Tag Archives: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know? Artificial Intelligence at the Vancouver (Canada) Art Gallery (2 of 2): Meditations

Dear friend,

I thought it best to break this up a bit. There are a couple of ‘objects’ still to be discussed but this is mostly the commentary part of this letter to you. (Here’s a link for anyone who stumbled here but missed Part 1.)

Ethics, the natural world, social justice, eeek, and AI

Dorothy Woodend in her March 10, 2022 review for The Tyee) suggests some ethical issues in her critique of the ‘bee/AI collaboration’ and she’s not the only one with concerns. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has produced global recommendations for ethical AI (see my March 18, 2022 posting). More recently, there’s “Racist and sexist robots have flawed AI,” a June 23, 2022 posting, where researchers prepared a conference presentation and paper about deeply flawed AI still being used in robots.

Ultimately, the focus is always on humans and Woodend has extended the ethical AI conversation to include insects and the natural world. In short, something less human-centric.

My friend, this reference to the de Young exhibit may seem off topic but I promise it isn’t in more ways than one. The de Young Museum in San Francisco (February 22, 2020 – June 27, 2021) also held and AI and art show called, “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI”), from the exhibitions page,

In today’s AI-driven world, increasingly organized and shaped by algorithms that track, collect, and evaluate our data, the question of what it means to be human [emphasis mine] has shifted. Uncanny Valley is the first major exhibition to unpack this question through a lens of contemporary art and propose new ways of thinking about intelligence, nature, and artifice. [emphasis mine]

Courtesy: de Young Museum [downloaded from https://deyoung.famsf.org/exhibitions/uncanny-valley]

As you can see, it hinted (perhaps?) at an attempt to see beyond human-centric AI. (BTW, I featured this ‘Uncanny Valley’ show in my February 25, 2020 posting where I mentioned Stephanie Dinkins [featured below] and other artists.)

Social justice

While the VAG show doesn’t see much past humans and AI, it does touch on social justice. In particular there’s Pod 15 featuring the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL). The group “combine[s] art and research to illuminate the social implications and harms of AI” as per their website’s homepage.

In Pod 9, Stephanie Dinkins’ video work with a robot (Bina48), which was also part of the de Young Museum ‘Uncanny Valley’ show, addresses some of the same issues.

Still of Stephanie Dinkins, “Conversations with Bina48,” 2014–present. Courtesy of the artist [downloaded from https://deyoung.famsf.org/stephanie-dinkins-conversations-bina48-0]

From the the de Young Museum’s Stephanie Dinkins “Conversations with Bina48” April 23, 2020 article by Janna Keegan (Dinkins submitted the same work you see at the VAG show), Note: Links have been removed,

Transdisciplinary artist and educator Stephanie Dinkins is concerned with fostering AI literacy. The central thesis of her social practice is that AI, the internet, and other data-based technologies disproportionately impact people of color, LGBTQ+ people, women, and disabled and economically disadvantaged communities—groups rarely given a voice in tech’s creation. Dinkins strives to forge a more equitable techno-future by generating AI that includes the voices of multiple constituencies …

The artist’s ongoing Conversations with Bina48 takes the form of a series of interactions with the social robot Bina48 (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture, 48 exaflops per second). The machine is the brainchild of Martine Rothblatt, an entrepreneur in the field of biopharmaceuticals who, with her wife, Bina, cofounded the Terasem Movement, an organization that seeks to extend human life through cybernetic means. In 2007 Martine commissioned Hanson Robotics to create a robot whose appearance and consciousness simulate Bina’s. The robot was released in 2010, and Dinkins began her work with it in 2014.

Part psychoanalytical discourse, part Turing test, Conversations with Bina48 also participates in a larger dialogue regarding bias and representation in technology. Although Bina Rothblatt is a Black woman, Bina48 was not programmed with an understanding of its Black female identity or with knowledge of Black history. Dinkins’s work situates this omission amid the larger tech industry’s lack of diversity, drawing attention to the problems that arise when a roughly homogenous population creates technologies deployed globally. When this occurs, writes art critic Tess Thackara, “the unconscious biases of white developers proliferate on the internet, mapping our social structures and behaviors onto code and repeating imbalances and injustices that exist in the real world.” One of the most appalling and public of these instances occurred when a Google Photos image-recognition algorithm mislabeled the faces of Black people as “gorillas.”

Eeek

You will find as you go through the ‘imitation game’ a pod with a screen showing your movements through the rooms in realtime on a screen. The installation is called “Creepers” (2021-22). The student team from Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media (CDM) describes their project this way, from the CDM’s AI-driven Installation Piece for the Vancouver Art Gallery webpage,

Project Description

Kaleidoscope [team name] is designing an installation piece that harnesses AI to collect and visualize exhibit visitor behaviours, and interactions with art, in an impactful and thought-provoking way.

There’s no warning that you’re being tracked and you can see they’ve used facial recognition software to track your movements through the show. It’s claimed on the pod’s signage that they are deleting the data once you’ve left.

‘Creepers’ is an interesting approach to the ethics of AI. The name suggests that even the student designers were aware it was problematic.

For the curious, there’s a description of the other VAG ‘imitation game’ installations provided by CDM students on the ‘Master of Digital Media Students Develop Revolutionary Installations for Vancouver Art Gallery AI Exhibition‘ webpage.

In recovery from an existential crisis (meditations)

There’s something greatly ambitious about “The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” and walking up the VAG’s grand staircase affirms that ambition. Bravo to the two curators, Grenville and Entis for an exhibition.that presents a survey (or overview) of artificial intelligence, and its use in and impact on creative visual culture.

I’ve already enthused over the history (specifically Turing, Lovelace, Ovid), admitted to being mesmerized by Scott Eaton’s sculpture/AI videos, and confessed to a fascination (and mild repulsion) regarding Oxman’s honeycombs.

It’s hard to remember all of the ‘objects’ as the curators have offered a jumble of work, almost all of them on screens. Already noted, there’s Norbert Wiener’s The Moth (1949) and there are also a number of other computer-based artworks from the 1960s and 1970s. Plus, you’ll find works utilizing a GAN (generative adversarial network), an AI agent that is explained in the exhibit.

It’s worth going more than once to the show as there is so much to experience.

Why did they do that?

Dear friend, I’ve already commented on the poor flow through the show and It’s hard to tell if the curators intended the experience to be disorienting but this is to the point of chaos, especially when the exhibition is crowded.

I’ve seen Grenville’s shows before. In particular there was “MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture, a massive survey documenting the emergence of a mode of creativity that materialized in the late 1800s and has grown to become the dominant model of cultural production in the 21st century” and there was “KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Manga + Video Games + Art.” As you can see from the description, he pulls together disparate works and ideas into a show for you to ‘make sense’ of them.

One of the differences between those shows and the “imitation Game: …” is that most of us have some familiarity, whether we like it or not, with modern art/culture and anime/manga/etc. and can try to ‘make sense’ of it.

By contrast, artificial intelligence (which even experts have difficulty defining) occupies an entirely different set of categories; all of them associated with science/technology. This makes for a different kind of show so the curators cannot rely on the audience’s understanding of basics. It’s effectively an art/sci or art/tech show and, I believe, the first of its kind at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Unfortunately, the curators don’t seem to have changed their approach to accommodate that difference.

AI is also at the centre of a current panic over job loss, loss of personal agency, automated racism and sexism, etc. which makes the experience of viewing the show a little tense. In this context, their decision to commission and use ‘Creepers’ seems odd.

Where were Ai-Da and Dall-E-2 and the others?

Oh friend, I was hoping for a robot. Those roomba paintbots didn’t do much for me. All they did was lie there on the floor

To be blunt I wanted some fun and perhaps a bit of wonder and maybe a little vitality. I wasn’t necessarily expecting Ai-Da, an artisitic robot, but something three dimensional and fun in this very flat, screen-oriented show would have been nice.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-asset.jpeg
Ai-Da was at the Glastonbury Festival in the U from 23-26th June 2022. Here’s Ai-Da and her Billie Eilish (one of the Glastonbury 2022 headliners) portrait. [downloaded from https://www.ai-darobot.com/exhibition]

Ai-Da was first featured here in a December 17, 2021 posting about performing poetry that she had written in honour of the 700th anniversary of poet Dante Alighieri’s death.

Named in honour of Ada Lovelace, Ai-Da visited the 2022 Venice Biennale as Leah Henrickson and Simone Natale describe in their May 12, 2022 article for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Ai-Da sits behind a desk, paintbrush in hand. She looks up at the person posing for her, and then back down as she dabs another blob of paint onto the canvas. A lifelike portrait is taking shape. If you didn’t know a robot produced it, this portrait could pass as the work of a human artist.

Ai-Da is touted as the “first robot to paint like an artist,” and an exhibition of her work, called Leaping into the Metaverse, opened at the Venice Biennale.

Ai-Da produces portraits of sitting subjects using a robotic hand attached to her lifelike feminine figure. She’s also able to talk, giving detailed answers to questions about her artistic process and attitudes toward technology. She even gave a TEDx talk about “The Intersection of Art and AI” in Oxford a few years ago. While the words she speaks are programmed, Ai-Da’s creators have also been experimenting with having her write and perform her own poetry.

She has her own website.

If not Ai-Da, what about Dall-E-2? Aaron Hertzmann’s June 20, 2022 commentary, “Give this AI a few words of description and it produces a stunning image – but is it art?” investigates for Salon (Note: Links have been removed),

DALL-E 2 is a new neural network [AI] algorithm that creates a picture from a short phrase or sentence that you provide. The program, which was announced by the artificial intelligence research laboratory OpenAI in April 2022, hasn’t been released to the public. But a small and growing number of people – myself included – have been given access to experiment with it.

