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Why it’s so hard to make tech more diverse

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Why it’s so hard to make tech more diverse


With her new company, Chou wants to fix some of the problems she’s experienced firsthand in the tech industry—including the sort of online harassment of which she has been a target. Here, we check in with Chou, who is based in San Francisco, to learn more about what it takes to make change in the tech sector and what entrepreneurs like her are up against

Tracy Chou, as told to Wudan Yan: When we last spoke, I had just left Pinterest. I’ve always been drawn to smaller companies: I joined Pinterest when it had about 10 employees and left when it had about 1,000. It felt like time for me to move on and do something new. 

I’ve worked for so many startups and have come to recognize some of the structural issues around startups and funding and how those factors influence what problems get solved. A lot of founders naturally work on problems that directly affect them: it’s easier to know what’s important or what could be improved by technology. 

In thinking about my next steps, I thought about products I’ve worked on and checked that against questions like, Do I care about this? Is there something to be made that can be commercially viable? There are lots of really important issues that will not be solved naturally through a startup. 

I ended up on Block Party, which pulls together a few different threads from my background. I’ve worked as an engineer at various social platform companies, and I’ve worked on monitoring, moderating, and increasing the quality of content, and figuring out how product design influences community behavior. Not only did I build moderation tools at Quora that reviewed content quality, but I also took punitive actions against people who violated the site’s policies. 

I’d also spent a lot of time looking at how the lack of diversity and representation in teams meant that products were built in a skewed way. For instance, nondiverse teams of people who generally don’t get targeted with abuse and harassment don’t tend to build protections against that in their apps.

The last part of my background that led me to Block Party was just getting targeted more with harassment. Over the last year, I’ve definitely gotten more anti-Asian harassment online. Some of it was truly targeted at me by individuals, and other times I would attract trolls just by having a presence online. 

If you could be reborn as anybody in the world tomorrow, how would you design the world today? You wouldn’t want to design a world that’s vastly unequal, where most people are at the bottom, because that could very likely be you if you were born as anybody tomorrow.

I got online very young, and at first the internet was a fun way to connect with friends. I was on AOL Instant Messenger, which was a better way to chat with my friends in high school: I didn’t have a cell phone, and I couldn’t hog the phone line that I shared with my family. I was also on some of the blogging platforms, like Xanga and LiveJournal. They were nice outlets at the time. 

Pretty early on, though, someone set up an anonymous Xanga page dedicated to hating me. I think it was someone from school, because it referenced things from high school. A lot of it was hating on me because I did well academically. It didn’t bother me as much at the time as it did when I got older and looked back on it. Back then, I thought this person was just insecure and jealous. I thought it was a bit sad and messed up that someone would write full posts dedicated to trying to take me down. 

I didn’t report it. Who would I have reported it to? It didn’t even cross my mind to go to my school and report it. And I didn’t necessarily want my teachers or school administrators to see the page either, since it was pretty hateful content. 

My parents didn’t raise me to be someone who was outspoken and challenged the status quo. I definitely wasn’t encouraged to speak up against the system in any way. Like many other children of Asian immigrants to the US, I grew up believing that this is not my country, and my parents and I are here trying to find opportunities for ourselves. We didn’t have a safety net. I grew up more with a head-down mentality of do good work, work hard, and try to make it. 

My dad, who’s an engineer, gave me a philosophical thought experiment when I was quite young: If you could be reborn as anybody in the world tomorrow, how would you design the world today? You wouldn’t want to design a world that’s vastly unequal, where most people are at the bottom, because that could very likely be you if you were born as anybody tomorrow. You’d want to design a much more equal world. That got me thinking I didn’t like that the world was so unequal and so many people were much less lucky than me. 

That feeling has made me take the privilege that I have and pay it forward to make the world a little more just. I went to Stanford; I’ve worked at companies that people within tech find credible. So I can try to amplify more voices or different perspectives.

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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles


Jay Gierak at Ghost, which is based in Mountain View, California, is impressed by Wayve’s demonstrations and agrees with the company’s overall viewpoint. “The robotics approach is not the right way to do this,” says Gierak.

But he’s not sold on Wayve’s total commitment to deep learning. Instead of a single large model, Ghost trains many hundreds of smaller models, each with a specialism. It then hand codes simple rules that tell the self-driving system which models to use in which situations. (Ghost’s approach is similar to that taken by another AV2.0 firm, Autobrains, based in Israel. But Autobrains uses yet another layer of neural networks to learn the rules.)

According to Volkmar Uhlig, Ghost’s co-founder and CTO, splitting the AI into many smaller pieces, each with specific functions, makes it easier to establish that an autonomous vehicle is safe. “At some point, something will happen,” he says. “And a judge will ask you to point to the code that says: ‘If there’s a person in front of you, you have to brake.’ That piece of code needs to exist.” The code can still be learned, but in a large model like Wayve’s it would be hard to find, says Uhlig.

