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Speech recognition algorithms may also have racial bias

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We're outsourcing ever more of our decision-making to algorithms, partly as a matter of convenience, and partly because algorithms are ostensibly free of some of the biases that humans suffer from. Ostensibly. As it turns out, algorithms that are trained on data that's already subject to human biases can readily recapitulate them, as we've seen in places like the banking and judicial systems. Other algorithms have just turned out to be not especially good.

Now, researchers at Stanford have identified another area with potential issues: the speech-recognition algorithms that do everything from basic transcription to letting our phones fulfill our requests. These algorithms seem to have more issues with the speech patterns used by African Americans, although there's a chance that geography plays a part, too.

A non-comedy of errors

Voice-recognition systems have become so central to modern technology that most of the large companies in the space have developed their own. For the study, the research team tested systems from Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM, and Microsoft. While some of these systems are sold as services to other businesses, the ones from Apple and Google are as close as your phone. Their growing role in daily life makes their failures intensely frustrating, so the researchers decided to have a look at whether those failures display any sort of bias.

To do so, the researchers obtained large collections of spoken words. Two of these were dominated by a single group: African Americans from a community in North Carolina, and whites in Northern California. The remaining samples came from mixed communities: Rochester, New York; Sacramento, California; and Washington, DC. These were run through each of the five systems, and the accuracy was determined based on a comparison of the results to those of human translators.

Based on a score called word error rate (which includes inserted and missing words, as well as misinterpretations) all of the systems did well, having a score of less than 0.5. (Apple's was the worst, and Microsoft's system the best based on this measure.) In all cases, the recordings of African American speakers ended up with word error rates that were worse than the ones produced from recordings of white speakers—in general, the errors nearly doubled.

The effect was more pronounced among African American males. White men and women had error rates that were statistically indistinguishable, at 0.21 and 0.17, respectively. The rate for African American women averaged 0.30, while for men it rose to 0.41.

How important are these differences? The authors suggest it depends on how you define usability—above a certain percentage of error, it becomes more annoying to fix an automated transcript than to do it yourself, or your phone will end up doing the wrong thing more often than you're happy with. The authors tested how often individual chunks of text end up with a conservative word error rate of 0.5. They found that over 20 percent of the phrases spoken by African Americans would fail this standard; less than 2 percent of those spoken by whites would.

Listen up

So what's going on? There may be a bit of a geographical issue. California speakers are often considered to be accent free from an American perspective, and the two samples from that state had very low error rates. Rochester had a rate similar to California's, while the District of Columbia had one closer to the rural North Carolina town. If there is a geographic influence, we're going to need a much larger sample to separate that out.

After that, the researchers analyzed the language usage itself. Since they didn't have access to the algorithms used by these systems, they turned to some open source packages that perform similar functions. They measured the software's understanding of language use via a figure called the perplexity, which is a value derived from the accuracy at which the system can predict the word that will come next in a sentence. And, by this measure, the systems were better at handling the usage of African American speakers. What's going on?

The researchers found there were two conflicting tendencies. African Americans would, on average, use a smaller total word list than their white counterparts. But their phrasing turned out to be more complicated—in many cases, they dropped words from their sentences when their listeners could easily infer them.

Finally, there's the matter of how attuned the commercial systems are to African American voices. To explore this, the researchers searched through the transcripts to find cases when African American and white speakers used the same phrases. When those were run through the systems, the word error rate for African American speakers was higher than for whites, suggesting this also contributed to the overall reduced performance.

An effective voice-recognition system has to combine a number of factors—actual word recognition, language usage, and likely meanings—in order to successfully recognize sentences or predict ensuing words. Existing commercial systems appear to fall a bit short of that when it comes to some populations. These systems weren't set up to be biased; it's likely that they were simply trained on a subset of the diversity of accents and usages present in the United States. But, as we become ever more reliant on these systems, making them less frustrating for all their users should be a priority.

PNAS, 2020. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1915768117  (About DOIs).

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satadru
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Luxury’s Hidden Indian Supply Chain

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MUMBAI, India — At the top of a staircase covered in dirt and sequins, several dozen Indian artisans hunched over yards of fabric, using needles to embroider garments for the world’s most powerful fashion brands.

