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Tech has become another way for men to oppress women | Lizzie O’Shea

“We act as if technology were neutral but it’s not. The challenge now is to remove the gender bias,” says human rights lawyer and writer Lizzie O’Shea.

“Most women in the Bay Area are soft and weak, cosseted and naive, despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit,” wrote former Facebook product manager Antonio Garca Martnez in 2016. “They have their self-regarding entitlement feminism, and ceaselessly vaunt their independence. But the reality is, come the epidemic plague or foreign invasion, they’d become precisely the sort of useless baggage you’d trade for a box of shotgun shells or a jerry can of diesel.” This is from his insider account of Silicon Valley, Chaos Monkeys. The book was a bestseller. The New York Times called it an irresistible and indispensable 360-degree guide to the new technology establishment. Anyone who is surprised by the recent revelations of sexism spreading like wildfire through the technology industry has not been paying attention.

When Susan Fowler wrote about her experience of being sexually harassed at Uber, it prompted a chain of events that seemed unimaginable months ago, including an investigation led by former attorney general Eric Holder, and the departure of a number of key members of the company’s leadership team. Venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck faced allegations of harassing behaviour, and when he offered an unimpressive denial, companies funded by his firm banded together to condemn his tepidity. He subsequently resigned, and the future of his former firm is unclear. Since then, dozens of women have come forward to reveal the sexist culture in numerous Silicon Valley technology and venture capital firms. It is increasingly clear from these accounts that the problem for women in the tech industry is not a failure to lean in, it is a culture of harassment and discrimination that makes many of their workplaces unsafe and unpleasant.

At least this issue is being discussed in ways that open up the possibility that it will be addressed. But the problem of sexism in the tech industry goes much deeper and wider. Technological development is undermining the cause of women’s equality in other ways.

American academic Melvin Kranzberg’s first law of technology tells us that technology is neither inherently good nor bad, nor is it neutral. As a black mirror it reflects the problems that exist in society including the oppression of women. Millions of people bark orders at Alexa, every day, but rarely are we encouraged to wonder why the domestic organiser is voiced by a woman. The entry system for a women’s locker room in a gym recently refused entry to a female member because her title was Dr, and it categorised her as male.

But the issue is not only that technology products reflect a backward view of the role of women. They often also appear ignorant or indifferent to women’s lived experience. As the internet of things expands, more devices in our homes and on our bodies are collecting data about us and sending it to networks, a process over which we often have little control. This presents profound problems for vulnerable members of society, including survivors of domestic violence. Wearable technology can be hacked, cars and phones can be tracked, and data from a thermostat can reveal whether someone is at home. This potential is frightening for people who have experienced rape, violence or stalking.

Unsurprisingly, technology is used by abusers: in a survey of domestic violence services organisations, 97% reported that the survivors who use them have experienced harassment, monitoring, and threats by abusers through the misuse of technology. This often happens on phones, but 60% of those surveyed also reported that abusers have spied or eavesdropped on the survivor or children using other forms of technology, including toys and other gifts. Many shelters have resorted to banning the use of Facebook because of fears about revealing information about their location to stalkers. There are ways to make devices give control to users and limit the capacity for abuse. But there is little evidence that this has been a priority for the technology industry.

Products that are more responsive to the needs of women would be a great start. But we should also be thinking bigger: we must avoid reproducing sexism in system design. The word-embedding models used in things like conversation bots and word searches provide an instructive example. These models operate by feeding huge amounts of text into a computer so it learns how words relate to each other in space. It is based on the premise that words which appear near each other in texts share meaning. These spatial relationships are used in natural language-processing so that computers can engage with us conversationally. By reading a lot of text, a computer can learn that Paris is to France as Tokyo is to Japan. It develops a dictionary by association.

But this can create problems when the world is not exactly as it ought to be. For instance, researchers have experimented with one of these word-embedding models, Word2vec, a popular and freely available model trained on three million words from Google News. They found that it produces highly gendered analogies. For instance, when asked Man is to woman as computer programmer is to ?, the model will answer homemaker. Or for father is to mother as doctor is to ?, the answer is nurse. Of course the model reflects a certain reality: it is true that there are more male computer programmers, and nurses are more often women. But this bias, reflecting social discrimination, will now be reproduced and reinforced when we engage with computers using natural language that relies on Word2vec. It is not hard to imagine how this model could also be racially biased, or biased against other groups.