Still, the two companies are chasing complementary goals: Ghost wants to make consumer vehicles that can drive themselves on freeways; Wayve wants to be the first company to put driverless cars in 100 cities. Wayve is now working with UK grocery giants Asda and Ocado, collecting data from their urban delivery vehicles.

Yet, by many measures, both firms are far behind the market leaders. Cruise and Waymo have racked up hundreds of hours of driving without a human in their cars and already offer robotaxi services to the public in a small number of locations.

“I don’t want to diminish the scale of the challenge ahead of us,” says Hawke. “The AV industry teaches you humility.”

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Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

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Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram


Just minutes after Putin announced conscription, the administrators of the anti-Kremlin Rospartizan group announced its own “mobilization,” gearing up its supporters to bomb military enlistment officers and the Ministry of Defense with Molotov cocktails. “Ordinary Russians are invited to die for nothing in a foreign land,” they wrote. “Agitate, incite, spread the truth, but do not be the ones who legitimize the Russian government.”

The Rospartizan Telegram group—which has more than 28,000 subscribers—has posted photos and videos purporting to show early action against the military mobilization, including burned-out offices and broken windows at local government buildings. 

Other Telegram channels are offering citizens opportunities for less direct, though far more self-interested, action—namely, how to flee the country even as the government has instituted a nationwide ban on selling plane tickets to men aged 18 to 65. Groups advising Russians on how to escape into neighboring countries sprung up almost as soon as Putin finished talking, and some groups already on the platform adjusted their message. 

One group, which offers advice and tips on how to cross from Russia to Georgia, is rapidly closing in on 100,000 members. The group dates back to at least November 2020, according to previously pinned messages; since then, it has offered information for potential travelers about how to book spots on minibuses crossing the border and how to travel with pets. 

After Putin’s declaration, the channel was co-opted by young men giving supposed firsthand accounts of crossing the border this week. Users are sharing their age, when and where they crossed the border, and what resistance they encountered from border guards, if any. 

For those who haven’t decided to escape Russia, there are still other messages about how to duck army call-ups. Another channel, set up shortly after Putin’s conscription drive, crowdsources information about where police and other authorities in Moscow are signing up men of military age. It gained 52,000 subscribers in just two days, and they are keeping track of photos, videos, and maps showing where people are being handed conscription orders. The group is one of many: another Moscow-based Telegram channel doing the same thing has more than 115,000 subscribers. Half that audience joined in 18 hours overnight on September 22. 

“You will not see many calls or advice on established media on how to avoid mobilization,” says Golovchenko. “You will see this on Telegram.”

The Kremlin is trying hard to gain supremacy on Telegram because of its current position as a rich seam of subterfuge for those opposed to Putin and his regime, Golovchenko adds. “What is at stake is the extent to which Telegram can amplify the idea that war is now part of Russia’s everyday life,” he says. “If Russians begin to realize their neighbors and friends and fathers are being killed en masse, that will be crucial.”

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The Download: YouTube’s deadly crafts, and DeepMind’s new chatbot

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The YouTube baker fighting back against deadly “craft hacks”


Ann Reardon is probably the last person whose content you’d expect to be banned from YouTube. A former Australian youth worker and a mother of three, she’s been teaching millions of loyal subscribers how to bake since 2011. But the removal email was referring to a video that was not Reardon’s typical sugar-paste fare.

Since 2018, Reardon has used her platform to warn viewers about dangerous new “craft hacks” that are sweeping YouTube, tackling unsafe activities such as poaching eggs in a microwave, bleaching strawberries, and using a Coke can and a flame to pop popcorn.

The most serious is “fractal wood burning”, which involves shooting a high-voltage electrical current across dampened wood to burn a twisting, turning branch-like pattern in its surface. The practice has killed at least 33 people since 2016.

On this occasion, Reardon had been caught up in the inconsistent and messy moderation policies that have long plagued the platform and in doing so, exposed a failing in the system: How can a warning about harmful hacks be deemed dangerous when the hack videos themselves are not? Read the full story.

—Amelia Tait

DeepMind’s new chatbot uses Google searches plus humans to give better answers

The news: The trick to making a good AI-powered chatbot might be to have humans tell it how to behave—and force the model to back up its claims using the internet, according to a new paper by Alphabet-owned AI lab DeepMind. 

How it works: The chatbot, named Sparrow, is trained on DeepMind’s large language model Chinchilla. It’s designed to talk with humans and answer questions, using a live Google search or information to inform those answers. Based on how useful people find those answers, it’s then trained using a reinforcement learning algorithm, which learns by trial and error to achieve a specific objective. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

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