They sewed without health benefits in a multiroom factory with caged windows and no emergency exit, where they earned a few dollars a day completing subcontracted orders for international designers. When night fell, some slept on the floor.

They were not working for a factory employed by fast fashion brands: companies whose business model is premised on producing trendy clothing as cheaply as possible and whose supply chain issues came under scrutiny in 2013. That was when the deadliest garment industry disaster in history, the Rana Plaza factory collapse, killed more than 1,100 Bangladeshi workers.

Their products were destined for Dior and Saint Laurent, among other luxury names.

Unknown to most consumers, the expensive, glittering brands of runways in Paris and Milan also indirectly employ thousands of workers in the developing world. In Mumbai, scores of ateliers and export houses act as middlemen between the brands and highly skilled artisans, while also providing services like design, sampling and garment production.

As with fast fashion retailers, many luxury brands do not own all of their own production facilities, and instead contract with independent factories to make their garments or embroider them. And like fast fashion, they too have woken up to potential dangers with that system.

In 2016, a group of luxury houses introduced the Utthan pact, an ambitious and secretive compliance project aimed at ensuring factory safety in Mumbai and elevating Indian embroiderers. Among the signatories were Kering (owner of labels including Gucci and Saint Laurent); LVMH Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (owner of Fendi and Christian Dior); and two British fashion houses, Burberry and Mulberry. The pact had an initial three-year timeline but was not legally binding.

Yet during visits to several Mumbai factories, and in more than three dozen interviews with artisans, factory managers and designers, The New York Times found that embroiderers still completed orders at unregulated facilities that did not meet Indian factory safety laws. Many workers still do not have any employment benefits or protections, while seasonal demands for thousands of hours of overtime would coincide with the latest fashion weeks in Europe.

Several factory owners said that membership in the pact meant investing in the costly compliance standards outlined by the Utthan pact, while brands simultaneously drove down what they would pay for orders.

“Given the product prices, there is a sense that the luxury brands must be doing it right, and that makes them immune to public scrutiny,” said Michael Posner, a professor of ethics and finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University. “But despite the price tags for luxury brand goods, the conditions in factories across their supply chains can be just as bad as those found in factories producing for fast fashion retailers.”

When contacted for comment, luxury brands that were Utthan signatories largely highlighted the broader improvements made by the implementation of the pact, rather than focusing on continuing issues and accusations.

“We recognize that the situation of some workers at the subcontracting level is still very far from satisfying today, and we are genuinely determined to strengthen the program with our fellow stakeholders, to speed up progress and to further improve the situation,” a Kering spokesman said in a statement.

A spokesman for LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s largest luxury goods company, said in an emailed statement: “We take the allegations raised through your questions very seriously but are unable to comment without further details and a thorough investigation.”

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Coronavirus May Cause Contamination Through Fecal Shedding

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Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's  Coronavirus Resource Center .    

The toilet bowl, sink, and bathroom door handle of an isolation room housing a patient with the novel coronavirus tested positive for the virus, raising the possibility that viral shedding in the stool could represent another route of transmission, investigators reported.

Air outlet fans and other room sites also tested positive for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), though an anteroom, a corridor, and most personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by health care providers tested negative, according to the researchers, led by Sean Wei Xiang Ong, MBBS, of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, Singapore.

Taken together, these findings suggest a "need for strict adherence to environmental and hand hygiene" to combat significant environmental contamination through respiratory droplets and fecal shedding, Dr. Ong and colleagues wrote in JAMA.

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F.D.A. Bans School Electric Shock Devices

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Some of the students’ relatives have defended the practice — saying that it worked to change students’ behavior when nothing else could — and denounced the F.D.A.’s decision.

“I just feel like I got punched in the gut when they did this,” said Louisa Goldberg, 66, whose son Andrew Goldberg, 39, lives at the center. “I’m just so sad.”

She said that her son had brain damage and epilepsy, and that he showed severe aggression as a teenager. There were violent episodes, trips to the hospital, and psychotropic medications that left him sluggish. His mother said he was placed in physical restraints for hours at a time.

“His life was torture,” she said.

Mr. Goldberg went to live at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center at age 19 and began wearing an electric shock device. Ms. Goldberg said her son would receive two-second shocks as a sporadic part of a broader treatment plan. He has since been weaned off the device and can do things he could not do before, like go to the movies.