These biases can be amplified during the process of language learning. As the MIT Technology Review points out: “If the phrase computer programmer is more closely associated with men than women, then a search for the term computer programmer CVs might rank men more highly than women.” When this kind of language learning has applications across fields including medicine, education, employment, policymaking and criminal justice, it is not hard to see how much damage such biases can cause.

Removing such gender bias is a challenge, in part because the problem is inherently political: Word2vec entrenches the world as it is, rather than what it could or should be. But if we are to alter the models to reflect aspirations, how do we decide what kind of world we want to see?

Digital technology offers myriad ways to put these understandings to work. It is not bad, but we have to challenge the presumption that it is neutral. Its potential is being explored in ways that are sometimes promising, often frightening and amazing. To make the most of this moment, we need to imagine a future without the oppressions of the past. We need to allow women to reach their potential in workplaces where they feel safe and respected. But we also need to look into the black mirror of technology and find the cracks of light shining through.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/07/technology-sexist-society-even-worse-women-potential

Japan and EU expected to sign trade deal on Thursday

Shinzo Abe to meet Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels but UK exporters likely to see no gain due to Brexit.

The European Union and Japan are on course to sign a trade deal on Thursday, after talks gained impetus in the wake of Donald Trump’s threat to put up barriers to international commerce.

Cecilia Malmstrm, the European trade commissioner, announced she had reached a political agreement with the Japanese foreign minister, Fumio Kishida: “We ironed out the few remaining differences in the EU-Japan trade negotiations, she tweeted. We now recommend to leaders to confirm this at summit.”

Japanese prime minister Shinz Abe will meet Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, presidents of the European council and commission respectively, for a one- day summit in Brussels, before the G20 gathering in Hamburg.

The timing is no coincidence, as Germany plans to make free trade one of the summit priorities.

In a sign of high hopes, Malmstrm and Kishida exchanged Daruma dolls, armless, headless round figures associated with persistence and luck. A part of Zen Buddhist culture, people typically paint one eye when they make a wish and the second when the goal has been reached. Malmstrm and Kishida posed for the cameras, as they coloured in the second eyes on two dolls emblazoned with the EU and Japanese flags.

But officials might be looking for divine intervention to overcome the final hurdles.

Despite a likely agreement on Thursday, the sensitive subject of a court system to settle investor disputes remains open. Japan has not accepted the EUs preferred alternative to the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), a system for resolving trade disputes that has been criticised by unions and activists for giving too much power to corporations. Under pressure from NGOs, the EU proposed a new kind of trade court, where judges would be appointed by governments rather than disputing parties. But Tokyo has not come round to this idea.

EU sources declined to speculate on how quickly the deal could come into force, but fine-tuning and translating the legal text, as well as getting it agreed by all EU member states could take many months.

It took the EU and Canada three years to sign a final text, following the agreement in principle in October 2013, which parallels the latest EU-Japan milestone. The Canada deal almost collapsed when a Belgian region threatened to veto the treaty. Now mostly in force, the EU-Canada deal still needs to clear the final hurdle of ratification by at least 38 national and regional assemblies.

The timetable means it is likely the UK will have left the EU by the time the Japan treaty comes into force.

When negotiations began with Tokyo in 2013, Britain was one of the biggest cheerleaders. The then UK trade minister described talks as an important step towards liberalising trade between two of the worlds largest economies.

Following the Brexit vote, Theresa May has vowed to leave the customs union, meaning British exporters are unlikely to see any benefits from the EU deal.

The deal means Japan will drop tariffs on many valuable European imports, including chocolate, pasta and some types of cheese.

In return for liberalisation of Japans highly protected dairy market, Europe has compromised by agreeing to lower tariffs on Japanese imported cars, although new rules will be phased in to help European carmakers deal with the change.

