Tag Archives: bias

Health technology and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) two-tier health system ‘Viewpoint’

There’s a lot of talk and handwringing about Canada’s health care system, which ebbs and flows in almost predictable cycles. Jesse Hirsh in a May 16, 2017 ‘Viewpoints’ segment (an occasional series run as part the of the CBC’s [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] flagship, daily news programme, The National) dared to reframe the discussion as one about technology and ‘those who get it’  [the technologically literate] and ‘those who don’t’,  a state Hirsh described as being illiterate as you can see and hear in the following video.

I don’t know about you but I’m getting tired of being called illiterate when I don’t know something. To be illiterate means you can’t read and write and as it turns out I do both of those things on a daily basis (sometimes even in two languages). Despite my efforts, I’m ignorant about any number of things and those numbers keep increasing day by day. BTW, Is there anyone who isn’t having trouble keeping up?

Moving on from my rhetorical question, Hirsh has a point about the tech divide and about the need for discussion. It’s a point that hadn’t occurred to me (although I think he’s taking it in the wrong direction). In fact, this business of a tech divide already exists if you consider that people who live in rural environments and need the latest lifesaving techniques or complex procedures or access to highly specialized experts have to travel to urban centres. I gather that Hirsh feels that this divide isn’t necessarily going to be an urban/rural split so much as an issue of how technically literate you and your doctor are.  That’s intriguing but then his argumentation gets muddled. Confusingly, he seems to be suggesting that the key to the split is your access (not your technical literacy) to artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms (presumably he’s referring to big data and data analytics). I expect access will come down more to money than technological literacy.

For example, money is likely to be a key issue when you consider his big pitch is for access to IBM’s Watson computer. (My Feb. 28, 2011 posting titled: Engineering, entertainment, IBM’s Watson, and product placement focuses largely on Watson, its winning appearances on the US television game show, Jeopardy, and its subsequent adoption into the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine in a project to bring Watson into the examining room with patients.)

Hirsh’s choice of IBM’s Watson is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. (1) Presumably there are companies other than IBM in this sector. Why do they not rate a mention?  (2) Given the current situation with IBM and the Canadian federal government’s introduction of the Phoenix payroll system (a PeopleSoft product customized by IBM), which is  a failure of monumental proportions (a Feb. 23, 2017 article by David Reevely for the Ottawa Citizen and a May 25, 2017 article by Jordan Press for the National Post), there may be a little hesitation, if not downright resistance, to a large scale implementation of any IBM product or service, regardless of where the blame lies. (3) Hirsh notes on the home page for his eponymous website,

I’m presently spending time at the IBM Innovation Space in Toronto Canada, investigating the impact of artificial intelligence and cognitive computing on all sectors and industries.

Yes, it would seem he has some sort of relationship with IBM not referenced in his Viewpoints segment on The National. Also, his description of the relationship isn’t especially illuminating but perhaps it.s this? (from the IBM Innovation Space  – Toronto Incubator Application webpage),

Our incubator

The IBM Innovation Space is a Toronto-based incubator that provides startups with a collaborative space to innovate and disrupt the market. Our goal is to provide you with the tools needed to take your idea to the next level, introduce you to the right networks and help you acquire new clients. Our unique approach, specifically around client engagement, positions your company for optimal growth and revenue at an accelerated pace.


IBM Bluemix
IBM Global Entrepreneur
Softlayer – an IBM Company

Startups partnered with the IBM Innovation Space can receive up to $120,000 in IBM credits at no charge for up to 12 months through the Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP). These credits can be used in our products such our IBM Bluemix developer platform, Softlayer cloud services, and our world-renowned IBM Watson ‘cognitive thinking’ APIs. We provide you with enterprise grade technology to meet your clients’ needs, large or small.

Collaborative workspace in the heart of Downtown Toronto
Mentorship opportunities available with leading experts
Access to large clients to scale your startup quickly and effectively
Weekly programming ranging from guest speakers to collaborative activities
Help with funding and access to local VCs and investors​

Final comments

While I have some issues with Hirsh’s presentation, I agree that we should be discussing the issues around increased automation of our health care system. A friend of mine’s husband is a doctor and according to him those prescriptions and orders you get when leaving the hospital? They are not made up by a doctor so much as they are spit up by a computer based on the data that the doctors and nurses have supplied.

GIGO, bias, and de-skilling

Leaving aside the wonders that Hirsh describes, there’s an oldish saying in the computer business, garbage in/garbage out (gigo). At its simplest, who’s going to catch a mistake? (There are lots of mistakes made in hospitals and other health care settings.)

There are also issues around the quality of research. Are all the research papers included in the data used by the algorithms going to be considered equal? There’s more than one case where a piece of problematic research has been accepted uncritically, even if it get through peer review, and subsequently cited many times over. One of the ways to measure impact, i.e., importance, is to track the number of citations. There’s also the matter of where the research is published. A ‘high impact’ journal, such as Nature, Science, or Cell, automatically gives a piece of research a boost.

