All posts by charlescearl

Data scientist at Automattic.com.

History

Gender and Racial Bias in Cloud NLP Sentiment APIs

Here’s analysis I recently did of gender and racial bias in cloud sentiment analysis APIs. The takeaway: test before you leap.

Data for Breakfast

At Automattic, I work in a group that frequently uses natural language processing (NLP) — a kind of artificial intelligence (AI) — that tries to understand text. We have used NLP for suggesting domain names, to tag some support interactions, and to understand the different verticals that our customers build sites for.

In the course of building these tools, we have often encountered and have had to work around gender and racial bias that gets baked into the machine learning models that we use for text analysis. This is an acknowledged problem confronting NLP and the solutions are not simple. Building fair and non-toxic NLP systems requires constant vigilance, and we are continuously auditing new platforms and models to make sure that the users of our systems are not adversely impacted.

In the course of these audits, I’ve found evidence of gender and racial bias in the sentiment analysis

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Social Justice

Because Peace Requires Bravery

The picture and words are from the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It is a memorial to the 4,400 and some victims of racial terror — mostly African Americans were murdered between the years 1877 and 1950.

Last weekend as I tried to wrap my mind around the tragedy, my mind wandered back 18 years to a peaceful summer Sunday when my partner and I drove to the Gilroy garlic festival. Fresh garlic cloves, garlic fries, garlic bread, garlic ice cream. I remember the tastes and aromas yes, but more than that the sounds of ordinary joy on a sunlit day. Families. Children. Peace. Acceptance.

When we visited the museum in Montgomery last year, it had struck me that in 1898 — the year that my grandmother was born — over 100 Black people had been lynched — many for the crime of being the first Black person seen by the mob. According to FBI records, 2019 is on track to surpass the racial brutality of 1898.

The victims of racial violence in El Paso and Dayton — like those a hundred years ago — had committed no act other than being born Brown or Black, speaking Spanish to a loved one or friend, or being in the same crowd as their Black neighbor.

Tonight I did not have much more to offer than sitting with my children, embracing them, and offering prayers. Remembering. Tonight, quoting a line from the memorial “We will remember, with hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

The quote “Because Peace Requires Bravery” sticks with me. I meditate on Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the brave mothers of the disappeared in Argentina who steadfastly refused to be silent, refused to stop calling their country to account. Persistence. “With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.”

Persistence, action, bravery.

BooksinclusionSocial Justice

Aspiring towards anti-racism

The Atlantic magazine posted an a day ago article “We’re All Tired of Being Called Racists”. The article presented views of some supporters of the current (as of August 1, 2019) U.S. president at a recent rally. Many were perplexed at being labeled “racist”.

One of those interviewed in the piece insisted that they couldn’t be racist because their children were of mixed race. Yet Strom Thurmond — one of the U.S.’s most virulent segregationists of the 20th century — had an African American daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Eduard Bloch was a Jewish Austrian doctor protected from anti-Semitic terror for a number of years during the 1930’s — a lone act of compassion during the anschluss. There are many cruel contradictions in this landscape.

Strict definitions of what racism is and isn’t aren’t fluid enough deal with the capacities that we each have for compassion and prejudice. Showing compassion for a daughter when enacting so many repressive laws doesn’t seem an acceptable bar. Yet, don’t we all deserve a path to redemption.

It seems so much easier and just to think in terms of allow all of us to escape binary traps, to aspire to, and ultimately attain some better version of ourselves and our society.

I think that this quote from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is spot on when he writes:

No one becomes ‘not racist,’ despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be antiracist on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country’s racist heritage. We need to read books that force us to confront our self-serving beliefs and make us aware that ‘I’m not racist’ is a slogan of denial.

We can each actively aspire to be the anti-racist. Some first steps could include:

If all else fails, think in terms of how the children of one hundred years from now will judge you, and then work backwards.

AIConferencesinclusion

Black In AI paper submission deadline extended

The Black in AI is a workshop that centers the work of Black AI researchers and practitioners from across the globe. The paper submission deadline for the 2019 workshop has been extended to August 7. This is it’s third year.

I’d encourage submission even (especially!!) if your research and ideas are still coming together. There are a limited number of travel grants available which you can apply for here. You don’t have to have an accepted paper to apply for the travel grant.

