October 31, 2016
Originally posted on ITP Techblog
About a week ago, Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary in Britain announced that Britain would accept the children that were eligible to resettle in Britain from the refugee camp in Calais, France. These are unaccompanied minors (under 18 year olds) that currently have family in Britain.
When the children started arriving, what should’ve been a joyful show of the humanity of British hospitality quickly degenerated into an ugly debate on whether these children were actually under 18. A prominent tabloid went as far as to use an app by Microsoft to “determine” the ages of the children. They concluded that most of the refugees were older than 18, with some as old as 30. Presumably, the rhetoric behind this is that you should only be compassionate to children, and a 20 year old asylum seeker doesn’t deserve your pity.
As this is a tech blog, I’d like to draw your attention to the app.
The app in question is a game, a game created by Microsoft to test their Machine Learning technology, or Cortana. Cortana, as you may know, is the equivalent of Android’s “Google Now”, or Apple’s “Siri”, and like most of the machine learning/AI stuff right now, it’s all a bit up and down. In 2016 alone, we’ve seen the disaster that was Tay and the success that is Tesla’s self-driving car.
So what is this age app all about? It is called the #howoldrobot, and you can play with her yourself here. Amongst the furore of the public saying “See?!”, Microsoft, themselves, have come out to say that it is “a fun app” and “not intended to be used as a definitive assessment of age”.
This is another example of forgetting our humanity amongst new technology.
Microsoft’s Tay is a great example of this. In technological terms, it was a great success. The AI Bot was unleashed on Twitter to learn, she was sent out to see what the world was really like. She became horribly racist and sexist within 24 hours. She learnt what the world was really like. Microsoft have come out to say that this was actually a result of a coordinated attack by a subset of people. I argue that this is patently untrue, Tay was meant to be a machine learning experiment, and she did learn, what she has learnt is that there are a lot of horrible people in the world and more specifically on Twitter.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Twitter. I love that the 140 character limit encourages creativity (not to mention grammar/spelling atrocities), and I definitely love the fact, that through Twitter, you can converse with people quickly and instantly, regardless of social standing or geographical location. Just this week, I was introduced to audio books by a famous author, and then had the chance to converse with him casually about his book!
What we often fail to remember is that behind most social media accounts are people. The anonymity of the Internet has, in some cases, caused us to forget our humanity.
I’m only 35 years old, I still remember being excited about ‘new’ chatting and social media technology as a teenager. I remember, as a wannabe sociologist being excited about the fact that anonymity could mean that you can truly connect on a intellectual level with strangers. I felt that this was humanity’s chance to forget about racism, sexism and any other -ism you can think of. If you can’t see the person you are talking to, then unconscious biases should disappear and you are free to connect intellectually.
Instead, humanity has proven this to be a fallacy. The anonymity of the Internet merely allowed the worst of people to come out. This article from The Guardian in fact, points out that these so-called “internet trolls” are most probably those kind of people in real life interactions too. What the anonymity of the Internet has provided is a lack of accountability. If someone is horrible to someone at the supermarket, I would hope that the people around them would say something… if someone is horrible to someone on Twitter, then even if they get blocked or called out, they can merely delete their account and start again.
You’d think, after all this, that the world is doomed. We should take a nuke to the world’s servers and give up on all this interacting and new tech… but I’d like to end on a hopeful note, and remind you of the amazing story of Megan Phelps-Roper. Megan is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps who established the incendiary Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, USA. Westboro Baptist is often in the media for being controversial and hateful… and Megan was one of its strongest cheerleaders. Through Twitter, she learnt about the other side of the story and eventually left the Church. If someone who was so entrenched in a moral message can change their mind, then perhaps there is hope for the world after all.
Vivian has been involved with Amnesty International since 1996, starting out in its high school student activist network and steadily increasing her involvement until taking on the role of Information and Technology Manager.
Vivian has a Bachelors degree in Science (Physics) and a Masters on Sociology.