Ethics in Technology Matters, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is Right, We Instill Our Biases in Technology

Some people are unhappy about what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is saying here. People not like to imagine that software cannot have politics, intentionally or otherwise.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Whenever I was earning my master’s degree, I took a number of courses on the ethics of technology and the history of technology in general.In one of my classes we learned that bridges, yes bridges can have politics. There was an architect, Robert Moses, that was hired by New York City to design and build bridges. Given that NYC is an island and there’s a lot of water there, building bridges is a pretty big deal. Robert Moses was a racist. He also hated poor people. So, if you’re hired to build a bridge from one part of the city to another part with beautiful parks and outdoor spaces that you wanted to have whites and rich people use but not poor people, how would you do that?

If you build a bridge that uses traditional arches underneath with no top support, any vehicle can cross. However, if you build a bridge that has a maximum height allowed, then you can limit that types of vehicles that can cross the bridge. If you built the bridge low enough, then you can prevent buses from crossing the bridge. Buses that would be carrying poor people of color.

It’s just a bridge, how can it be racist? A bridge is just a thing. Something built by people. However, those people have biases and intentions. These are built into that technology. While A bridge may not be racist, this one IS because of the racism used to build the bridge.

If a bridge can have biases intentionally built into it, there is no doubt that software will have biases built into them. We’ve seen time an again that beauty algorithms where the AI didn’t like dark skinned women. In those cases the people building the training set of images had biases. The engineers didn’t like dark skinned women and didn’t include a significant amount of them in the training set.

Soap dispensers aren’t able to detect dark skinned hands, because the engineers working on them didn’t think of test the sensor on someone with dark skin.

 

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

These aren’t intentional biases. It’d be difficult to imagine a group of engineers all sitting around the room saying, “wouldn’t it be me great if we prevent dark skinned people from properly washing their hands? MWahahahahah.” No that’s not what happened. What happened is that the QA team was made of people that look more like me. The dispenser worked perfectly for them, QA passed! This isn’t an intentional bias, but it’s a bias none the less. It’s called the availability bias. If the only people that are available look a certain way, you don’t think about people that aren’t immediately available.

Everyone does it. More people are aware of the fact that there are people different from them. For white people this is critical. It’s similar to when a white person writes an article about how racism has significantly declined in a major news paper.

It is time that organization recognize this and create teams to ensure that ethics and biases are considered when developing and selling novel technologies – or in the cases of bridges old technologies repurposed for modern uses.

On the Efficiencies of Business

So, I’ve been going to therapy for a few months now to deal with depression. One of thing that has come up is how I don’t really release a lot of the emotions that I am feeling and one of them is anger. I typically swallow that to stay diplomatic and deal with whatever situation as well as I can. I think that I’ve been stewing about this for a while and mentioning it to my friends periodically. I don’t feel that business leaders respect my career path and don’t understand how to actually make their businesses more efficient.

Excluding the past two years, the majority of my career has been focused on Lean, Six Sigma, or Lean Six Sigma (yes all of them are different in terms of how you approach continuous improvement). I have run projects, developed courses, facilitated strategic planning events for companies like AMD, but the entire time, I never truly felt secure in my role. At Samsung, we had lay-offs and last some employees, at AMD, we definitely lost some and my Director actually decided to be let go to save a number of my coworkers. This is in spite of the fact that our group had saved the company measurably millions of dollars over the 1.5 years I worked at AMD. We were always on the chopping block. Then while working at Cambia (Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield) I was laid off, even though the result of my training program included winning a national Blues award and saved the company a lot of time and money. My team easily paid for itself more than once over while we were there (my team was me and my employee Phil).

As we all know Insurance companies are always raising premiums. The underlying assumption is that these businesses are actually working to continually drive down their financial overhead, but those damn regulations keep getting in the way to drive up cost. This is just flat out wrong. These businesses don’t actually know how to drive improvement in their organizations. The only way they can even imaging improving their business is to hire an organization like McKinsey or BCG which costs millions and gets little to no result. The results they do provide are typically brought about by recommendations internally to the organization that leadership is unwilling to implement unless told about them by an expensive consulting group.

