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We could see federal regulation on face recognition as early as next week

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We could see federal regulation on face recognition as early as next week


On May 10, 40 advocacy groups sent an open letter demanding a permanent ban on the use of Amazon’s facial recognition software, Rekognition, by US police. The letter was addressed to Jeff Bezos and Andy Jassy, the company’s current and incoming CEOs, and came just weeks before Amazon’s year-long moratorium on sales to law enforcement was set to expire. 

The letter contrasted Bezos’s and Jassy’s vocal support of Black Lives Matter campaigners during last summer’s racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd with reporting that other Amazon products have been used by law enforcement to identify protesters.

On May 17, Amazon announced it would extend its moratorium indefinitely, joining competitors IBM and Microsoft in self-regulated purgatory. The move is a nod at the political power of the groups fighting to curb the technology—and recognition that new legislative battle grounds are starting to emerge. Many believe that substantial federal legislation is likely to come soon. 

“People are exhausted”

The past year has been pivotal for face recognition, with revelations of the technology’s role in false arrests, and bans on it put in place by almost two dozen cities and seven states across the US. But the momentum has been shifting for some time.

In 2018, AI researchers published a study comparing the accuracy of commercial facial recognition software from IBM, Microsoft, and Face++. Their work found that the technology identified lighter-skinned men much more accurately than darker-skinned women; IBM’s system scored the worst, with a 34.4% difference in error rate between the two groups.

Also in 2018, the ACLU tested Amazon’s Rekognition and found that it misidentified 28 members of Congress as criminals—an error disproportionately affecting people of color. The organization wrote its own open letter to Amazon, demanding that the company ban government use of the technology, as did the Congressional Black Caucus—but Amazon made no changes.

“If we’re going to commit to racial equity in the criminal justice system … one of the simplest and clearest things you can do is end the use of facial recognition technology.”

Kate Ruane, ACLU

During the racial justice movements against police brutality last summer, however, Amazon surprised many by announcing that it was halting police use of Rekognition, with exceptions for federal law enforcement officers such as ICE. The company’s announcement said it hoped the pause “might give Congress enough time to put in place appropriate rules.” 

Evan Greer is the director at Fight for the Future, a technology advocacy group that believes in the abolition of face recognition technology and says there is growing public support for it to be regulated. She says this week’s extension of the moratorium shows that “Amazon is responding to this enormous pressure that they’re receiving, not just around facial recognition,” adding, “I really give tremendous credit to the nationwide uprisings for racial justice that have happened over the last year and a half.” 

“A political reality”

Although there is pressure building on large technology providers, the reality is that most law enforcement and government users don’t buy facial recognition software from companies like Amazon. So though the moratoriums and bans are welcome to advocacy groups, they don’t necessarily prevent the technologies from being used. Congress, meanwhile, has yet to pass any federal legislation on facial recognition in law enforcement, government, or commercial settings that would regulate smaller providers.

Some hope that federal legislation is soon to come, however, either through direct congressional action, a presidential executive order, or upcoming appropriation and police reform bills. 

“I think best-case scenario is that Congress passes a moratorium on the use of it,” says Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU. She thinks that new uses should only be permitted after more legislative work.

Several federal bills have already been proposed that would rein in access to facial recognition. 

  • The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act calls for banning use of the software by any federal entities and withholding federal grant money from any state and local authorities that do not enact their own moratorium. It was proposed by four Democratic members of Congress and introduced to the Senate last year. 
  • The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would prevent the use of facial recognition in body cameras. The bill has already passed in the House and is expected to reach the Senate this coming week. President Biden has asked that the bill be passed ahead of the anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25. 
  • The Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by 18 senators, limits the government from working with technology providers that break terms of service. In practice, it would largely prevent government access to systems that engage in web scraping, such as Clearview AI. 

Mutale Nkonde, the founding CEO of AI for the People, a nonprofit that advocates for racial justice in technology, believes we are likely to see additional federal legislation by the midterm elections next year. 

“I do think there is going to be federal legislation introduced that is going to govern all algorithmic systems, including facial recognition,” Nkonde says. “I think that that’s a political reality.” 

Nkonde says the concept of impact assessments that evaluate technological systems on the basis of civil rights is gaining traction in policy circles on both sides of the aisle. 



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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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