As a researcher studying the nexus of technology and art, I was keen to see how well the program worked. After hours of experimentation, it’s clear that DALL-E – while not without shortcomings – is leaps and bounds ahead of existing image generation technology. It raises immediate questions about how these technologies will change how art is made and consumed. It also raises questions about what it means to be creative when DALL-E 2 seems to automate so much of the creative process itself.

A July 4, 2022 article “DALL-E, Make Me Another Picasso, Please” by Laura Lane for The New Yorker has a rebuttal to Ada Lovelace’s contention that creativity is uniquely human (Note: A link has been removed),

“There was this belief that creativity is this deeply special, only-human thing,” Sam Altman, OpenAI’s C.E.O., explained the other day. Maybe not so true anymore, he said. Altman, who wore a gray sweater and had tousled brown hair, was videoconferencing from the company’s headquarters, in San Francisco. DALL-E is still in a testing phase. So far, OpenAI has granted access to a select group of people—researchers, artists, developers—who have used it to produce a wide array of images: photorealistic animals, bizarre mashups, punny collages. Asked by a user to generate “a plate of various alien fruits from another planet photograph,” DALL-E returned something kind of like rambutans. “The rest of mona lisa” is, according to DALL-E, mostly just one big cliff. Altman described DALL-E as “an extension of your own creativity.”

There are other AI artists, in my August 16, 2019 posting, I had this,

AI artists first hit my radar in August 2018 when Christie’s Auction House advertised an art auction of a ‘painting’ by an algorithm (artificial intelligence). There’s more in my August 31, 2018 posting but, briefly, a French art collective, Obvious, submitted a painting, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” that was created by an artificial intelligence agent to be sold for an estimated to $7000 – $10,000. They weren’t even close. According to Ian Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic, the painting sold for $432,500 In October 2018.

That posting also included AI artist, AICAN. Both artist-AI agents (Obvious and AICAN) are based on GANs (generative adversarial networks) for learning and eventual output. Both artist-AI agents work independently or with human collaborators on art works that are available for purchase.

As might be expected not everyone is excited about AI and visual art. Sonja Drimmer, Professor of Medieval Art, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, provides another perspective on AI, visual art, and, her specialty, art history in her November 1, 2021 essay for The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

Over the past year alone, I’ve come across articles highlighting how artificial intelligence recovered a “secret” painting of a “lost lover” of Italian painter Modigliani, “brought to life” a “hidden Picasso nude”, “resurrected” Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s destroyed works and “restored” portions of Rembrandt’s 1642 painting “The Night Watch.” The list goes on.

As an art historian, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the coverage and circulation of these projects.

They have not, in actuality, revealed one secret or solved a single mystery.

What they have done is generate feel-good stories about AI.

Take the reports about the Modigliani and Picasso paintings.

These were projects executed by the same company, Oxia Palus, which was founded not by art historians but by doctoral students in machine learning.

In both cases, Oxia Palus relied upon traditional X-rays, X-ray fluorescence and infrared imaging that had already been carried out and published years prior – work that had revealed preliminary paintings beneath the visible layer on the artists’ canvases.

The company edited these X-rays and reconstituted them as new works of art by applying a technique called “neural style transfer.” This is a sophisticated-sounding term for a program that breaks works of art down into extremely small units, extrapolates a style from them and then promises to recreate images of other content in that same style.

As you can ‘see’ my friend, the topic of AI and visual art is a juicy one. In fact, I have another example in my June 27, 2022 posting, which is titled, “Art appraised by algorithm.” So, Grenville’s and Entis’ decision to focus on AI and its impact on visual culture is quite timely.

Visual culture: seeing into the future

The VAG Imitation Game webpage lists these categories of visual culture “animation, architecture, art, fashion, graphic design, urban design and video games …” as being represented in the show. Movies and visual art, not mentioned in the write up, are represented while theatre and other performing arts are not mentioned or represented. That’ s not a surprise.

In addition to an area of science/technology that’s not well understood even by experts, the curators took on the truly amorphous (and overwhelming) topic of visual culture. Given that even writing this commentary has been a challenge, I imagine pulling the show together was quite the task.

Grenville often grounds his shows in a history of the subject and, this time, it seems especially striking. You’re in a building that is effectively a 19th century construct and in galleries that reflect a 20th century ‘white cube’ aesthetic, while looking for clues into the 21st century future of visual culture employing technology that has its roots in the 19th century and, to some extent, began to flower in the mid-20th century.

Chung’s collaboration is one of the only ‘optimistic’ notes about the future and, as noted earlier, it bears a resemblance to Wiener’s 1949 ‘Moth’

Overall, it seems we are being cautioned about the future. For example, Oxman’s work seems bleak (bees with no flowers to pollinate and living in an eternal spring). Adding in ‘Creepers’ and surveillance along with issues of bias and social injustice reflects hesitation and concern about what we will see, who sees it, and how it will be represented visually.

Learning about robots, automatons, artificial intelligence, and more

I wish the Vancouver Art Gallery (and Vancouver’s other art galleries) would invest a little more in audience education. A couple of tours, by someone who may or may not know what they’re talking, about during the week do not suffice. The extra material about Stephanie Dinkins and her work (“Conversations with Bina48,” 2014–present) came from the de Young Museum’s website. In my July 26, 2021 commentary on North Vancouver’s Polygon Gallery 2021 show “Interior Infinite,” I found background information for artist Zanele Muholi on the Tate Modern’s website. There is nothing on the VAG website that helps you to gain some perspective on the artists’ works.

It seems to me that if the VAG wants to be considered world class, it should conduct itself accordingly and beefing up its website with background information about their current shows would be a good place to start.

Robots, automata, and artificial intelligence

Prior to 1921, robots were known exclusively as automatons. These days, the word ‘automaton’ (or ‘automata’ in the plural) seems to be used to describe purely mechanical representations of humans from over 100 years ago whereas the word ‘robot’ can be either ‘humanlike’ or purely machine, e.g. a mechanical arm that performs the same function over and over. I have a good February 24, 2017 essay on automatons by Miguel Barral for OpenMind BBVA*, which provides some insight into the matter,

The concept of robot is relatively recent. The idea was introduced in 1921 by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his work R.U.R to designate a machine that performs tasks in place of man. But their predecessors, the automatons (from the Greek automata, or “mechanical device that works by itself”), have been the object of desire and fascination since antiquity. Some of the greatest inventors in history, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, have contributed to our fascination with these fabulous creations:

The Al-Jazari automatons

The earliest examples of known automatons appeared in the Islamic world in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1206, the Arab polymath Al-Jazari, whose creations were known for their sophistication, described some of his most notable automatons: an automatic wine dispenser, a soap and towels dispenser and an orchestra-automaton that operated by the force of water. This latter invention was meant to liven up parties and banquets with music while floating on a pond, lake or fountain.

As the water flowed, it started a rotating drum with pegs that, in turn, moved levers whose movement produced different sounds and movements. As the pegs responsible for the musical notes could be exchanged for different ones in order to interpret another melody, it is considered one of the first programmable machines in history.

If you’re curious about automata, my friend, I found this Sept. 26, 2016 ABC news radio news item about singer Roger Daltrey’s and his wife, Heather’s auction of their collection of 19th century French automata (there’s an embedded video showcasing these extraordinary works of art). For more about automata, robots, and androids, there’s an excellent May 4, 2022 article by James Vincent, ‘A visit to the human factory; How to build the world’s most realistic robot‘ for The Verge; Vincent’s article is about Engineered Arts, the UK-based company that built Ai-Da.

AI is often used interchangeably with ‘robot’ but they aren’t the same. Not all robots have AI integrated into their processes. At its simplest AI is an algorithm or set of algorithms, which may ‘live’ in a CPU and be effectively invisible or ‘live’ in or make use of some kind of machine and/or humanlike body. As the experts have noted, the concept of artificial intelligence is a slippery concept.

*OpenMind BBVA is a Spanish multinational financial services company, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), which runs the non-profit project, OpenMind (About us page) to disseminate information on robotics and so much more.*

You can’t always get what you want

My friend,

I expect many of the show’s shortcomings (as perceived by me) are due to money and/or scheduling issues. For example, Ai-Da was at the Venice Biennale and if there was a choice between the VAG and Biennale, I know where I’d be.

Even with those caveats in mind, It is a bit surprising that there were no examples of wearable technology. For example, Toronto’s Tapestry Opera recently performed R.U.R. A Torrent of Light (based on the word ‘robot’ from Karel Čapek’s play, R.U.R., ‘Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti’), from my May 24, 2022 posting,

I have more about tickets prices, dates, and location later in this post but first, here’s more about the opera and the people who’ve created it from the Tapestry Opera’s ‘R.U.R. A Torrent of Light’ performance webpage,

“This stunning new opera combines dance, beautiful multimedia design, a chamber orchestra including 100 instruments creating a unique electronica-classical sound, and wearable technology [emphasis mine] created with OCAD University’s Social Body Lab, to create an immersive and unforgettable science-fiction experience.”

And, from later in my posting,

“Despite current stereotypes, opera was historically a launchpad for all kinds of applied design technologies. [emphasis mine] Having the opportunity to collaborate with OCAD U faculty is an invigorating way to reconnect to that tradition and foster connections between art, music and design, [emphasis mine]” comments the production’s Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, who is also Tapestry Opera’s Artistic Director. 

That last quote brings me back to the my comment about theatre and performing arts not being part of the show. Of course, the curators couldn’t do it all but a website with my hoped for background and additional information could have helped to solve the problem.