This is problematic because it doesn’t actually change the culture of the organization to drive continual improvement and innovation. As I’ve written in the past Innovation and Improvement are positively correlated. Furthermore, these training classes help expand people’s networks, which also significantly improve innovation as well.

So, first of all, I’m pissed off at corporate leaderships for not understanding the value of continuous improvement. Second, I’m pissed off that it’s just accepted that businesses always figure out ways to be more efficient. This isn’t true. If it was true there wouldn’t be a large number of people in their mid-50’s looking for work after a very successful career in continuous improvement. If these businesses didn’t think that the best way to improve efficiencies was to cut costs and then have someone else do two people’s work, this wouldn’t be a problem.

You can reduce headcount and drive up efficiencies, but only if you provide your people with the right tools and the requires true investment in the business. Although, all continuous improvement efforts pay for themselves if you aren’t just looking at how much a few people cost that are part of the team. You need to weight that against the positive gains they are making for the organization.

I’m pissed off about this because I feel like Michael Bolton from Office Space “I shouldn’t have to change, he’s the one who sucks.” I have had to completely change my career, which I was really passionate about because I don’t trust corporate leaders to try invest and buy in to continuous improvement. Maybe this is short sighted and I just need to find the right company. But I’ve looked I’ve been at a number of them and I’ve heard stories from other people that have been laid off (while i was interviewing for the position Phil filled) for exactly what I’m talking about here. So as a response I’ve tried to protect myself from that by avoiding applying for those jobs.

I loved doing that work because I knew at the end of each day and each project, I made someone’s work life better. Which is awesome. You listen to their problems, which helps them, but then you provide them with the tools to make change and to fix their current situation. When they look at how that aspect of their job is going to work after you finish the project, you can just see how much happier they are. You can see that it allows them to focus on the thing they were hired to do, not deal with some bullshit that was there because it’s always been there.

Businesses need more of this. The culture needs to change from top to bottom. It’s the role of the Lean Manager to change the culture so that people want to do continuous improvement. It’s the role of the business leader to provide the right incentives to do this as well.

On Being a White Liberal In Portland OR

Portland Oregon has been in the news a lot lately. Mostly for not very good things. The city has a great image generally, but that’s because the people talking about Portland, generally look and think like me. White, bearded, and generally liberal. However, there’s a history to Portland that’s rarely talked about, which is that it was essentially founded to be a White Utopia. Oregon Public Broadcasting has a great article interviewing people of color after the Max Light Rail attack, I recommend you read that here, because they do a great job explaining the background.

I think generally, it’s safe to say, that Portland encompasses both the best and worst of being a white culture. You’re able to find good high paying jobs in technology. You are able to be around other white people because you have a similar background. I can’t decided if those two sentences are the best or worst. On the one hand it means that generally white people are well off, but that also means that we are exclusive and not well integrated with the rest of the community at large. This leads to ignorance, in liberals it results in something of a White Hero mentality, regardless of good intentions. In Conservatives it can manifest itself into hate, including white supremacy and neo-nazi’s. The former wants to make friends with minorities to understand them better, but that can result in tokenism. While the latter ends having “our Mexican” who isn’t like those other Mexicans out there. Which is a justification for liking one Mexican while hating all other job stealing Mexicans.

I’ve become acutely aware of this over the past several years in Portland. I am married to a Mexican-American woman as many of you know. In Austin these issues didn’t come up as often as they do now, and I think that was more due to the people she was working with during her PhD studies and Post-Doc. However, whenever she started working at Intel, which has a big problem with diversity, these issues became a focal point of many things she does. She’s been heavily involved in Women’s groups at Intel. She’s a member of the Saturday Academy working to get under privileged and minorities involved in science and technology at an earlier age. These were things that, to be honest, are fairly new to me as a thing that needs to be done.

