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

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.