The absence of the theatrical and performing arts in the VAG’s ‘Imitation Game’ is a bit surprising as the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) in their third assessment, “Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada” released in 2018 noted this (from my April 12, 2018 posting),

Canada, relative to the world, specializes in subjects generally referred to as the
humanities and social sciences (plus health and the environment), and does
not specialize as much as others in areas traditionally referred to as the physical
sciences and engineering. Specifically, Canada has comparatively high levels
of research output in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Public Health and
Health Services, Philosophy and Theology, Earth and Environmental Sciences,
and Visual and Performing Arts. [emphasis mine] It accounts for more than 5% of world research in these fields. Conversely, Canada has lower research output than expected in Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy, Enabling and Strategic Technologies,
Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics. The comparatively low research
output in core areas of the natural sciences and engineering is concerning,
and could impair the flexibility of Canada’s research base, preventing research
institutions and researchers from being able to pivot to tomorrow’s emerging
research areas. [p. xix Print; p. 21 PDF]

US-centric

My friend,

I was a little surprised that the show was so centered on work from the US given that Grenville has curated ate least one show where there was significant input from artists based in Asia. Both Japan and Korea are very active with regard to artificial intelligence and it’s hard to believe that their artists haven’t kept pace. (I’m not as familiar with China and its AI efforts, other than in the field of facial recognition, but it’s hard to believe their artists aren’t experimenting.)

The Americans, of course, are very important developers in the field of AI but they are not alone and it would have been nice to have seen something from Asia and/or Africa and/or something from one of the other Americas. In fact, anything which takes us out of the same old, same old. (Luba Elliott wrote this (2019/2020/2021?) essay, “Artificial Intelligence Art from Africa and Black Communities Worldwide” on Aya Data if you want to get a sense of some of the activity on the African continent. Elliott does seem to conflate Africa and Black Communities, for some clarity you may want to check out the Wikipedia entry on Africanfuturism, which contrasts with this August 12, 2020 essay by Donald Maloba, “What is Afrofuturism? A Beginner’s Guide.” Maloba also conflates the two.)

As it turns out, Luba Elliott presented at the 2019 Montréal Digital Spring event, which brings me to Canada’s artificial intelligence and arts scene.

I promise I haven’t turned into a flag waving zealot, my friend. It’s just odd there isn’t a bit more given that machine learning was pioneered at the University of Toronto. Here’s more about that (from Wikipedia entry for Geoffrey Hinston),

Geoffrey Everest HintonCCFRSFRSC[11] (born 6 December 1947) is a British-Canadian cognitive psychologist and computer scientist, most noted for his work on artificial neural networks.

Hinton received the 2018 Turing Award, together with Yoshua Bengio [Canadian scientist] and Yann LeCun, for their work on deep learning.[24] They are sometimes referred to as the “Godfathers of AI” and “Godfathers of Deep Learning“,[25][26] and have continued to give public talks together.[27][28]

Some of Hinton’s work was started in the US but since 1987, he has pursued his interests at the University of Toronto. He wasn’t proven right until 2012. Katrina Onstad’s February 29, 2018 article (Mr. Robot) for Toronto Life is a gripping read about Hinton and his work on neural networks. BTW, Yoshua Bengio (co-Godfather) is a Canadian scientist at the Université de Montréal and Yann LeCun (co-Godfather) is a French scientist at New York University.

Then, there’s another contribution, our government was the first in the world to develop a national artificial intelligence strategy. Adding those developments to the CCA ‘State of Science’ report findings about visual arts and performing arts, is there another word besides ‘odd’ to describe the lack of Canadian voices?

You’re going to point out the installation by Ben Bogart (a member of Simon Fraser University’s Metacreation Lab for Creative AI and instructor at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECU)) but it’s based on the iconic US scifi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. As for the other Canadian, Sougwen Chung, she left Canada pretty quickly to get her undergraduate degree in the US and has since moved to the UK. (You could describe hers as the quintessential success story, i.e., moving from Canada only to get noticed here after success elsewhere.)

Of course, there are the CDM student projects but the projects seem less like an exploration of visual culture than an exploration of technology and industry requirements, from the ‘Master of Digital Media Students Develop Revolutionary Installations for Vancouver Art Gallery AI Exhibition‘ webpage, Note: A link has been removed,

In 2019, Bruce Grenville, Senior Curator at Vancouver Art Gallery, approached [the] Centre for Digital Media to collaborate on several industry projects for the forthcoming exhibition. Four student teams tackled the project briefs over the course of the next two years and produced award-winning installations that are on display until October 23 [2022].

Basically, my friend, it would have been nice to see other voices or, at the least, an attempt at representing other voices and visual cultures informed by AI. As for Canadian contributions, maybe put something on the VAG website?

Playing well with others

it’s always a mystery to me why the Vancouver cultural scene seems comprised of a set of silos or closely guarded kingdoms. Reaching out to the public library and other institutions such as Science World might have cost time but could have enhanced the show

For example, one of the branches of the New York Public Library ran a programme called, “We are AI” in March 2022 (see my March 23, 2022 posting about the five-week course, which was run as a learning circle). The course materials are available for free (We are AI webpage) and I imagine that adding a ‘visual culture module’ wouldn’t be that difficult.

There is one (rare) example of some Vancouver cultural institutions getting together to offer an art/science programme and that was in 2017 when the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery (at the University of British Columbia; UBC) hosted an exhibition of Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s work (see my Sept. 11, 2017 posting about the gallery show) along with that show was an ancillary event held by the folks at Café Scientifique at Science World and featuring a panel of professionals from UBC’s Faculty of Medicine and Dept. of Psychology, discussing Cajal’s work.

In fact, where were the science and technology communities for this show?

On a related note, the 2022 ACM SIGGRAPH conference (August 7 – 11, 2022) is being held in Vancouver. (ACM is the Association for Computing Machinery; SIGGRAPH is for Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques.) SIGGRAPH has been holding conferences in Vancouver every few years since at least 2011.

At this year’s conference, they have at least two sessions that indicate interests similar to the VAG’s. First, there’s Immersive Visualization for Research, Science and Art which includes AI and machine learning along with other related topics. There’s also, Frontiers Talk: Art in the Age of AI: Can Computers Create Art?

This is both an international conference and an exhibition (of art) and the whole thing seems to have kicked off on July 25, 2022. If you’re interested, the programme can be found here and registration here.

Last time SIGGRAPH was here the organizers seemed interested in outreach and they offered some free events.

In the end

It was good to see the show. The curators brought together some exciting material. As is always the case, there were some missed opportunities and a few blind spots. But all is not lost.

July 27, 2022, the VAG held a virtual event with an artist,

Gwenyth Chao to learn more about what happened to the honeybees and hives in Oxman’s Synthetic Apiary project. As a transdisciplinary artist herself, Chao will also discuss the relationship between art, science, technology and design. She will then guide participants to create a space (of any scale, from insect to human) inspired by patterns found in nature.

Hopefully there will be more more events inspired by specific ‘objects’. Meanwhile, August 12, 2022, the VAG is hosting,

… in partnership with the Canadian Music Centre BC, New Music at the Gallery is a live concert series hosted by the Vancouver Art Gallery that features an array of musicians and composers who draw on contemporary art themes.

Highlighting a selection of twentieth- and twenty-first-century music compositions, this second concert, inspired by the exhibition The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, will spotlight The Iliac Suite (1957), the first piece ever written using only a computer, and Kaija Saariaho’s Terra Memoria (2006), which is in a large part dependent on a computer-generated musical process.

It would be lovely if they could include an Ada Lovelace Day event. This is an international celebration held on October 11, 2022.

Do go. Do enjoy, my friend.

Let’s celebrate the International Day of Mathematics March 14, 2022 even if it is a little late

A March 14, 2022 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) announcement (received via email) focuses on mathematics,

Despite the omnipresence of mathematics in our daily lives, in our phones, credit cards, cars etc., there may not be enough mathematicians to solve the complex challenges we face, from climate change to pandemics, a new UNESCO study finds.

Some 41% of the global population is at risk from flooding caused by tropical cyclones. Thanks to new mathematical models and better algorithms, the path of a tropical cyclone can now be predicted up to a week in advance.  In 2019, it could only be predicted five days in advance and, in the 1970s, just 36 hours ahead. Longer visibility gives municipal authorities precious additional time to plan the evacuation of populations in highly exposed areas.

This is just one of many case studies in Mathematics for Action, a new UNESCO publication released on 14 March to mark International Mathematics Day. “The study demonstrates why it makes sense for governments to include a mathematician on their team of scientific advisors”, says Christiane Rousseau of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Montréal in Canada, who led the development of the toolkit.  

Mathematical methods to design vaccines

“The COVID-19 pandemic has really brought mathematical modelling into the public eye”, she adds. “Two years ago, who would have thought that a term such as ‘flattening the curve’ would become part of the public lexicon?” Similarly, news stories referring to mathematical terms such as the basic reproduction rate (R0) of the virus or ‘herd immunity’ through mass vaccination have become regular features. Mathematical methods themselves have been used to design vaccines more efficiently and to model vaccine hesitancy as a social phenomenon.

But the utility of mathematics does not stop there. For Norbert Hounkonnou, President of the Network of African Science Academies, “the Mathematics for Action toolkit is a revolutionary policy-oriented tool. It showcases the decisive role of mathematics in contributing to solving the world’s most pressing challenges and in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals”.

One of these goals is to end poverty. The toolkit describes, for example, how researchers were able to compile poverty maps of 552 villages and communities in Senegal and identify areas in need of greater public investment, despite missing census data. By applying mathematical tools like machine learning algorithms (artificial intelligence), the researchers were able to establish the extent of poverty in specific areas. .

Scenarios for the future

How are the many services nature provides, such as freshwater, medicinal plants or crops to be priced? Two research studies in Mathematics for Action do just that by quantifying the value of ecosystem services and biodiversity of large estuaries in North America and Asia.

The toolkit describes how mathematical models enable the exploration of multiple “what-if” scenarios to inform the decision-making process. Scientists use climate models in combination with storylines to produce plausible alternative scenarios for the future.

