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Saturday, September 10, 2022

Who Made You Hate?

 

Almost everyone I talk with these days hates some group of people. My Trump supporter friends hate Democrats. My progressive friends hate Trump supporters. My anti-vax friends hate the CDC, WHO, and the FDA. My friends who don't trust anyone in government hate Bill Gates and the drug companies.

It seems that everyone has someone or some group to hate. Is hate a natural response to people and ideas we disagree with? I don't think so. In the six decades or so that I've been on the planet, I have seen people vehemently disagree and actually still like each other. They were able to compartmentalize their differences and recognize that good people aren't necessarily the same as them.

I sat next to an older woman on a plane once and having struck up a conversation with me, she determined that this was an opportunity to share her evangelical message with me. Her hope was to convert me to her brand of Christianity during the flight. When that didn't happen, she offered to pray for me. How can you argue with that? Even if you don't think it will make any difference, her response to our disagreement was a hope to save me -- not to see me dead.

I've been reading a book entitled Cultish. While I don't think it is a great book, the ideas in it have caused me to realize that lots of groups have coopted the tactics of cults to manipulate us into isolation. They have essentially cut us from the herd, so that we can become "us." As you know, for every "us" there must be a "them." Or does it? Must we have "them?" I heard someone say recently that there really is no "them." It is a political construct. "Them" is used to divide us and create stark lines of right and wrong.

We would do well to show some empathy to the people we disagree with. In all likelihood, there is some truth in the ideas about which you disagree. 

A good example of an issue we face in the US can be found in Israel. Maybe you have asked yourself why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so intractable. It seems to me that the answer to this question is simple. The Israelis want a democracy. However, they also want a Jewish state. The problem with this is that there are so many Palestinians living in Israel, that if they made the West Bank and Gaza Strip part of the country, Jews may not be a majority anymore and Israel wouldn't be a Jewish country.

The alternative would be to give up the Gaza Strip and West Bank to the Palestinians so they could for their own country. However, if they did that Israel would have an enemy combatant right on their border with all the protections that Statehood provides. Other Arab nations might decide to trade with and financially support an independent Palestine. This could make retaliation for military strikes more difficult for a separated Israel. So, there's no incentive for Israel to support the separation.

The parallels between this situation and how some white people feel about black people in the United States are hard to ignore. When they say "make America great again," the "again" refers to a past in which white people didn't have to compete with non-white people for the full privileges of citizenship. Most people reading this won't understand this, but if you are a working class white person, who is struggling to make ends meet, you can't help but think that life would be a lot better for you if you didn't have to compete with so many immigrants and people of color.

These feelings are part of a cultural transition that will take many generations to complete. We are not through it yet. You can respond to people that feel this way with hate, or you can recognize that these feelings are real and despite the good intentions around building a nation where true equality exists, the road to it is messy and tolerance and empathy will get us down it faster than hate.

Our leaders aren't interested in tolerance and empathy. They win by keeping us divided. If all people stand together in seeking a reasonable path forward, our so called leaders would need to work together to enable real solutions to the many challenges our nation faces as this would be the basis for judging their performance. That's hard! Hate is easy. The language of division is simple to learn and easy to use to keep people from expecting anything other than the other side loses.

When us citizens are divided in a win-lose situation -- everyone loses except the people manipulating us to hate. It's time we come together to take back our government and demand less hate and more collaboration.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Can AI Really Be Biased?

AI machine learning models use training data, usually from the internet, to "teach" the algorithm. This "learning" is essentially a statistical method that finds clusters of similar patterns and then "assumes" that the pattern represents the "correct" answer. Seems pretty obvious, right?

So, let's say you give a machine learning algorithm a million photos of people, each labeled with their current title (doctor, prisoner, Uber driver, etc.). The algorithm groups all these photos by title and studies the characteristics of the group to come up with a likely pattern for that role.

Now, let's say a group called OpenAI builds such an AI system that allows you to type in a title in words and it renders a picture of its own design that represents a person in that role. You can even type things like "doctor shaking hands with a prisoner" and it will render the image. Pretty cool, huh!

I suspect that it wouldn't surprise you to learn that the doctor is NEVER black and the prisoner is NEVER white. Why would it be? The training data told the AI that this situation is highly unlikely. Imagine the disappointment of the authors of the DALL-E 2 system (yes, this system exists!) when they discover the bias in their system.

But wait! Is their system biased? They thought so. In fact, they released it without allowing it to render faces at all until they could "fix" it. What does "fix it" even mean? They want to remove the bias from their system. Sadly, the bias isn't in their system, dear Watson. It's in the data! 

Now, they could select data for how they WANT the world to be. Or, we could all take a lesson from the unbiased algorithm that our world is what needs fixing. Maybe it's time to stop hiding the bias and expose it; however uncomfortable it may be.

Making people uncomfortable is...well...uncomfortable. What do we do when we're uncomfortable? If you're like me, you seek to move to a more comfortable state as quickly as possible. Fixing an algorithm is a lot easier than fixing social injustice.  Quicker too! So, it's natural to use that approach. 

To the developers of DALL-E 2, I say, "turn on the faces!" Let's live with our discomfort until we can fix it the "right way." It will take longer and a lot more work, but papering over it will not help us in the long run.

The creators of said system might argue that by showing the world as we want it to be, we will be subtly indoctrinating people to change their assumptions. I'm sure there is some validity to this argument for fixing the algorithm. I contend that those who want to see the world the way the repaired AI represents it will relax in the knowledge that all is right and those who don't like what they see will be motivated to push their agenda all the harder. Thus, let's motivate the right people to be pushing their agenda. Don't fix the algorithm!