There are other kinds of bias as well. Increasingly, there’s discussion about algorithms being biased and about how machine learning (AI) can become biased. (See my May 24, 2017 posting: Machine learning programs learn bias, which highlights the issues and cites other FrogHeart posts on that and other related topics.)

These problems are to a large extent already present. Doctors have biases and research can be wrong and it can take a long time before there are corrections. However, the advent of an automated health diagnosis and treatment system is likely to exacerbate the problems. For example, if you don’t agree with your doctor’s diagnosis or treatment, you can search other opinions. What happens when your diagnosis and treatment have become data? Will the system give you another opinion? Who will you talk to? The doctor who got an answer from ‘Watson”? Is she or he going to debate Watson? Are you?

This leads to another issue and that’s automated systems getting more credit than they deserve. Futurists such as Hirsh tend to underestimate people and overestimate the positive impact that automation will have. A computer, data analystics, or an AI system are tools not gods. You’ll have as much luck petitioning one of those tools as you would Zeus.

The unasked question is how will your doctor or other health professional gain experience and skills if they never have to practice the basic, boring aspects of health care (asking questions for a history, reading medical journals to keep up with the research, etc.) and leave them to the computers? There had to be  a reason for calling it a medical ‘practice’.

There are definitely going to be advantages to these technological innovations but thoughtful adoption of these practices (pun intended) should be our goal.

Who owns your data?

Another issue which is increasingly making itself felt is ownership of data. Jacob Brogan has written a provocative May 23, 2017 piece for slate.com asking that question about the data Ancestry.com gathers for DNA testing (Note: Links have been removed),

AncestryDNA’s pitch to consumers is simple enough. For $99 (US), the company will analyze a sample of your saliva and then send back information about your “ethnic mix.” While that promise may be scientifically dubious, it’s a relatively clear-cut proposal. Some, however, worry that the service might raise significant privacy concerns.

After surveying AncestryDNA’s terms and conditions, consumer protection attorney Joel Winston found a few issues that troubled him. As he noted in a Medium post last week, the agreement asserts that it grants the company “a perpetual, royalty-free, world-wide, transferable license to use your DNA.” (The actual clause is considerably longer.) According to Winston, “With this single contractual provision, customers are granting Ancestry.com the broadest possible rights to own and exploit their genetic information.”

Winston also noted a handful of other issues that further complicate the question of ownership. Since we share much of our DNA with our relatives, he warned, “Even if you’ve never used Ancestry.com, but one of your genetic relatives has, the company may already own identifiable portions of your DNA.” [emphasis mine] Theoretically, that means information about your genetic makeup could make its way into the hands of insurers or other interested parties, whether or not you’ve sent the company your spit. (Maryam Zaringhalam explored some related risks in a recent Slate article.) Further, Winston notes that Ancestry’s customers waive their legal rights, meaning that they cannot sue the company if their information gets used against them in some way.

Over the weekend, Eric Heath, Ancestry’s chief privacy officer, responded to these concerns on the company’s own site. He claims that the transferable license is necessary for the company to provide its customers with the service that they’re paying for: “We need that license in order to move your data through our systems, render it around the globe, and to provide you with the results of our analysis work.” In other words, it allows them to send genetic samples to labs (Ancestry uses outside vendors), store the resulting data on servers, and furnish the company’s customers with the results of the study they’ve requested.

Speaking to me over the phone, Heath suggested that this license was akin to the ones that companies such as YouTube employ when users upload original content. It grants them the right to shift that data around and manipulate it in various ways, but isn’t an assertion of ownership. “We have committed to our users that their DNA data is theirs. They own their DNA,” he said.

I’m glad to see the company’s representatives are open to discussion and, later in the article, you’ll see there’ve already been some changes made. Still, there is no guarantee that the situation won’t again change, for ill this time.

What data do they have and what can they do with it?

It’s not everybody who thinks data collection and data analytics constitute problems. While some people might balk at the thought of their genetic data being traded around and possibly used against them, e.g., while hunting for a job, or turned into a source of revenue, there tends to be a more laissez-faire attitude to other types of data. Andrew MacLeod’s May 24, 2017 article for thetyee.ca highlights political implications and privacy issues (Note: Links have been removed),

After a small Victoria [British Columbia, Canada] company played an outsized role in the Brexit vote, government information and privacy watchdogs in British Columbia and Britain have been consulting each other about the use of social media to target voters based on their personal data.

The U.K.’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham [Note: Denham was formerly B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner], announced last week [May 17, 2017] that she is launching an investigation into “the use of data analytics for political purposes.”

The investigation will look at whether political parties or advocacy groups are gathering personal information from Facebook and other social media and using it to target individuals with messages, Denham said.