“The shortage of quality mathematics teachers around the world is a threat to training a sufficient number of mathematicians and scientists capable of meeting the challenges of the contemporary world”, warn Merrilyn Goos and Anjum Halai, the two Vice-Presidents of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction, two authors of the toolkit.

Read the toolkit Mathematics for action: supporting science-based decision-making

The International Day of Mathematics was proclaimed by UNESCO in 2019 to draw attention to the extensive contribution that mathematics makes to social progress and the plethora of vocations that mathematics offers to boys and girls.

Mathematics for Action: Supporting Science-Based Decision Making is a series of policy briefs produced by UNESCO, the Centre de recherches mathématiques of Canada, the International Mathematical Union, the International Science Council and their partners.

The Centre de recherches mathématiques (CRM) was the manager of the toolkit project, which was produced by a consortium composed of the:

African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS)

African Mathematical Union (AMU)

Centre de recherches mathématiques (CRM)

UNESCO Cat II centre CIMPA (Centre international de mathématiques pures et appliquées)

European Mathematical Society (EMS)

Institut des Sciences mathématiques et de leurs interactions (INSMI) au CNRS [Centre national de la recherche scientifique]

Institut de valorisation des données (IVADO), Canada

International Commission on Mathematical Instruction (ICMI)

International Mathematical Union (IMU)

International Science Council (ISC)

I just noticed that March 14, 2022 is also Pi Day (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Pi Day is an annual celebration of the mathematical constant π (pi). Pi Day is observed on March 14 (3/14 in the month/day format) since 3, 1, and 4 are the first three significant figures of π.[2][3] It was founded in 1988 by Larry Shaw, an employee of the Exploratorium. Celebrations often involve eating pie or holding pi recitation competitions. In 2009, the United States House of Representatives supported the designation of Pi Day.[4] UNESCO’s 40th General Conference designated Pi Day as the International Day of Mathematics in November 2019.[5][6] Alternative dates for the holiday include July 22[alpha 1] (22/7, an approximation of π) and June 28 (6.28, an approximation of 2π or tau).

As you can see from the entry, it’s not coincidence that Pi Day and the International Day of Mathematics are celebrated on the same day.

UNESCO’s first global recommendations on the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) announced

This makes a nice accompaniment to my commentary (December 3, 2021 posting) on the Nature of Things programme (telecast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), The Machine That Feels.

Here’s UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) November 25, 2021 press release making the announcement (also received via email),

UNESCO member states adopt the first ever global agreement [recommendation] on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

Paris, 25 Nov [2021] – Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO presented
Thursday the first ever global standard on the ethics of artificial
intelligence adopted by the member states of UNESCO at the General
Conference.

This historical text defines the common values and principles which will
guide the construction of the necessary legal infrastructure to ensure
the healthy development of AI.

AI is pervasive, and enables many of our daily routines – booking
flights, steering driverless cars, and personalising our morning news
feeds. AI also supports the decision-making of governments and the
private sector.

AI technologies are delivering remarkable results in highly specialized
fields such as cancer screening and building inclusive environments for
people with disabilities. They also help combat global problems like
climate change and world hunger, and help reduce poverty by optimizing
economic aid.

But the technology is also bringing new unprecedented challenges. We see
increased gender and ethnic bias, significant threats to privacy,
dignity and agency, dangers of mass surveillance, and increased use of
unreliable AI technologies in law enforcement, to name a few. Until now,
there were no universal standards to provide an answer to these issues.

In 2018, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, launched an
ambitious project: to give the world an ethical framework for the use of
artificial intelligence. Three years later, thanks to the mobilization
of hundreds of experts from around the world and intense international
negotiations, the 193 UNESCO’s member states have just officially
adopted this ethical framework.

“The world needs rules for artificial intelligence to benefit
humanity. The Recommendation on the ethics of AI is a major answer. It
sets the first global normative framework while giving States the
responsibility to apply it at their level. UNESCO will support its 193
Member States in its implementation and ask them to report regularly on
their progress and practices”, said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General.

The content of the recommendation

The Recommendation [emphasis mine] aims to realize the advantages AI brings to society and reduce the risks it entails. It ensures that digital transformations
promote human rights and contribute to the achievement of the
Sustainable Development Goals, addressing issues around transparency,
accountability and privacy, with action-oriented policy chapters on data
governance, education, culture, labour, healthcare and the economy.

*Protecting data

The Recommendation calls for action beyond what tech firms and
governments are doing to guarantee individuals more protection by
ensuring transparency, agency and control over their personal data. It
states that individuals should all be able to access or even erase
records of their personal data. It also includes actions to improve data
protection and an individual’s knowledge of, and right to control,
their own data. It also increases the ability of regulatory bodies
around the world to enforce this.

*Banning social scoring and mass surveillance

The Recommendation explicitly bans the use of AI systems for social
scoring and mass surveillance. These types of technologies are very
invasive, they infringe on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and
they are used in a broad way. The Recommendation stresses that when
developing regulatory frameworks, Member States should consider that
ultimate responsibility and accountability must always lie with humans
and that AI technologies should not be given legal personality
themselves.

*Helping to monitor and evalute

The Recommendation also sets the ground for tools that will assist in
its implementation. Ethical Impact Assessment is intended to help
countries and companies developing and deploying AI systems to assess
the impact of those systems on individuals, on society and on the
environment. Readiness Assessment Methodology helps Member States to
assess how ready they are in terms of legal and technical
infrastructure. This tool will assist in enhancing the institutional
capacity of countries and recommend appropriate measures to be taken in
order to ensure that ethics are implemented in practice. In addition,
the Recommendation encourages Member States to consider adding the role
of an independent AI Ethics Officer or some other mechanism to oversee
auditing and continuous monitoring efforts.

*Protecting the environment

The Recommendation emphasises that AI actors should favour data, energy
and resource-efficient AI methods that will help ensure that AI becomes
a more prominent tool in the fight against climate change and on
tackling environmental issues. The Recommendation asks governments to
assess the direct and indirect environmental impact throughout the AI
system life cycle. This includes its carbon footprint, energy
consumption and the environmental impact of raw material extraction for
supporting the manufacturing of AI technologies. It also aims at
reducing the environmental impact of AI systems and data
infrastructures. It incentivizes governments to invest in green tech,
and if there are disproportionate negative impact of AI systems on the
environment, the Recommendation instruct that they should not be used.

Decisions impacting millions of people should be fair, transparent and contestable. These new technologies must help us address the major challenges in our world today, such as increased inequalities and the environmental crisis, and not deepening them.” said Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO’s Assistant Director General for Social and Human Sciences.

Emerging technologies such as AI have proven their immense capacity to
deliver for good. However, its negative impacts that are exacerbating an
already divided and unequal world, should be controlled. AI developments
should abide by the rule of law, avoiding harm, and ensuring that when
harm happens, accountability and redressal mechanisms are at hand for
those affected.

If I read this properly (and it took me a little while), this is an agreement on the nature of the recommendations themselves and not an agreement to uphold them.

You can find more background information about the process for developing the framework outlined in the press release on the Recommendation on the ethics of artificial intelligence webpage. I was curious as to the composition of the Adhoc Expert Group (AHEG) for the Recommendation; they had varied representation from every continent. (FYI, The US and Mexico represented North America.)

Jean-Pierre Luminet awarded UNESCO’s Kalinga prize for Popularizing Science

Before getting to the news about Jean-Pierre Luminet, astrophysicist, poet, sculptor, and more, there’s the prize itself.

Established in 1951, a scant five years after UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) was founded in 1945, the Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is the organization’s oldest prize. Here’s more from the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science webpage,

The UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is an international award to reward exceptional contributions made by individuals in communicating science to society and promoting the popularization of science. It is awarded to persons who have had a distinguished career as writer, editor, lecturer, radio, television, or web programme director, or film producer in helping interpret science, research and technology to the public. UNESCO Kalinga Prize winners know the potential power of science, technology, and research in improving public welfare, enriching the cultural heritage of nations and providing solutions to societal problems on the local, regional and global level.

The UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is UNESCO’s oldest prize, created in 1951 following a donation from Mr Bijoyanand Patnaik, Founder and President of the Kalinga Foundation(link is external) Trust in India. Today, the Prize is funded by the Kalinga Foundation Trust(link is external), the Government of the State of Orissa, India(link is external), and the Government of India (Department of Science and Technology(link is external)).

Jean-Pierre Luminet

From the November 4, 2021 UNESCO press release (also received via email),

French scientist and author Jean-Pierre Luminet will be awarded the 2021 UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science. The prize-giving ceremony will take place online on 5 November as part of the celebration of World Science Day for Peace and Development.

An independent international jury selected Jean-Pierre Luminet recognizing his longstanding commitment to the popularization of science. Mr Luminet is a distinguished astrophysicist and cosmologist who has been promoting the values of scientific research through a wide variety of media: he has created popular science books and novels, beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogues, poetry, audiovisual materials for children and documentaries, notably “Du Big Bang au vivant” with Hubert Reeves. He is also an artist, engraver and sculptor and has collaborated with composers on musicals inspired by the sounds of the Universe.

His publications are model examples for communicating science to the public. Their scientific content is precise, rigorous and always state-of-the-art. He has written seven “scientific novels”, including “Le Secret de Copernic”, published in 2006. His recent book “Le destin de l’univers : trous noirs et énergie sombre”, about black holes and dark energy, was written for the general public and was praised for its outstanding scientific, historical, and literary qualities. Jean-Pierre Luminet’s work has been translated into a many languages including Chinese and Korean.

There is a page for Luminet in both the French language and English language wikipedias. If you have the language skills, you might want to check out the French language essay as I found it to be more stylishly written.