Growing up in Grove City, you didn’t really realize that you had it pretty well. It was a very very very White community. The school system was really good. Opportunities were there for anyone to join Saturday Science, there were ways to easily take more advanced classes in any subject if you were on the college path. Since Grove City was a really small school, our High school had 800 some odd students, we didn’t have the massive disparities due to differing socio-economic. They were there to be sure. It was a handful of kids rather than the majority of the kids as some rural or inner city schools see.

I guess it’s really fair to say i grew up sheltered and started to experience more diversity while studying at Pitt. I have been lucky since going to Pitt to marry my amazing wife, study in Europe meeting people from all over the world. People from countries the US has foreign policy issues with.

Even despite that, I’m still uncomfortable around people that I don’t know how to start a conversation. I think it’s important to be honest about that discomfort to myself and use that as an opportunity to grow. The only way to get rid of the discomfort is to meet more people. I don’t want a black friend because they are black. I want and need more friends of diverse backgrounds to grow into a better person. My wife has opened my eyes to her family’s cultural. I really enjoy Mariachi music now, Son De La Negra is one of their favorite songs and one of mine too.

So how does all this relate to being a White Liberal in Portland? Well, I think for a start, we need to meet people where they are, try to understand their world and world view. It’s very different than ours. We need to start joining groups and becoming part of the larger more complex city of Portland or whatever city you currently live in. The other thing that we must do is listen. When people are talking about their history and where they came from, you’ll hear both a lot of similarities and many defining differences. You can build bonds on the similarities, while using those differences to understand people in a way you never could before. These differences can be painful because it forces you to look into the mirror and really think about where you came from and for you to grow as a person it requires to potentially reevaluate how you got where you are. I know that I grew up in a pretty special area that gave me a huge amount of opportunity. My parents were in a position where they enabled me to go to Pitt leaving with minimal debt. This makes me very fortunate and puts me in a very different place than people who built up a lot of debt going to school or came from an area where they weren’t enabled to succeed.

Upon self-reflection, I need to do more listening and growing.

I was an immigrant, let’s have some empathy

You probably don’t even think of it that way, but I was an immigrant to a foreign country under a student visa/residence permit with the expectation that I would stay in that foreign country for at least 3 years. Things didn’t go as planned, but I was an immigrant. I’ve written some here in the past about those experiences, since I started blogging on this site over 5 years ago when I was still living in the Netherlands.

While I was in Europe I grew up a lot and I experienced things that I would have never experienced in the US. However, before I get into any of this I must preface this post. My experience abroad was easier than most study abroad programs. My courses were in English. I’m an American Citizen. Nearly all government documents along with University documents had English translations. Nearly all Dutch are fluent in English and all my friends spoke English. This made these extremely easy. So easy at times it was easy to forget I was an immigrant.

While living abroad I lived with a group of people I jokingly referred to as a model UN. There were two Colombians, two Pakistanis, a Turk, an Iranian, and a Chinese woman. Everyone had a story to tell me about my homeland that cause them direct personal pain. My Colombian friends told me what it was like growing up in the 80’s and 90’s with the FARC threatening things while the US was running missions in their country. My Pakistani roommates told me about what my country was doing to their country at that time. My Iranian roommate was initially terrified to meet me because I was an American. He assumed that I would hate him because of where he was from.

Learning about the impact of the US political system on every person that I met while living abroad was truly sobering. As an American living in the US we simply do not understand the impact and the weight of the US to the rest of the world. Furthermore, we simply take it as a given fact that this is how the world is and always will be. However, that’s not true. When I first arrived in the Netherlands it was clear there was still ill will towards America for George W. Bush, that was tempered a great deal by Obama, but not all of his policies pleased Europeans, specifically many of the bombings we were doing. I believe that we’re losing even more respect with trump as our President now.