B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner confirmed it has been contacted by Denham.

Macleod’s March 6, 2017 article for thetyee.ca provides more details about the company’s role (note: Links have been removed),

The “tiny” and “secretive” British Columbia technology company [AggregateIQ; AIQ] that played a key role in the Brexit referendum was until recently listed as the Canadian office of a much larger firm that has 25 years of experience using behavioural research to shape public opinion around the world.

The larger firm, SCL Group, says it has worked to influence election outcomes in 19 countries. Its associated company in the U.S., Cambridge Analytica, has worked on a wide range of campaigns, including Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

In late February [2017], the Telegraph reported that campaign disclosures showed that Vote Leave campaigners had spent £3.5 million — about C$5.75 million [emphasis mine] — with a company called AggregateIQ, run by CEO Zack Massingham in downtown Victoria.

That was more than the Leave side paid any other company or individual during the campaign and about 40 per cent of its spending ahead of the June referendum that saw Britons narrowly vote to exit the European Union.

According to media reports, Aggregate develops advertising to be used on sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, then targets messages to audiences who are likely to be receptive.

The Telegraph story described Victoria as “provincial” and “picturesque” and AggregateIQ as “secretive” and “low-profile.”

Canadian media also expressed surprise at AggregateIQ’s outsized role in the Brexit vote.

The Globe and Mail’s Paul Waldie wrote “It’s quite a coup for Mr. Massingham, who has only been involved in politics for six years and started AggregateIQ in 2013.”

Victoria Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox wrote “If you have never heard of AIQ, join the club.”

The Victoria company, however, appears to be connected to the much larger SCL Group, which describes itself on its website as “the global leader in data-driven communications.”

In the United States it works through related company Cambridge Analytica and has been involved in elections since 2012. Politico reported in 2015 that the firm was working on Ted Cruz’s presidential primary campaign.

And NBC and other media outlets reported that the Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica millions to crunch data on 230 million U.S. adults, using information from loyalty cards, club and gym memberships and charity donations [emphasis mine] to predict how an individual might vote and to shape targeted political messages.

That’s quite a chunk of change and I don’t believe that gym memberships, charity donations, etc. were the only sources of information (in the US, there’s voter registration, credit card information, and more) but the list did raise my eyebrows. It would seem we are under surveillance at all times, even in the gym.

In any event, I hope that Hirsh’s call for discussion is successful and that the discussion includes more critical thinking about the implications of Hirsh’s ‘Brave New World’.

Removing gender-based stereotypes from algorithms

Most people don’t think of algorithms as having biases and stereotypes but Michael Zou in his Sept. 26, 2016 essay for The Conversation (h/t phys.org Sept. 26, 2016 news item) says different, Note: Links have been removed,

Machine learning is ubiquitous in our daily lives. Every time we talk to our smartphones, search for images or ask for restaurant recommendations, we are interacting with machine learning algorithms. They take as input large amounts of raw data, like the entire text of an encyclopedia, or the entire archives of a newspaper, and analyze the information to extract patterns that might not be visible to human analysts. But when these large data sets include social bias, the machines learn that too.

A machine learning algorithm is like a newborn baby that has been given millions of books to read without being taught the alphabet or knowing any words or grammar. The power of this type of information processing is impressive, but there is a problem. When it takes in the text data, a computer observes relationships between words based on various factors, including how often they are used together.

We can test how well the word relationships are identified by using analogy puzzles. Suppose I ask the system to complete the analogy “He is to King as She is to X.” If the system comes back with “Queen,” then we would say it is successful, because it returns the same answer a human would.

Our research group trained the system on Google News articles, and then asked it to complete a different analogy: “Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to X.” The answer came back: “Homemaker.”

Zou explains how a machine (algorithm) learns and then notes this,

Not only can the algorithm reflect society’s biases – demonstrating how much those biases are contained in the input data – but the system can potentially amplify gender stereotypes. Suppose I search for “computer programmer” and the search program uses a gender-biased database that associates that term more closely with a man than a woman.

The search results could come back flawed by the bias. Because “John” as a male name is more closely related to “computer programmer” than the female name “Mary” in the biased data set, the search program could evaluate John’s website as more relevant to the search than Mary’s – even if the two websites are identical except for the names and gender pronouns.

It’s true that the biased data set could actually reflect factual reality – perhaps there are more “Johns” who are programmers than there are “Marys” – and the algorithms simply capture these biases. This does not absolve the responsibility of machine learning in combating potentially harmful stereotypes. The biased results would not just repeat but could even boost the statistical bias that most programmers are male, by moving the few female programmers lower in the search results. It’s useful and important to have an alternative that’s not biased.