Compare,

De par ses activités de poète, essayiste, romancier et scénariste, dans une œuvre voulant lier science, histoire, musique et art, il est également Officier des Arts et des Lettres.

With,

… Luminet has written fifteen science books,[4] seven historical novels,[4] TV documentaries,[5] and six poetry collections. He is an artist, an engraver, a sculptor, and a musician.

My rough translation of the French,

As a poet, essayaist, novelist, and a screenwriter in a body of work that brings together science, history, music and art, he is truly someone who has enriched the French cultural inheritance (which is what it means to be an Officer of Arts and Letters or Officier des Arts et des Lettres; see English language entry for Ordre des Arts et des Lettres).

In any event, congratulations to M. Luminet.

Not a pretty picture: Canada and a patent rights waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

At about 7:15 am PT this morning , May 13, 2021, I saw Dr. Mona Nemer’s (Canada’s Chief Science Advisor) tweet (Note: I’m sorry the formatting isn’t better,

Maryse de la Giroday@frogheart Does this mean Canada will support a waiver on patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines?

7:18 AM · May 13, 2021

Dr. Mona Nemer@ChiefSciCanThe global health crisis of the past year has underscored the critical importance of openly sharing scientific information. We are one step closer to making #openscience a reality around the world. So pleased that my office was part of these discussions. http://webcast.unesco.org/events/2021-05-OS-IGM/ Quote Tweet

Canada at UNESCO@Canada2UNESCO · May 6@Canada2UNESCO is partaking in negotiations today on the draft recommendation on #OpenScience The benefits of #science and #technology to health, the #economy and #development should be available to all.6:40 AM · May 13, 2021·Twitter Web App

No reply. No surprise

Brief summary of Canada’s COVID-19 patent rights nonwaiver

You’ll find more about the UNESCO meeting on open science in last week’s May 7, 2021 posting (Listen in on a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) meeting [about Open Science]).

At the time, I noted a disparity in Canada’s policies centering on open science and patents; scroll down to the “Comments on open science and intellectual property in Canada” subsection for a more nuanced analysis. For those who don’t have the patience and/or the time, it boils down to this:

  1. Canada is happily participating in a UNESCO meeting on open science,
  2. the 2021 Canadian federal budget just dedicated a big chunk of money to augmenting Canada’s national patent strategy, and
  3. Canada is “willing to discuss” a waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings.

I predicted UNESCO would see our representative’s enthusiastic participation while our representative at the WTO meeting would dance around the topic without committing. to anything. Sadly, it’s starting to look like I was right.

Leigh Beadon in a May 12, 2021 posting on Techdirt reveals the situation is worse than I thought (Note: Links have been removed),

Few things illustrate the broken state of our global intellectual property system better than the fact that, well over a year into this devastating pandemic and in the face of a strong IP waiver push by some of the hardest hit countries, patents are still holding back the production of life-saving vaccines. And of all the countries opposing a waiver at the WTO (or withholding support for it, which is functionally the same thing), Canada might be the most frustrating [emphasis mine].

Canada is the biggest hoarder [emphasis mine] of vaccine pre-orders, having secured enough to vaccinate the population five times over. Despite this, it has constantly run into supply problems and lagged behind comparable countries when it comes to administering the vaccines on a per capita basis. In response to criticism of its hoarding, the government continues to focus on its plans to donate all surplus doses to the COVAX vaccine sharing program — but these promises were somewhat more convincing before Canada became the only G7 country to withdraw doses from COVAX. Despite all this, and despite pressure from experts who explain how vaccine hoarding will prolong the pandemic for everyone, the country has continually refused to voice its support for a TRIPS patent waiver at the WTO.

Momentum for changing Canada’s position on a COVID-19 vaccine patent right waivers?

Maclean’s magazine has a May 10, 2021 open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

The only way to combat this pandemic successfully is through a massive global vaccination campaign on a scale and timeline never before undertaken. This requires the production of effective tools and technologies to fight COVID-19 at scale and coordinated global distribution efforts.

The Trade-Related Aspect of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement at the World Trade Organization (WTO) is leading to the opposite outcome. Vaccine production is hindered by granting pharmaceutical companies monopoly power through protection of intellectual property rights, industrial designs and trade secrets. Pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to engage in health technology knowledge transfer makes large-scale, global vaccine production in (and for) low- and middle-income countries all but impossible. The current distribution of vaccines globally speaks to these obstacles.

Hundreds of civil society groups, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the elected governments of over 100 countries, including India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have come together and stated that current intellectual property protections reduce the availability of vaccines for protecting their people. On May 5, 2021 the United States also announced its intention to support a temporary waiver for vaccines at the WTO.

We are writing to ask our Canadian government to demonstrate its commitment to an equitable global pandemic response by supporting a temporary waiver of the TRIPS agreement. But clearly that is a necessary but not a sufficient first step. We recognize that scaling up vaccine production requires more than just a waiver of intellectual property rights, so we further request that our government support the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) to facilitate knowledge sharing and work with the WTO to address the supply chain and export constraints currently impeding vaccine production. Finally, because vaccines must be rolled out as part of an integrated strategy to end the acute phase of the epidemic, we request that Canada support the full scope of the TRIPS waiver, which extends to all essential COVID-19 products and technologies, including vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.

The status quo is clearly not working fast enough to end the acute phase of the pandemic globally. This waiver respects global intellectual property frameworks and takes advantage of existing provisions for exceptions during emergencies, as enshrined in the TRIPS agreement. Empowering countries to take measures to protect their own people is fundamental to bringing this pandemic to an end.

Anand Giridharadas (author of the 2018 book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World) also makes the case for a patent rights waiver in his May 11, 2021 posting on The Ink, Note: A link has been removed,

Patents are temporary monopolies granted to inventors, to reward invention and thus encourage more of it. But what happens when you invent a drug that people around the world require to stay alive? What happens when, furthermore, that drug was built in part on technology the public paid for? Are there limits to intellectual property?

For years, activists have pressured the United States government to break or suspend patents in particular cases, as with HIV/Aids. They have had little luck. Indeed, the United States has often fought developing countries when they try to break patents to do right by their citizens, choosing American drug companies over dying people.

So it was a dramatic swerve when, last week, the Biden administration announced that it supported a waiver of the patents for Covid vaccines.

Not long afterward, I reached out to several leading activists for vaccine access to understand the significance of the announcement and where we go from here.

in all this talk about patents and social justice and, whether it’s directly referenced or not, money, the only numbers of I’ve seen,until recently, have been numbers of doses and aggregate costs.

How much does a single vaccine dose cost?

A Sunday, April 11, 2021 article by Krassen Nikolov for EURACTIV provides an answer about the cost in one region, the European Union,

“Pfizer cost €12, then €15.50. The Commission now signs contracts for €19,50”, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov revealed on Sunday [April 11, 2021].

The European Commission is in talks with Pfizer for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines in 2022 and 2023. Borissov said the contracts provide for €19.50 per dose.

Under an agreement with the vaccine producing companies, the European Commission has so far refused to reveal the price of vaccines. However, last December Belgian Secretary of State Eva De Bleeker shared on Twitter the vaccine prices negotiated by the Commission, as well as the number of doses purchased by her government. Then, it became known that the AstraZeneca jab costs €1.78 compared to €12 for Pfizer-BioNTech.

€12 to €19,50, that’s an increase of over 50%. I wonder how Pfizer is justifying such a hefty increase?

According to a March 16, 2021 article by Swikar Oli for the National Post (a Canadian newspaper), these prices are a cheap pandemic special prices,

A top Pfizer executive told shareholders the company is looking at a “significant opportunity” to raise the price of its Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

While addressing investors at the virtual Barclays Global Healthcare Conference last week, Pfizer CFO Frank D’Amelio noted they could raise prices when the virus becomes endemic, meaning it’s regularly found in clusters around the globe, according to a transcript of the conference posted on Pfizer’s website.

Current vaccine pricing models are pandemic-related, D’Amelio explained. After the pandemic is defeated and “normal market conditions” arrive, he noted the window would open for a “significant opportunity…from a pricing perspective.”

“So the one price that we published is the price with the U.S. of $19.50 per dose. Obviously, that’s not a normal price like we typically get for a vaccine, $150, $175 [emphasis mine] per dose,” he said, “So pandemic pricing.”

If I remember it rightly, as you increase production, you lower costs per unit. In other words, it’s cheaper to produce one dozen than one, which is why your bakery charges you less money per bun or cake if you purchase by the dozen.

During this pandemic, Pfizer has been producing huge amounts of vaccine, which they would not expect to do should the disease become endemic. As Pfizer has increased production, I would think the price should be dropping but according to the Bulgarian prime minister, it’s not.

They don’t seem to be changing the vaccine as new variants arrive. So, raising the prices doesn’t seem to be linked to research issues and as for the new production facilities, surely those didn’t cost billions.

Canada and COVID-19 money

Talking about money, Canada has a COVDI-19 billionaire according to a December 23, 2020 article (Meet The 50 Doctors, Scientists And Healthcare Entrepreneurs Who Became Pandemic Billionaires In 2020) by Giacomo Tognini for Forbes.

I have a bit more about Carl Hansen (COVID-19 billionaire) and his company, AbCellera, in my December 30, 2020 posting.

I wonder how much the Canadian life sciences community has to do with Canada’s hesitancy over a COVID-19 vaccine patent rights waiver.

Listen in on a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) meeting (about Open Science)

If you are intrigued* by the idea of sitting in on a UNESCO meeting, in this case, the Intergovernmental special committee meeting (Category II) related to the draft UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, there is an opportunity.

Before getting to the opportunity, I want to comment on how smart the UNESCO communications/press office has been. Interest in relaxing COVID-19 vaccine patent rules is gaining momentum (May 6, 2021 Associated Press news item on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC]) and a decision was made in the press office (?) to capitalize on this momentum as a series of UNESCO meetings about open science are taking place. Well done!