“This treatment works, and I will stand by it, and I will fight for it,” Ms. Goldberg said.

In a statement on Thursday, the school said that the F.D.A. had “made a decision based on politics, not facts, to deny this lifesaving, court-approved treatment.”

“J.R.C. has provided countless hours of testimony, volumes of information and made clinicians, other staff and family members of our clients, or clients themselves, available to the F.D.A. over the past several years,” it said. “In fact, after multiple requests for the federal agency to visit the only facility impacted by this rule, the F.D.A. stuck its head in the sand and refused to visit.”

The school administers the electric shocks with a device called a graduated electronic decelerator. On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the school said it had 282 clients, 55 of whom — all adults — had been approved by a court to wear the graduated electronic decelerator after all other treatments failed.

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In "things we shouldn't have to say" news.
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'You misread the community mindset around dot-org' • The Register

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The Internet Society's own members are now opposing its sale of the .org internet registry to an unknown private equity firm.

The Chapters Advisory Council, the official voice of Internet Society (ISOC) members, will vote this month on whether to approve a formal recommendation that the society “not proceed [with the sale] unless a number of conditions are met.”

Those conditions largely comprise the publication of additional details and transparency regarding ISOC's controversial sell-off of .org. Despite months of requests, neither the society nor the proposed purchaser, Ethos Capital, have disclosed critical elements of the deal, including who would actually own the registry if the sale went through.

Meanwhile, word has reached us that Ethos Capital attempted to broker a secret peace treaty this coming weekend in Washington DC by inviting key individuals to a closed-door meeting with the goal of thrashing out an agreement all sides would be happy with. After Ethos insisted the meeting be kept brief, and a number of those opposed to the sale declined to attend, Ethos's funding for attendees' flights and accommodation was suddenly withdrawn, and the plan to hold a confab fell apart, we understand.

ISOC – and .org's current operator, the ISOC-controlled Public Interest Registry (PIR) – are still hoping to push DNS overseer ICANN to make a decision on the .org sale before the end of the month. But that looks increasingly unlikely following an aggressive letter from ICANN's external lawyers last week insisting ICANN will take as much time as it feels necessary to review the deal.

The overall lack of transparency around the $1.13bn deal has led California’s Attorney General to demand documents relating to the sale – and ISOC’s chapters are demanding the same information as a pre-condition to any sale in their proposed advice to the ISOC board.

That information includes: full details of the transaction; a financial breakdown of what Ethos Capital intends to do with .org’s 10 million internet addresses; binding commitments on limiting price increases and free speech protections; and publication of the bylaws and related corporate documents for both the replacement to the current registry operator, PIR, and the proposed “Stewardship Council” which Ethos claims will give .org users a say in future decisions.

Disregarded

“There is a feeling amongst chapters that ISOC seems to have disregarded community participation, failed to properly account for the potential community impact, and misread the community mindset around the .ORG TLD,” the Chapters Advisory Council's proposed advice to the ISOC board – a copy of which The Register has seen – states.

Although the advisory council has no legal ability to stop ISOC, if the proposed advice is approved by vote, and the CEO and board of trustees push ahead with the sale regardless, it could have severe repercussions for the organization’s non-profit status, and would further undermine ISOC’s position that the sale will “support the Internet Society’s vision that the Internet is for everyone.”

With opposition to the deal growing within the internet community, and following an abortive attempt by PIR to force ICANN to make a decision this month, it looks increasingly likely that the .org sell-off will fall through.

In the ICANN lawyers' letter, the organization rejected PIR’s insistence that any decision be limited to technical security and stability considerations, and said all parties “have long recognized the unique public-interest-focused nature of the .ORG domain, and ICANN's contractual role in evaluating proposed changes.”

ICANN also rejected [PDF] “any artificial restriction on the scope of ICANN's analysis” and noted “the obvious importance to the public interest of its operation.” It concluded: “ICANN is reviewing PIR's request for change of control in light of all of the relevant circumstances, and it looks forward to your client's continued cooperation in this process.”

Both ISOC and Ethos have been relatively open about the fact that any deal would need to be concluded quickly. As such, the longer discussions persist, the more risky the deal looks. That’s not all, however: anger at ISOC’s board from its members is growing and the furor risks damaging the organization itself.

