding” names seeking rentals faced “widespread discrimination.” 

 

A 2014 analysis of some of the country’s biggest tech giants by USA Today found that people of color are grossly underrepresented in non-technical roles such as sales and administration. Glassdoor predicts the demand for non-tech workers will increase in 2019.  

“As the tech industry matures, employers will look to hire robust sales and marketing teams to transform technology into revenue,” Glassdoor wrote in their annual job market trends report.

Williams recalls this time, and the other moments that started the first rumblings of the now well documented problems most tech companies have tackling diversity internally. 

“At the industry level, we’re all facing the same issues. There needs to be more industry-wide collaboration among people who are working on issues of diversity,” she said.

Though Stripe hasn’t publicly released their diversity data yet, Williams continues to work with managers to help them build a relationship with candidates long before they step inside the office for an interview. 

“I try to get leaders to understand that hiring is an exercise of risk and that you have to put the investment in upfront and really show that you care,” she said, recommending managers organize gatherings like small dinners to get to know potential talent. 

“Yes, we can have a program,” she said. “But if we can strengthen our empathy skills, a lot of this work would not be necessary.”

T.I. Launches Investment Syndicate Tech Cypha

Atlanta rapper and actor Clifford Joseph ‘T.I.’ Harris, Jr. has launched Tech Cypha, a new investment syndicate focused on early, growth and late-stage startups, with an inaugural investment in Culture Genesis, a digital gaming studio targeting urban and multicultural audiences.

The syndicate will provide startups with capital, marketing expertise and brand amplification through partnerships with macro influencers, according to the company.

T.I. and his business partner Jason Geter have been investing in tech companies for years. According to Tech Crunch, the pair first invested in a website called Streetcred.com over a decade ago, a deal that ultimately fell through. Now, the team is looking to leverage the right demographic by investing in the growing tech scene in Atlanta.

“Being in the city of Atlanta and with Georgia Tech producing so much talent, and coming from us being within the hip-hop culture which is always influencing and promoting things, we saw an opportunity,” Geter told Tech Crunch. “In the past, we were always looking through the glass window and looking at ways we can participate earlier. And that’s by coming together to pool our resources so we can invest more.”

PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association report that Atlanta area startups raised $626.85 million across 35 venture capital deals in the fourth quarter of 2018. This is a significant increase from the $72.62 million raised from 22 deals in Q4 of 2017.