I got the idea for this post because a friend of mine shared a link about a Syrian student at CMU was thinking of transferring outside of the US for his PhD. This hit really close to home because, while I was studying in the Netherlands, my wife was finishing up her PhD and my Grandfather passed away. If I had been unable to go home and return for my studies in the Netherlands because of a ban of travel between the US and the Netherlands I would have seriously reconsidered my decision to even study there. Being away from my wife for the first year and a half of my marriage was incredibly difficult, losing my Grandfather was heart wrenching, the mere thought of not being able to go home for his funeral is completely unimaginable. As it was, my family pulled together and got me back to the States for his funeral, which was extremely touching.

Beyond just the though of never seeing my wife or missing my Grandfather’s funeral, it brings up the moral question of “do I want to live in a society that bans people from my country?” For me, as an immigrant to that country, it’s a clear no. I do not want to live in a society that bans people from my country or any other country for the reasons that trump has outlined. These policies affect people, people that don’t have a true say in that country’s government. If there is a problem with the government it should be treated in an international body rather than attacking the people of the nation. Here’s one example of a person negatively impacted by the ban. He is completely devastated.

As I said in my post yesterday we, America, need to be the shining light on the hill. It is the reason why immigrants chose to come here. I would not come here as an immigrant from any country right now because I would never know when that ban would arbitrarily descend on my country, so that I could never go home to see my loved ones or could never have my loved ones join me.

I’ve been an immigrant, I was lucky that I was able to control when and why I became an immigrant. Not everyone is lucky like me.

“Infighting” in the Democratic Party or Who represents the future of the Dems?

Today, I’ve been seeing a lot of people saying that Bernie supports need to just give up the “Bernie would have won” attitude. I find this exceedingly problematic. First, it’s an opinion and like assholes everyone has one. Second, there is some evidence, based on the polling that Bernie would have crushed Trump. Third, there’s anecdotal evidence of people switching from Bernie to Trump or just stayed home from voting. Finally, this implicitly means that these folks need to just shut up and get back in line with everyone else.

This last point simply pisses me off. I’ve always had something of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to authority or the status quo. I get really pissed off when people talk about how these giant cities are god’s gift to man, when the smaller cities i’ve lived in are amazing places in their own right. Places that have a lot of character and the difference of perspective is important. I wrote about this irritation in my article right after the election.

The Democratic party needs this discussion, this in fighting. There can and should be general alignment over general resistance to Trump. The policies that are proposed to counter their proposals can and should have serious discussion about what the future should be. The reason why people bring up the primary and that Bernie would have won, is that they support his policy positions and believes that these positions should be the dominant theme when challenging the Republican run Government. The idea being that Clinton’s ideas are a continuation of the status quo, the status quo that lost and lost badly in the electoral college – which is the only vote that matters right now.

Bernie and Clinton represent two different potential futures for the Democratic party, we need to look at it that way. I believe under the Bush years, the Democratic party essentially was the Party of Clinton, which really was a centrist party that was easily pulled to the right. During the Obama administration this held true as well, where the Democrats tried to pull the country a little left, but stayed towards the center in hopes of getting something through. Which resulted in a great deal of center right policies simply through obstructionism.

Now, if the Democratic party wants to learn from the Republican party, rather than working to meet with them half way, which will ultimately pull them to the right, again. They need to start with a stated position which is significantly farther left than what they might be when they are in power. This would mean that when the policy finally gets approved, that it’ll be much more centrist. Furthermore, most of those policies would help the people that need it the most, that ended up voting for Trump, because they believed he would help him.

The fight over Bernie v. Clinton is a battle over the heart and soul of the Democratic party. If you aren’t willing to talk with the people that are saying that Bernie and thus his ideals could have beaten Trump, then you aren’t willing to listen at all and should not be in a position of power in the Democratic party. The party needs to be inclusive of radically different views, take advantage of that diversity and use it as a way to drive change in Washington to help everyone.