Later in this post, I have a few comments about the intellectual property scene and open science in Canada.

UNESCO’s open meeting

According to the May 7, 2021 UNESCO press release no. 42 (received via email),

UNESCO welcomes move to lift the patent on the vaccines and pushes for
Open Science

Paris, 7 May [2021] -“The decision of the United States and many other
countries to call for the lifting of patent protection for coronavirus
vaccines could save millions of lives and serve as a blueprint for the
future of scientific cooperation. COVID-19 does not respect borders. No
country will be safe until the people of every country have access to
the vaccine,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

This growing momentum comes in response to the joint appeal made by
UNESCO, the WHO [World Health Organization] and the UNHCR [United Nations Commission on Human Rights] to open up science and boost scientific
cooperation in October 2020. Early in the pandemic last spring, UNESCO
mobilized over 122 countries to promote Open Science and reinforced
international cooperation.

The pandemic triggered strong support for Open Science among Member
States for this agenda. Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the
new coronavirus on 11 January 2020 and posted it online, enabling German
scientists to develop a screening test, which was then shared by the
World Health Organization with governments everywhere. 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the world has embarked on a new era of
scientific research, forcing all countries to construct the shared rules
and common norms we need to work more effectively in these changing
times.

The recent announcements of countries in favor of lifting patents show
the growing support for open scientific cooperation. They also coincide
with the five-day meeting of UNESCO Member States to define a global
standard-setting framework on Open Science, which aims to develop new
models for the circulation of scientific knowledge and its benefits,
including global commons.

The outcomes of the meeting will lead to a Global Recommendation on Open
Science to be adopted by UNESCO’s 193 Member States at the
Organization’s General Conference in November 2021. This
Recommendation aims to be a driver for shared global access to data,
publications, patents, software, educational resources and technological
innovations and to reengage all of society in science.

More Information on UNESCO’s Open Science meeting:
https://events.unesco.org/event?id=1907937890&lang=1033 [1]

After clicking on UNESCO’s events link (in the above), you’ll be sent to a page where you’ll be invited to link to a live webcast (it’s live if there’s a session taking place and there will be on May 10, May 11, and May 12, 2021). If you’re on the West Coast of Canada or the US, add nine hours since the meeting is likely taking place on Paris (France) time (so at 2 pm PT, you’re not likely to hear anything), where UNESCO is headquartered. When you get to the page hosting the live webcast, click on the tab listing the current day’s date.

I managed to listen to some of the meeting this morning (May 7, 2021) at about 8 am my time; for the participants, it was a meeting that ran late. The thrill is being able to attend or listen in. From a content perspective, you probably need to be serious about open science and the language used to define it and make recommendations about it.

Comments on open science and intellectual property in Canada

Mentioned earlier was the rising momentum for relaxing COVID-19 vaccine patent rules, I looked carefully at the May 6, 2021 Associated Press news item on CBC] and couldn’t find any evidence that Canada is actively supporting the idea. However, the Canadian government has indicated a willingness to discuss relaxing the rules,

France joined the United States on Thursday [May 6, 2021] in supporting an easing of patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines that could help poorer countries get more doses and speed the end of the pandemic. While the backing from two countries with major drugmakers is important, many obstacles remain.

The United States’ support for waiving the protections marked a dramatic shift in its position. Still, even just one country voting against such a waiver would be enough to block efforts at the World Trade Organization [WTO].

With the Biden administration’s announcement on Wednesday [May 5, 2021], the U.S. became the first country in the developed world with big vaccine manufacturing to publicly support the waiver idea floated by India and South Africa last October at the WTO.

“I completely favour this opening up of the intellectual property,” French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday [May 6, 2021] on a visit to a vaccine centre.

Many other leaders chimed in — though few expressed direct support. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook that the U.S. announcement was “a very important signal” and that the world needs “free access” to patents for the vaccines.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the U.S. position “great news” but did not directly respond to a question about whether his country would support a waiver.

Canada’s International Trade Minister Mary Ng told the House of Commons on Thursday that the federal government will “actively participate” in talks to waive the global rules that protect vaccine trade secrets. [emphases mine]

[Canada’s] International Development Minister Karina Gould said the U.S. support for waiving patents is “a really important step in this conversation.” [emphases mine]

Big difference between supporting something and talking about it, eh?

Open science in Canada

Back in 2016, the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI or Montreal Neuro) in Québec, Canada was the first academic institution in the world to embrace an open science policy. Here’s the relevant excerpt from my January 22, 2016 posting (the posting describes the place that Montreal Neuro occupies historically in Canada and on the global stage),

.. David Bruggeman tells the story in a Jan. 21, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University announced that it will be the first academic research institute to become what it calls ‘Open Science.’  As Science is reporting, the MNI will make available all research results and research data at the time of publication.  Additionally it will not seek patents on any of the discoveries made on research at the Institute. [emphasis mine]

Will this catch on?  I have no idea if this particular combination of open access research data and results with no patents will spread to other university research institutes.  But I do believe that those elements will continue to spread.  More universities and federal agencies are pursuing open access options for research they support.  Elon Musk has opted to not pursue patent litigation for any of Tesla Motors’ patents, and has not pursued patents for SpaceX technology (though it has pursued litigation over patents in rocket technology). …

What about intellectual property (IP) and the 2021 federal budget?

Interestingly, the 2021 Canadian federal budget, released April 19, 2021, (see my May 4, 2021 posting) has announced more investments in intellectual property initiatives,

“Promoting Canadian Intellectual Property

As the most highly educated country in the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], Canada is full of innovative and entrepreneurial people with great ideas. Those ideas are valuable intellectual property that are the seeds of huge growth opportunities. Building on the National Intellectual Property Strategy announced in Budget 2018, the government proposes to further support Canadian innovators, start-ups, and technology-intensive businesses. Budget 2021 proposes:

  • $90 million, over two years, starting in 2022-23, to create ElevateIP, a program to help accelerators and incubators provide start-ups with access to expert intellectual property services.
  • $75 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, for the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program to provide high-growth client firms with access to expert intellectual property services.

These direct investments would be complemented by a Strategic Intellectual Property Program Review that will be launched. It is intended as a broad assessment of intellectual property provisions in Canada’s innovation and science programming, from basic research to near-commercial projects. This work will make sure Canada and Canadians fully benefit from innovations and intellectual property.”

Now, it’s back to me and the usual formatting for an upcoming excerpt. As for Canada’s National Intellectual Property Strategy, here’s more from the April 26, 2018 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release,

Canada’s IP Strategy will help Canadian entrepreneurs better understand and protect intellectual property and also get better access to shared intellectual property. Canada is a leader in research, science, creation and invention, but it can do more when it comes to commercializing innovations.

The IP Strategy will help give businesses the information and confidence they need to grow their business and take risks.

The IP Strategy will make changes in three key areas:

LEGISLATION

The IP Strategy will amend key IP laws to ensure that we remove barriers to innovation, particularly any loopholes that allow those seeking to use IP in bad faith to stall innovation for their own gain.

The IP Strategy will create an independent body to oversee patent and trademark agents, which will ensure that professional and ethical standards are maintained, and will support the provision of quality advice from IP professionals.

LITERACY AND ADVICE

As part of the IP Strategy, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office will launch a suite of programs to help improve IP literacy among Canadians.

The IP Strategy includes support for domestic and international engagement between Indigenous people and decision makers as well as for research activities and capacity building.

The IP Strategy will also support training for federal employees who deal with IP governance.

TOOLS

The IP Strategy will provide tools to support Canadian businesses as they learn about IP and pursue their own IP strategies.

The government is creating a patent collective to bring together businesses to facilitate better IP outcomes for members. The patent collective is the coming together of firms to share in IP expertise and strategy, including gaining access to a larger collection of patents and IP. 

I’m guessing what the government wants is more patents; at the same time, it does not want to get caught up in patent thickets and the patent troll wars often seen in the US. The desire for more patents isn’t simply ‘protection’ for Canadian businesses, it’s born also from a desire to brag (from “A few final comments subsection” in my May 4, 2021 posting on the Canadian federal budget),

The inclusion of a section on intellectual property in the budget could seem peculiar. I would have thought that years ago before I learned that governments measure and compare with other government the success of their science and technology efforts by the number of patents that have been filed. [new emphasis mine] There are other measures but intellectual property is very important, as far as governments are concerned. My “Billions lost to patent trolls; US White House asks for comments on intellectual property (IP) enforcement; and more on IP” June 28, 2012 posting points to some of the shortcomings, with which we still grapple.

Not just a Canadian conundrum

IP (patents, trademarks, and copyright) has a long history and my understanding of patents and copyright (not sure about trademarks) is that they were initially intended to guarantee inventors and creators a fixed period of time in which to make money from their inventions and/or creations. IP was intended to encourage competition not stifle it as happens so often these days. Here’s more about patents from the Origin of Patents: Everything You Need to Know webpage on the upcounsel.com website (Note: Links have been removed),

Origins of Patent Law and the Incentive Theory

It is possible to trace the idea of patent law as far back as the 9th century B.C. in ancient Greece.  However, one of the most vital pieces of legislation in the history of patents is the English Statute of Monopolies. The Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies to end monopolies, which stifled competition. 

However, for about a decade, the Statute issued “letters patent” to allow for limited monopolies. This measure was seen as a way of balancing the importance of providing incentives for inventions with the distaste for monopolies. [emphasis mine] While monopolies usually don’t offer any innovative benefits, inventors need to have an incentive to create innovations that benefit society.

Changes?

As you can see in the ‘Origins of Patent Law’ excerpt , there’s a tension between ensuring profitability and spurring innovation. It certainly seems that our current approach to the problem is no longer successful.

