The Shape of Things to Come?

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.

[Originally posted on Techblog]

Pokémon Go and Reality

I am currently in the land of the Free. We’ve flown 14 hours to have a holiday in Washington DC and New York City with the family. It is amazing… I’ve never been in this part of the US before and it is everything popular media promised us it would be. Washington DC has amazing museums and beautiful rolling green grass. The national monuments are exactly as they appear on TV and it really is awe inspiring to be sitting in the shadow of the Washington memorial.

Or checking out Times Square.

Something has vaguely pulled at me however. It is this slight unease about the racial tension jn this country. I know that it is totally a thing everywhere, but here you can almost feel it.

For example this blog and the one it links to about the new popular game Pokemon Go. (no we have NOT been playing it… We have been actually sightseeing, also I have a Windows Phone. Go sign this if you do too)

It describes the very definition of a cultural hegemony , where the very colour of your skin precludes you from enjoying a game… One that takes you into the real world… With other people!

I have been struggling with this all week. On the one hand we have to be cautious travellers, we are visitors in a country not our own… We don’t want something horrible to happen to us, or our children. We have warned them of the bad people who may snatch them away. Of course we’ve been generic but you can see how parents in our situation might grip tighter when passing an African American instead of a white American. Which is ridiculous because statistically there is no proof. The inherent racism in that act makes me feel sick… And I feel powerless to do something more about it.

Unconscious Bias

There are just so many articles written about women and tech. We admit that there is a gender gap in hiring, a gender gap in pay and a gender gap in management. We look at the stats and lament at the numbers of girls choosing to start a STEM based degree, and then lament again at the numbers that complete those degrees.

In May 2014, Google released its diversity figures, and admitted in an official blog, that women make up only 30% of their entire workforce, and if you restricted the search to technical roles, women make up a mere 17%. This is from an organisation that has spent millions on initiatives aimed at young women. Closer to home, Absolute IT released a report showing that women held just 21% of tech jobs in New Zealand.

Where has it all gone wrong?

Actually, scratch that, there are far too many articles already out there bringing doom and gloom, i’m going to take a moment to celebrate some of the great initiatives i’ve been involved with here in NZ, initiatives that will turn this ship around.

She# is a networking event with a difference. Recognising there is a misconception about what it means to ‘be in tech’, She# brings together academics, women already working in the tech industry and most importantly, high school girls who aren’t quite sure about their career options yet. Each event has interesting speakers, and plenty of time to talk.

As a woman working in tech, I can’t help but notice the lack of other women in the room when it comes to conferences and tech events. Refactor aims to change this. With most of the tickets designated for women only, Refactor brings together engaging speakers and a room full of women already working in the tech industry. (There are tickets for men too, just not as many!)

And finally, if you are planning a panel or a conference, and you find that all your speakers are male, then Anna Guenther, CEO of Pledgeme, has something for you. Inspired by an all-male cover on Idealog magazine, Anna crowdsourced “Inspiring Women in New Zealand“, and at last count had managed to find over 500 women to add to the list.

These are just a few of the things out there. New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote, I believe we can be the first country in the world to get rid of this pesky ICT gender gap.


[Originally posted on TechBlog]

Science & Maths

Yep, I’m a self-confessed Tiger Mom. I have a real tension (within my own head) about how to raise my boys. My oldest is just finishing up his first year of school this week. He is currently enrolled in swimming lessons, karate lessons, piano lessons and Kumon Maths. This looks to continue for the next few years at least. We’ve made it clear that he needs to finish the Kumon maths as soon as he can so that he will be ready for high school maths far before he hits high school.

Other parents have been horrified at my approach.

But after a term of piano lessons, he is starting to read music. In “playing round” with technologies like his Android tablet and Google, he has learnt the periodic table (well the first 20 elements anyway) and he is truly enjoying all the things he is doing. (I can tell, because there is no way you can ‘force’ a five year old to do something they don’t want to do, and he will go and practise diligently every day by himself)

So it was with horror that I heard the news this morning. Apparently we’ve dropped significantly, as a country, in maths, science and english. The head of the Principal’s association on National Radio this morning admitted that he recently visited “Asian countries”, and that it “was against the culture” of NZ to do extra tuition (evening classes) so that our children will excel, when benchmarked against other children their age.

Is it alarming? is it important? There are some rumours (which I can’t find a link to!! so hopefully just rumours!) that science will no longer be compulsory in the near future in the NZ Curriculum. Is this important? Is the emphasis on the subjects which lead to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) careers important?

I don’t have an answer.

The Asian Tiger Mom in me cries YES with every fibre of my being. The creative, sociologist human rights advocate in me weeps at the lack of critical thinking in the children drilled in those subjects.

I don’t have an answer, I would like to hear yours.

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