Naked Data
Issue #288 || Explicit Games Edition || 2021-11-29
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This'll be our last edition for 2020. Happy holidays, we love you all and can't wait to see you in a hopefully calmer 2021. JNY and AO

The fight for diversity in AI escalates with the axing of Timnit Gebru

It’s been quite a while since Google quietly sidelined its “Don’t Be Evil” slogan, but the axing of prominent AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru over a paper highlighting the dangers of very large language datasets in machine learning really brought the point home: Google is now the Bad Guy ™. (Microsoft, you can finally breathe a sigh of relief. Amazon, you’re not off the hook. Let’s not mention Facebook.)

A quick update in case you missed it: Gebru is a renown AI ethicist who until last week worked for Google. A brouhaha erupted when the company refused to be associated to a paper she was co-authoring, saying she had to remove her name. She refused, and said she would resign some time in the future if she couldn’t publish. The company told her they accepted her resignation, immediately, and shut her out of their systems. (She was on holiday at the time. One of those “Don’t bother coming back in” situations.)

While the paper itself hasn’t been released, you can read a synopsis on MIT Technology Review. Essentially it deals with natural language processing done on very large data sets (called “large-scale AI language models”, such as GPT-3), and how this increasingly popular practice impacts marginalized communities.

Google, obviously into big NLP as its bread-and-butter, obviously felt a bit triggered by this, but that’s the point of having someone like Gebru working for it: someone needs to be asking the hard questions.

The optics have been pretty terrible for Google – firing a black woman from your AI team because you don’t want her to point out the discrimination inherent in your AI work. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has made half an apology, with at least a promise to investigate how things got so bad so fast.

Meanwhile, a solidarity movement is growing behind the event, led by an open letter with over 5,000 signatures at time of publication.

If this feels like a storm in a teacup, then you haven’t been paying enough attention to marginalization by sex and race for the last few hundred years. While a lot of individuals (like Joy Buolamwini of the Algorithmic Justice League) have been ringing the warning bell for some time, the Gebru incident feels like an inflection point: this is a problem we need to get ahead of, because pretty soon AI is going to be so intrinsically embedded in our devices, systems and lives, that fixing the problem post-deploy is going to be impossible. (JNY)

# Don't Miss

Find your place in the queue

The first public vaccination programmes against Covid-19 are underway, so the reasonable question to ask is “when will I get mine”? For many of us, the answer is “who knows“, but the New York Times is helping out Americans with this neat interactive. Apparently, if I lived in Georgetown, South Carolina, I’d be 268 700 000th in line to receive a shot. Good job I’ve already had it, then. Find your place here. (AO)

The Correspondent to close by year-end

Dutch publisher De Correspondent’s English language publication, The Correspondent, will not see in 2021. According to NiemanLab, the last day of publication will be 31 December 2020. While there’s zero schadenfreude on my behalf — I really wanted it to succeed, and I am a subscriber — the warning signs have been there for a while. Last year August I wrote in Naked Data: “I desperately want The Correspondent to succeed, but I’m getting worried…”

The issue, in my humble opinion, is that it spent most of its money on a crowdsourcing campaign, then used that crowdsourcing campaign to pay for more of a crowdsourcing campaign. At some point this starts to look more like a pyramid scheme than a news publication. As a result, it never opened its US offices like it promised, its content was lackluster, and as a reader I received very little value from it.

It’s a sad result from a project with great initial drive and energy, but you can see other publishers already learning lessons from the failure. (JNY)

The 38 months of 2020, in pictures

It sure has been a year! To quote The Killers: "It started off with a kiss, how did it end up like this?" The New York Times’ Year in Pictures kicks off with kissing and jubilation in Times Square at New Years, and ends with Santa behind a plexiglass shield. (JNY)

Chilli, the diva spice

If you’re the type that measures your enjoyment of a dish on the Scoville scale, you’ll enjoy this. The Kontinentalist has graphics to cover pretty much everything you could want to know about chilli consumption in Asia, including why certain ingredients just go so well with hot stuff. Check it out here. (AO)

# ROTM

The meatsacks are superfluous to requirements

There’s a well known truism that if you’re the type of person who buys stocks and shares, you’re better off getting into an index-linked fund rather than trusting a human broker to make purchasing decisions for you. Index funds almost always outperform managed ones, passive investing for the long term delivers better returns than short term active management. Further evidence that a certain class of banker is doomed emerges in paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Their analysts have determined that because so much active investing is carried out autonomously now, by AIs which make buy and sell decisions faster than humans can, companies are writing their annual reports in ways that are specifically designed to be machine read, not by biological eyeballs. John Naughton has a nice write up at The Guardian about it. (AO)

# Finally

The console war is over and everyone lost

Try as I might to turn my back on the games industry (where I worked for many years), I can’t help but be drawn in by stats and news of weird and wonderfully juvenile bugs in new games. (Ed: Penis warning.) Stats like the ones published by Visual Capitalist showing the rise of the mobile phone as the dominant platform du jour. My eye, however, is drawn to the bottom of the vis and the relative decline of console gaming revenues compared to PC games – not, in all honesty, what I expected. And given the outrageous price of the new Playstations and Xboxes arriving this Christmas, a trend I suspect will continue. (AO)

Scotland’s snowplows have the best names

Scotland’s road gritters might sound like tough machines, clearing snow and icing roads, but they have the best names: Gangsta Granny Gritter, Ready Spready Go, For Your Ice Only, License to Chill, and Spready Mercury, amongst others. There’s also a great map to track them here. (JNY)
Snowplows with cool names

Who the hell is Jason Norwood-Young?

Journalist, developer, community builder, newsletter creator and international man of mystery, Jason was one of the first South Africans to really grasp the importance of data in the newsroom and has remained one step ahead of the trends in the field all the way. Even Naked Data was conceived before email newsletters were cool again. But what does that tell you about the measure of the man? Nothing, that's what. He hides the superman CV behind a truly mild-mannered and overly modest persona and is best described as "one of the nicest guys in the business". When he's angry, it is righteously so, and his anger always wears velvet mittens. The true signs of his genius include the ability to create multilingual puns on demand (witness the alternative Naked Data strap "Putting the heita in to data") and the fact that he offered me a job. (AO)

Who the hell is Adam Oxford?

Adam combines the best features of his Britishness — polite, sincere, witty, and pasty-white — with the best of South Africanness — enthusiastic, involved, socially conscious, underpaid and overly committed. He wears an incredible amount of hats , including the driving force behind Hacks/Hackers Jo’burg; an "innovation agent" with access-to-justice accelerator HiiL; an editor; a technology journalist; a data journalist; and a budding machine learning and AI expert. His latest gig with Naked Data is a natural progression for a gent that brings a sense of excited purpose to all of his myriad projects. (JNY)

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