Services and an array of technical standards are also covered by the treaty, which negotiators say goes far further than old-style tariff-cutting agreements.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jul/06/japan-and-eu-expected-to-sign-trade-deal-after-breakthrough-in-talks

Tying loose ends? Gravitational waves could solve string theory, study claims

New paper suggests that the hotly contested physics thesis, which involves the existence of six extra dimensions, may be settled by cutting-edge laser detectors.

String theory makes the grand promise of weaving together all of physics into a single sublime framework. The only downside is that scientists have yet to find any experimental proof that it is right and critics question whether its predictions are even testable.

Now, a new paper has claimed that gravitational wave measurements could hold the key to whether string theory is destined to fulfil its lofty goals or be consigned to the dustbin of discarded ideas. The study suggests that the first observable evidence for the existence of extra dimensions, one of string theorys predictions, could be hidden within the ripples of gravitational waves.

“It would be amazing because general relativity and Einstein do not predict this at all,” said David Andriot, a physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam and lead author of the study.

The crux of string theory although there are many competing versions is that all particles can be viewed as one-dimensional strings on which the fundamental forces of nature (gravity, electromagnetism and so on) act as different modes of vibration. For reasons better explained in maths than words, the framework also requires there to be at least six extra spatial dimensions, in addition to time and the three spatial ones of everyday life.

Scientists, notably those working at the Large Hadron Collider, have looked for energy vanishing into these hypothetical extra dimensions, but so far efforts have been inconclusive. One possibility is that the dimensions are coiled up so tightly that they are imperceptible; another is that they are not there at all.

Andriot is hopeful that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) experiment could start to answer this question.

In 2015, Ligo made the historic first observation of gravitational waves, the compression and stretching of space that Einstein predicted would occur as a mass moves through the fabric of the universe. In this case, Ligos detectors were picking up the ripples sent out across space-time following the violent collision of a pair of black holes more than a billion years ago.

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A Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) technician inspects the devices twin detectors. Photograph: LIGO Laboratory/Reuters

String theory predicts that, during such cataclysmic events, ripples should also be travelling through the extra spatial dimensions and that there should be subtle interactions between the standard waves and those hidden from view.

Our study concludes that if there are extra dimensions it would lead to another mode of shrinking and stretching, said Andriot.

The latest paper, published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, concludes this would produce a breathing effect, superimposed on the main gravitational wave. The pattern might be measurable once a third detector, called Virgo, joins the twin Ligo detectors in gathering data late next year or early in 2019, although the team have not yet worked out whether the effect would be big enough to spot.

“If we have extra dimensions we can get this effect, but there are other things that could cause it. It’s not a smoking gun for extra dimensions,” said Andriot.

Christopher Berry, a scientist working on Ligo at the University of Birmingham, said it is a priority to look for the kinds of subtle modifications to gravitational waves described in the paper. “It’s one of the classic tests that we would like to do,” he said.

Such observations would be hugely significant because they are not predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, meaning that our understanding of how gravity behaves would need to be revised. One option is string theory, but there are other competing theories. The absence of the breathing effect would help rule out some of these theories, or narrow the window in which they could occur.

“We expect that any deviations from general relativity would happen in the most extreme conditions; that’s where you’d expect the theory would break,” said Berry. “The best place for testing that is the collision of black holes.”

The paper also predicts that gravitational waves should ripple through each extra dimension at a characteristic frequency analogous to the way organ pipes of different lengths produce notes of different pitch. Working on the assumption that the extra dimensions are very small, a series of higher-frequency gravitational waves would be predicted. These would be at a frequency more than a billion times higher than the limit of what Ligo could detect, but which might be observable one day by a future detector.

“If this was seen, we could talk of a smoking gun,” said Andriot.

Others remain unconvinced that such observations would provide the sought-after experimental proof. Peter Woit, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University, New York, and longstanding critic of string theory, said: “The problem is that string theory says nothing at all about the sizes of these extra dimensions, they could be anything from infinitely large to infinitely small, so theres no real prediction. If we ever do see extra dimensions, there’s no particular reason to believe these have anything to do with string theory.”

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/05/gravitational-waves-string-theory

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