There has been an appetite for change in how science is pursued, shared, and commercialized. Listening in on UNESCO’s Open Science meeting:
https://events.unesco.org/event?id=1907937890&lang=1033 [1] (May 10 -12, 2021) is an opportunity to see how this movement could develop. Sadly, I don’t think the World Trade Organization is going to afford anyone the opportunity to tune in to discussions about relaxing COVDI-19 vaccine patent rules. (sigh)

As for the Canadian government’s ‘willingness to talk’ I expect the Canadian representative at the UNESCO will be very happy to adopt open science while the Canadian representative at the WTO will dance around without committing.

If you are inclined, please do share your thoughts on either of the meetings or on the move towards open science.

*’intrigues’ changed to ‘intrigued’ on May 13, 2021.

Inside Dogma Lab; an ArtSci Salon event on March 25, 2021

This event is taking place at 7 am PDT. Should you still be interested, here are more details from a March 17, 2021 ArtSci Salon announcement (received via email; you can also find the information on the artscisalon.com/dogmalab/ webpage) provides descriptions of the talk and the artists after the registration and viewing information,

Benjamin Bacon & Vivian Xu –  Inside Dogma Lab – exploring new media
ecologies


Thursday, March 25 [2021]

10 am EDT, 4 pm GST, 10 pm CST [ 7 am PDT]

This session will stream on Zoom and YouTube

Register in advance for this meeting:

https://utoronto.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMlfuyrpz4jG9aTl-Y8sAwn6Q75CPEpWRsM

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing
information about joining the meeting.

See more here:
https://artscisalon.com/dogmalab/

Or on Facebook:

https://facebook.com/artscisalon

Description

This ArtSci Salon /LASER morning event is inspired by the NewONE,
Learning without borders, a program at the University of Toronto
dedicated to interdisciplinary pedagogies and ecological learning
experiences. Art technology and science are waved together and inform
each other. The arts here are not simply used to illustrate or to
narrate, but to transmit, and make sense of complexity without falling
into given disciplinary and instrumental containers. The artistic medium
becomes simultaneously a catalyst for interrogating nature and a new
research tools able to display and communicate its complexity.

With this event, we welcome interdisciplinary artists Benjamin Bacon and
Vivian Xu.

Their transdisciplinary design lab, the Dogma Lab (http://dogma.org/, not only combines a diverse range of mediums (including software,
hardware, networked systems, online platforms, raw data, biomaterials
and living organisms), but also considers “the entanglement of
technological systems with other realities, including surveillance, sensory, bodily, environmental, and living systems. They are interested in complex hybrid networks that bridge the digital with the physical and biological realms, speculating on possible synthesized futures”.

Their research outcomes both individually and collectively have taken
the form of interfaces, wearables, toolkits, machines, musical
instruments, compositions and performances, public installations,
architectural spectacles and educational programs.

Situated in China, they have an invested interest in understanding and
participating in local design, technology and societal discourse, as
well how China as a local actor affects the dynamic of the larger global
system.

Bios

Benjamin Bacon is an inter-disciplinary artist, designer and musician
that works at the intersection of computational design, networked
systems, data, sound, installation and mechanical sculpture. He is
currently Associate Professor of Media and Art and Director of Signature
Work at Duke Kunshan University. He is also a lifetime fellow at V2_ Lab
for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

He has exhibited or performed his work in the USA, Europe, Iran, and
China such as the National Art Museum of  China (Beijing), Gallery Ho
(NYC), Wave Gotik Treffen (Germany), Chelsea Museum (NYC), Millennium
Museum (Beijing), Plug-In Gallery (Switzerland), Beijing Design Week,
Shenzhen Bay Science Technology and Arts Festival, the  Shanghai
Symphony Hall. Most recently his mechanical life and AI sculpture PROBE
– AVERSO SPECILLO DI  DUCENDUM was collected by the UNArt Center in
Shanghai, China.

https://www.benjaminbacon.studio/ [3]

Vivian Xu is a Beijing-born media artist, designer, researcher and
educator. Her work explores the boundaries  between bio and electronic
media in creating new forms of machine logic, speculative life and
sensory systems  often taking the form of objects, machines,
installations and wearable. Her work has been presented at various
institutions in China, the US, Europe and Australia.

She is an Assistant Professor of Media and Arts at Duke Kunshan
University. She has lectured, held research positions at various
institutions including Parsons New School for Design, New York
University Shanghai, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen).

https://www.vivianxu.studio/

This event is hosted by ArtSci Salon @ The Fields Institute for
Research in Mathematical Sciences, the NewOne @ UofT and is part of
Leonardo/ISAST LASER TALKS. LASER is a program of international
gatherings that bring artists, scientists, humanists and technologists
together for informal presentations, performances and conversations with
the wider public. The mission of the LASERs is to encourage contribution
to the cultural environment of a region by fostering interdisciplinary
dialogue and opportunities for community building to over 40 cities
around the world. To learn more about how our LASER Hosts and to visit a
LASER near you please visit our website: leonardo.info/laser-talks [5].
@lasertalks_

Interesting timing: two Michaels and Meng Wanzhou

Given the tensions between Canada and China these days, this session with China-based artists intrigues for more than the usual reasons.

For anyone unfamiliar with the situation, here’s a quick recap: Meng Wanzhou, deputy board chair and chief financial officer (CFO) of telecom giant, Huawei, which was founded by her father Ren Zhengfei. has been detained, at a US government request and in accordance with a treaty, since 2018 in one of her two multimillion dollar mansions in Vancouver, Canada. She wears an electronic bracelet for surveillance purposes, must be escorted on her shopping trips and other excursions, and must abide by an 11 pm – 7 am curfew. She is currently fighting extradition to the US with an extensive team of Canadian lawyers.

In what has been widely perceived as retaliatory, China shortly after Meng Wanzhou’s arrest put two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, wre arrested and put in prison allowing only severely limited contact with Canadian consular officials. As I write this on March 22, 2021, brief trials have been held (Friday, March 19, 2021 and Monday, March 22, 2021) for both Michaels, no outside observers allowed. It’s unclear as to which or how many lawyers are arguing in defence of either Michael. Sentences will be given at some time in the future.

Tensions are very high indeed.

Moving on to links

You can find the Dogma Lab here. As for Leonardo/ISAST, there is an interesting history,

The journal Leonardo was founded in 1968 in Paris by kinetic artist and astronautical pioneer Frank Malina. Malina saw the need for a journal that would serve as an international channel of communication among artists, with emphasis on the writings of artists who use science and developing technologies in their work. After the death of Frank Malina in 1981 and under the leadership of his son, Roger F. Malina, Leonardo moved to San Francisco, California, as the flagship journal of the newly founded nonprofit organization Leonardo/The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology (Leonardo/ISAST). Leonardo/ISAST has grown along with its community and today is the leading organization for artists, scientists and others interested in the application of contemporary science and technology to the arts and music.

Frank Malina, founder of Leonardo, was an American scientist. After receiving his PhD from the California Institute of Technology in 1936, Malina directed the WAC Corporal program that put the first rocket beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. He co-founded and was the second director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), co-founded the Aerojet General Corporation and was an active participant in rocket-science development in the period leading up to and during World War II.

Invited to join the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) in 1947 by Julian Huxley, Malina moved to Paris as the director of the organization’s science programs. The separation between science and the humanities was the subject of intense debate during the post-war period, particularly after the publication of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures in 1959. The concept that there was and should be a natural relationship between science and art fascinated Malina, eventually influencing him to synthesize his scientific experience with his long-standing artistic sensibilities. As an artist, Malina moved from traditional media to mesh, string and canvas constructions and finally to experiments with light, which led to his development of systems for kinetic painting.

Here’s a description of the LASER talks from the Leonardo/ISAST LASER Talks event page,

… a program of international gatherings that bring artists, scientists, humanists and technologists together for informal presentations, performances and conversations with the wider public. The mission of LASER is to encourage contribution to the cultural environment of a region by fostering interdisciplinary dialogue and opportunities for community building.

There are two talks scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, March 23, 2021 and four talks for Thursday, March 25, 2021 with more scheduled for April on the Leonardo/ISAST LASER Talks event page,

You can find out more about the New College at the University of Toronto here where the New One: Learning without Borders programme is offered. BTW, New College was founded in 1962. You can get more information on their Why New College page.

Girl Trouble—UNESCO’s and the World Economic Forum’s Breaking Through Bias in AI panel on International Women’s Day March 8, 2021

What a Monday morning! United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO; French: Organisation des Nations unies pour l’éducation, la science et la culture) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) hosted a live webcast (which started at 6 am PST or 1500 CET [3 pm in Paris, France]). The session is available online for viewing both here on UNESCO’s Girl Trouble webpage and here on YouTube. It’s about 2.5 hours long with two separate discussions and a question period after each discussion. You will have a 2 minute wait before seeing any speakers or panelists.

Here’s why you might want to check this out (from the Girl Trouble: Breaking Through The Bias in AI page on the UNESCO website),

UNESCO and the World Economic Forum present Girl Trouble: Breaking Through The Bias in AI on International Women’s Day, 8th March, 3:00 pm – 5:30 pm (CET). This timely round-table brings together a range of leading female voices in tech to confront the deep-rooted gender imbalances skewing the development of artificial intelligence. Today critics charge that AI feeds on biased data-sets, amplifying the existing the anti-female biases of our societies, and that AI is perpetuating harmful stereotypes of women as submissive and subservient. Is it any wonder when only 22% of AI professionals globally are women?