There is a way according to Zou that stereotypes can be removed,

Our debiasing system uses real people to identify examples of the types of connections that are appropriate (brother/sister, king/queen) and those that should be removed. Then, using these human-generated distinctions, we quantified the degree to which gender was a factor in those word choices – as opposed to, say, family relationships or words relating to royalty.

Next we told our machine-learning algorithm to remove the gender factor from the connections in the embedding. This removes the biased stereotypes without reducing the overall usefulness of the embedding.

When that is done, we found that the machine learning algorithm no longer exhibits blatant gender stereotypes. We are investigating applying related ideas to remove other types of biases in the embedding, such as racial or cultural stereotypes.

If you have time, I encourage you to read the essay in its entirety and this June 14, 2016 posting about research into algorithms and how they make decisions for you about credit, medical diagnoses, job opportunities and more.

There’s also an Oct. 24, 2016 article by Michael Light on Salon.com on the topic (Note: Links have been removed),

In a recent book that was longlisted for the National Book Award, Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist, blogger and former hedge-fund quant, details a number of flawed algorithms to which we have given incredible power — she calls them “Weapons of Math Destruction.” We have entrusted these WMDs to make important, potentially life-altering decisions, yet in many cases, they embed human race and class biases; in other cases, they don’t function at all.
Among other examples, O’Neil examines a “value-added” model New York City used to decide which teachers to fire, even though, she writes, the algorithm was useless, functioning essentially as a random number generator, arbitrarily ending careers. She looks at models put to use by judges to assign recidivism scores to inmates that ended up having a racist inclination. And she looks at how algorithms are contributing to American partisanship, allowing political operatives to target voters with information that plays to their existing biases and fears.

I recommend reading Light’s article in its entirety.

Viruses mine for copper at the University of BC; microscopy at the University of Victoria; the Henry Louis Gates Jr. affair, human nature, & human enhancement

Professor Scott Dunbar at the University of British Columbia’s (Canada) Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering needed to partner with colleagues Sue Curtis and Ross MacGillivray from the Centre for Blood Research and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology after (from the media release on Nanowerk News),

“I read an article about bacteriophage – viruses that infect bacteria – being used to create nanodevices in which proteins on the phage surface are engineered to bind to gold and zinc sulfide,” says Dunbar. “And it struck me: if zinc sulfide, why not copper sulfide? And if so, then it might be possible to use these bio-engineered proteins to separate common economic sulfide minerals from waste during mineral extraction.”

Together the researchers have developed a procedure called “biopanning.” It’s a kind of genetic engineering which could lead to some useful applications.

It turns out that the phage that bind to a mineral do affect the mineral surfaces, causing them to have a different electrical charge than other minerals. The proteins on the phage also form links to each other leading to aggregation of the specific sulfide particles. “The physical and chemical changes caused by phage may be the basis for a highly selective method of mineral separation with better recovery. Another possible application is bioremediation, where metals are removed from contaminated water” says Dunbar.

In other BC news, the University of Victoria (Canada) will be getting a new microscope which senses at subatomic levels. (From the media release on Azonano),

The new microscope-called a Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope (STEHM) — will use an electron beam and holography techniques to observe the inside of materials and their surfaces to an expected resolution as small as one-fiftieth the size of an atom.

This is being done in collaboration with Hitachi High-Technologies which is building the microscope in Japan and installing it at U Vic in late 2010. The microscope will be located in a specially adapted room where work to prepare and calibrate it will continue until it becomes operational sometime in 2011.

After my recent series on robots and human enhancement, I feel moved to comment on the situation in the US vis a vis Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his arrest by the police officer, James Crowley. It’s reported here and elsewhere that neither the recording of the 911 call nor the concerned neighbour who made the call support Sergeant Crowley’s contention that the two men allegedly breaking into the house were described as ‘black’.

Only the participants know what happened and I don’t fully understand the nuances of race, class, and cultural differences that exist in the US so I can’t comment on anything other than this. It is human to hear what we expect to hear and I have an example from a much less charged situation.

Many years ago, I was transcribing notes from a taped interview (one of my first) for an article that I was writing for a newsletter. As I was transcribing, I noticed that I kept changing words so that the interview subject sounded more like me. They were synonyms but they were my words not his. Over the years I’ve gotten much better at being more exact but I’ve never forgotten how easy it is to insert your pet words (biased or not) when you’re remembering what someone said. Note: I was not in a stressful situation and I could rewind and listen again at my leisure.

I hope that Crowley and Gates, Jr. are able to work this out in some fashion and I really hope that it is done in a way that is respectful to both men and not a rush to a false resolution for the benefit of the cameras. For a more informed discussion of the situation, you may find this essay by Richard Thompson Ford  in Slate helpful. It was written before the recording of the 911 call was made public but I think it still stands.

My reason for mentioning this incident is that human nature tends to assert itself in all kinds of situations including the building of robots and the debates on human enhancement, something I did not mention in my series posted (July 22 – 24, 27, 2009).