Public support is lacking

Under US law, for an organization to be tax exempt, at least one third of the organization’s revenue must come from donors who each individually give less than two per cent of overall receipts, something called the “public support test.” ISOC does not meet that test because the vast majority of its income comes from a single source: the sale of .org domains, paid through a separate non-profit organization, PIR, that ISOC controls.

There is an exception, however. An organization can retain public charity status if public support is at least 10 per cent of revenues but an organization must assert it is operating as a charity, rather than a foundation, and is actively working to get its public support percentage up to 33 per cent.

For this reason, every year since its inception, ISOC has included the same explanation in its tax documents for why it should be granted charity status despite not meeting the 33 per cent test: because it is doing great work with its members around the world.

“Internet Society is organized and operated to attract new and additional support on a continuous basis. Internet Society involves both individual and corporate members in its activities,” the explanation reads.

The assumption from tax authorities is that a non-profit will only spend a short period of time – one or two years – below that 33 per cent threshold. But ISOC has never met the threshold since it took over .org in 2003, and has relied instead in a slowly increasing percentage: 13.9 per cent in 2013; 17.1 per cent in 2015; and 19.5 per cent in 2018.

In that sense, while ISOC is not in any way reliant on its members to function financially, it is reliant on their existence and the work they do to justify its tax-exempt status. The proposed .org sale is deeply unpopular with ISOC chapters, and any break between the headquarters in Virginia, USA, and its global members risks fracturing that corporate balance.

Transparency? We've heard of it

Tension has been simmering for a long time, as made clear by an earlier recommendation by the Chapters Advisory Council that the ISOC board improve its transparency and accountability.

That recommendation was rejected by the board chair who formally responded: “Let me point out that no matter how strict we make our bylaws regarding board transparency, the community will always need to put a certain level of trust in its trustees (thus the name).” It concluded: “In our humble opinion, this board already works in a very transparent way.”

That lack of transparency was never more clear than when the ISOC board claimed to have met for two weeks in November to discuss the Ethos Capital offer to buy .org, but made no mention of the proposal and only made ISOC members and chapters aware of the decision after it had been made.

With a spotlight on ISOC’s secretive deliberations – and with board members now claiming they are subject to a non-disclosure agreement over the sale – the organization has added skeleton minutes that provide little or no insight into deliberations. It is not clear when those minutes were added – no update date is provided.

“The primary purpose of the Chapters Advisory Council shall be to channel and facilitate advice and recommendations to and from the President and Board of Trustees of the Internet Society in a bottom up manner, on any matters of concern or interest to the Chapter AC and ISOC Chapters,” reads the official description of the council on ISOC’s website.

With Ethos having failed to broker a secret deal, and ICANN indicating that it will consider the public interest in deciding whether to approve the sale, if ISOC’s advisory council does vote to advise the board not to move forward with the sale, the Internet Society will face a stark choice: stick by the secretive billionaires funding the purchase of .org with the added risk of blowing up the entire organization; or walk away from the deal. ®

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satadru
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MIT's "Smart Diaper" alerts caregiver when it's wet

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MIT researchers outfitted a baby diaper with an RFID tag that emits a wireless signal when the surrounding material gets wet. The wetness "sensor" is actually a type of hydrogel that's commonly found in diapers to absorb liquid. As the hydrogel gets wet, it swells and its conductivity increases, triggering the RFID tag. The RFID tags are printed as stickers for around 2 cents each compared to other Internet-connected diapers in development with reusable sensors that cost as much as $40/each. From MIT News:

Over time, smart diapers may help record and identify certain health problems, such as signs of constipation or incontinence. The new sensor may be especially useful for nurses working in neonatal units and caring for multiple babies at a time...

(MIT AutoID Lab researcher Pankhuri Sen) envisions that an RFID reader connected to the internet could be placed in a baby’s room to detect wet diapers, at which point it could send a notification to a caregiver’s phone or computer that a change is needed. For geriatric patients who might also benefit from smart diapers, she says small RFID readers may even be attached to assistive devices, such as canes and wheelchairs to pick up a tag’s signals.

image: MIT News (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) Read the rest

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satadru
37 days ago
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I was in a conversation with a Korean inventor two years back about getting some version of electronic diapers in the US, but this seems like a better idea.
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