Our panelists are female change-makers in AI. From C-suite professionals taking decisions which affect us all, to women innovating new AI tools and policies to help vulnerable groups, to those courageously exposing injustice and algorithmic biases, we welcome:

Gabriela Ramos, Assistant Director-General of Social and Human Sciences, UNESCO, leading the development of UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Ethics of AI, the first global standard-setting instrument in the field.
Kay Firth-Butterfield, Keynote speaker. Kay was the world’s first chief AI Ethics Officer. As Head of AI & Machine Learning, and a Member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum, Kay develops new alliances to promote awareness of gender bias in AI;
Ashwini Asokan, CEO of Chennai-based AI company, Mad Street Den. She explores how Artificial Intelligence can be applied meaningfully and made accessible to billions across the globe;
Adriana Bora a researcher using machine learning to boost compliance with the UK and Australian Modern Slavery Acts, and to combat modern slavery, including the trafficking of women;
Anne Bioulac, a member of the Women in Africa Initiative, developing AI-enabled online learning to empower African women to use AI in digital entrepreneurship;
Meredith Broussard, a software developer and associate professor of data journalism at New York University, whose research focuses on AI in investigative reporting, with a particular interest in using data analysis for social good ;
Latifa Mohammed Al-AbdulKarim, named by Forbes magazine as one of 100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics, and as one of the women defining AI in the 21st century;
Wanda Munoz, of the Latin American Human Security Network. One of the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s 2020 peacebuilders, she raises aware-ness around gender-based violence and autonomous weapons;
Nanjira Sambuli, a Member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel for Digital Cooperation and Advisor for the A+ Alliance for Inclusive Algorithms;
Jutta Williams, Product Manager at Twitter, analyzing how Twitter can improve its models to reduce bias.

There’s an urgent need for more women to participate in and lead the design, development, and deployment of AI systems. Evidence shows that by 2022, 85% of AI projects will deliver erroneous outcomes due to bias.

AI Recruiters searching for female AI specialists online just cannot find them. Companies hiring experts for AI and data science jobs estimate fewer than 1 per cent of the applications they receive come from women. Women and girls are 4 times less likely to know how to programme computers, and 13 times less likely to file for technology patent. They are also less likely to occupy leadership positions in tech companies.

Building on UNESCO’s cutting edge research in this field, and flagship 2019 publication “I’d Blush if I Could”, and policy guidance on gender equality in the 2020 UNESCO Draft Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, the panel will look at:

1. The 4th industrial revolution is on our doorstop, and gender equality risks being set back decades; What more can we do to attract more women to design jobs in AI, and to support them to take their seats on the boards of tech companies.

2. How can AI help us advance women and girls’ rights in society? And how can we solve the problem of algorithmic gender bias in AI systems?

Women’s leadership in the AI Sector at all levels, from big tech to the start-up AI economy in developing countries will be placed under the micro-scope.

Confession: I set the timer correctly but then forget to set the alarm so I watched the last 1.5 hours (I plan to go back and get the first hour later). Here’s a little of what transpired.

Moderator

Kudos to the moderator, Natashya Gutierrez, for her excellent performance; it can’t have been easy to keep track of the panelists and questions for a period of 2.5 hours,

Natashya Gutierrez, Editor-in-Chief APAC, VICE World News

Natashya is an award-winning multimedia journalist and current Editor in Chief of VICE World News in APAC [Asia-Pacific Countries]. She oversees editorial teams across Australia, Indonesia, India, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Japan and Korea. Natashya’s reporting specialises on women’s rights. At VICE, she hosts Unequal, a series focused on gender inequality in Asia. She is the recipient of several journalism awards including the Society of Publishers in Asia for reporting on women’s issues, and the Asia Journalism Fellowship. Before VICE, she was part of the founding team of Rappler, an online news network based in the Philippines. She has been selected as one of Asia’s emerging young leaders and named a Development Fellow by the Asia Foundation. Natashya is a graduate of Yale University.

First panel discussion

For anyone who’s going to watch the session, don’t forget it takes about two minutes before there’s sound. The first panel was focused on “the female training and recruitment crisis in AI.’

  • The right people

I have a suspicion that Ashwini Asokan’s comment about getting the ‘right people’ to create the algorithms and make decisions about AI was not meant the way it might sound. I will have to listen again but, at a guess, I think she was suggesting that a bunch of 25 – 35 year old developers (mostly male and working in monoculture environments) is not going to be cognizant of how their mathematical decisions will impact real world lives.

So, getting the ‘right people’ means more inclusive hiring.

  • Is AI always the best solution?

In all the talk about AI, it’s assumed that this technology is the best solution to all problems. One of the panelists (Nanjira Sambuli) suggested an analogue solution (e. g., a book) might be a better solution on occasion.

There are some things that people are better at than AI (can’t remember which panelist said this). That comment hints at something which seems heretical. It challenges the notion that technology is always better than a person.

I once had someone at a bank explain to me that computers were very smart (by implication, smarter than me)—30 years ago The teller was talking about a database.

Adriana Bora (I think) suggested that lived experience should be considered when putting together consultative groups and developer groups.

This theme of AI not being the best solution for all problems came up again in the second panel discussion

Second panel discussion

The second panel was focused on “innovative AI-based solutions to address bias against women.”

  • AI is math and it’s hard

It’s surprisingly easy to forget that AI is math. Meredith Broussard pointed out that most of us (around the world) have a very Hollywood idea about what AI is.

Broussard noted that AI has its limits and there are times when it’s not the right choice.

She made an interesting point in her comment about AI being hard. I don’t think she meant to echo the old cliché ‘math is hard, so it’s not for girls’. The comment seemed to speak to the breadth and depth of the AI sector. Simultaneous with challenging mathematics, we need to take into account so much more than was imagined in the Industrial Revolution when ecological consequences were unimagined and inequities often taken as god-given.

  • Inequities and language

Natashya Gutierrez, the moderator, noted that AI doesn’t create bias, it magnifies it.

One of the panelists, Jutta Williams (Twitter), noted later that algorithms are designed to favour certain types of language, e. g., information presented as factual rather than emotive. That’s how you get more attention on social media platforms. In essence, the bias in the algorithms was not towards males but towards the way they tend to communicate.

  • Laziness

Describing engineers as ‘lazy’, Meredith Broussard added this about the mindset, ‘write once, run anywhere’.

A colleague, some years ago, drew my attention to the problem. She was unsuccessfully trying to get the developers to fix a problem in the code. They simply couldn’t be bothered. It wasn’t an interesting problem and there was no reward for fixing it.

I’m having a problem now where I suspect engineers/developers don’t want to tweak or correct code in WordPress. It’s the software I use to create my blog postings and I use tags to make those postings easier to find.

Sometime in December 2018 I updated my blog software to their latest version. Many problems ensued but there is one which persists to this day. I can’t tag any new words with apostrophes in them (very common in French). The system refuses to save them.

Previous versions of WordPress were quite capable of saving words with apostrophes. Those words are still in my ‘tag database’.

  • Older generation has less tech savvy

Adriana Bora suggested that the older generation should also be considered in discussions about AI and inclusivity. I’m glad to hear her mention.

Unfortunately, she seemed to be under the impression that seniors don’t know much about technology.

Yes and no. Who do you think built and developed the technologies you are currently using? Probably your parents and grandparents. Networks were first developed in the early to mid-1960s. The Internet is approximately 40 years old. (You can get the details in the History of the Internet entry on Wikipedia.)

Yes, I’ve made that mistake about seniors/elders too.

It’s possible that person over … what age is that? Over 55? Over 60? Over 65? Over 75? and so on … Anyway, that person may not have had much experience with the digital world or it may be dated experience but that assumption is problematic.

As an antidote, here’s one of my favourite blogs, Grandma Got STEM. It’s mostly written by people reminiscing about their STEM mothers and grandmothers.

  • Bits and bobs

There seemed to be general agreement that there needs to be more transparency about the development of AI and what happens in the ‘AI black box’.

Gabriela Ramos, keynote speaker, commented that transparency needs to be paired up with choice otherwise it won’t do much good.

After recounting a distressing story about how activists have had their personal revealed in various networks, Wanda Munoz noted that AI can be used for good.

The concerns are not theoretical and my final comments

Munoz, of course, brought a real life example of bad things happening but I’d like to reinforce it with one more example. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in a January 13, 2021 news article by Leo Kelion broke the news that Huawei, a Chinese technology company, had technology that could identify ethnic groups (Note: Links have been removed),

A Huawei patent has been brought to light for a system that identifies people who appear to be of Uighur origin among images of pedestrians.

The filing is one of several of its kind involving leading Chinese technology companies, discovered by a US research company and shared with BBC News.

Huawei had previously said none of its technologies was designed to identify ethnic groups.

It now plans to alter the patent.

The company indicated this would involve asking the China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA) – the country’s patent authority – for permission to delete the reference to Uighurs in the Chinese-language document.

Uighur people belong to a mostly Muslim ethnic group that lives mainly in Xinjiang province, in north-western China.

Government authorities are accused of using high-tech surveillance against them and detaining many in forced-labour camps, where children are sometimes separated from their parents.

Beijing says the camps offer voluntary education and training.

Huawei’s patent was originally filed in July 2018, in conjunction with the Chinese Academy of Sciences .

It describes ways to use deep-learning artificial-intelligence techniques to identify various features of pedestrians photographed or filmed in the street.

But the document also lists attributes by which a person might be targeted, which it says can include “race (Han [China’s biggest ethnic group], Uighur)”.

More than one company has been caught out, do read the January 13, 2021 news article in its entirety.

I did not do justice to the depth and breadth of the discussion. (I noticed I missed a few panelists and it’s entirely my fault; I should have woken up sooner. I apologize for the omissions.)

If you have the time and the inclination, do go to the Girl Trouble: Breaking Through The Bias in AI page on the UNESCO website where in addition to the panel video, you can find a number of related reports:

Happy International Women’s Day 2021.