A/B testingAlgorithmsData Science

Christo Wilson Discusses the Ethics of Online Behavioral Experiments

If your company runs A/B tests involving it’s user community, this talk is a must see. Christo Wilson at Northeastern University discusses an analysis his lab ran on how companies use the Optimizely platform to conduct online experiments. Although these experiments tend to mostly be innocuous, there’s a tremendous need for transparency and mechanisms for accountability. How is your company addressing this?

Data for Breakfast

On May 1 of 2019, Dr. Christo Wilson gave a talk on his investigation into online behavioral experiments. The talk was based on a piper entitled Who’s the Guinea Pig? Investigating Online A/B/n Tests in-the-Wild, which he and his students gave at the 2019 ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Atlanta, Georgia.

Online behavioral experiments (OBEs) are studies (aka A/B/n tests) that people conduct on websites to gain insight into their users’ preferences. Users typically aren’t asked for consent and these studies are typically benign. Typically an OBE will explore questions such as whether changing the background color influences how the user interacts with the site or whether the user is more likely to read an article if the font is slightly larger.

Sometimes, these studies cross ethical boundaries. For example, Facebook conducted an ethically problematic experiment designed to manipulate the emotional state of its users

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HistoryPoliticsTravel

Remembering Madiba in Cuba

Nelson Madela — affectionately known as Madiba — would have been 101 today. His impact on the world will be felt for generations to come and we can only guess how his life will ultimately guide our concept of leadership, the struggle for decency and humanity in the centuries to come. South Africa’s gift to humanity is that it is now a blueprint for what a multi-racial democracy should be. That it’s people was able to isolate and remove an anti-democracy president in the years since Madiba is a testament to how firmly it has taken root — the Economist ranks South Africa 40th in the world in terms of the health of democracy (another southern African country Mauritius scores significantly above the U.S.)

A year ago, we visited the Africa House in Havana, where there was an exhibit that explored Madiba’s connection to Cuba. I thought I would share some photos from our time there.

Today the United States is becoming again one of those countries spawns people like Madiba — people who are it’s soul, it’s children, it’s essence, for whom there is no alternative but to speak out, to act, to agitate, to transgress, to take back their humanity. Not because they hate it, because their life is the embodiment of the prayer and dream for what that place could be.

If you are a U.S. citizen and are Black, from Indian subcontinent, from the Caribbean, have ancestors who speak Spanish, are from the peoples who settled here 20,000 years ago, or one of the 100 million “marginalized” people of the country who are being told to “go back”, remember Madiba, remember Harriet Tubman, remember the Sudanese who are fearlessly standing up to bring freedom to their country. Remember that people like you were the reason that a semblance real democracy came to the United States in the first place. Remember that you birthed it in Wounded Knee and Selma. Be the beacon, be the light.

Lastly, there is something significant in Madiba’s structuring of the freedom struggle in South Africa as a collective movement of and for the people as opposed to a cult of personality centering the movement leader. It was hard not to think that through looking at the photo of Madiba and Fidel Castro. But it also is a lesson that freedom should not and cannot be delegated to a political party or it’s leaders, and that conversely tyranny is systemic (look beyond the MAGA hats). I end with a quote from Angela Davis

Even as Nelson Mandela always insisted that his accomplishments were collective—also achieved by the men and women who were his comrades—the media attempted to sanctify him as a heroic individual. A similar process has attempted to dissociate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the vast numbers of women and men who constituted the very heart of the mid-twentieth-century US freedom movement. It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.

From an interview published at The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/article/qa-angela-davis-black-power-feminism-and-prison-industrial-complex/
AIAlgorithms

Gödel, Incompleteness and Privacy

Avi Wigderson has a nice talk on how Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems bound what can and cannot be computed (or proved) by simple programs.

In this recent post I talked about how Gödel’s theorem was used to show that for certain kinds of learning algorithms, we can’t know definitively whether the algorithm learns the right thing or not. This is kind of equivalent to saying that we can’t definitively know whether there will be a gap in the program’s learning.

The flip side of this, as Wigderson points out, is that it is probably a good thing that there are certain things that are too hard for a program to figure out. This hardness is the key to privacy — the harder it is to decipher an encrypted message, the more you can have confidence in keeping the message content private. This principle is at the core of what allows e-commerce.

Perhaps there is a way to structure our online communications or transactions so that learning our behavior — in pernicious ways — becomes impossibly hard. This might diffuse a lot of the emerging fears surrounding AI.

Wigderson makes his point — what he calls the “Unreasonable usefulness of hard problems” — about 30 minutes into the talk.

Check out the “Unreasonable usefulness of hard problems” 30 minutes in.