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.
Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI
Melanie Mitchell, an AI researcher at the Santa Fe Institute, is also excited to see a whole new approach. “We really haven’t seen this coming out of the deep-learning community so much,” she says. She also agrees with LeCun that large language models cannot be the whole story. “They lack memory and internal models of the world that are actually really important,” she says.
Natasha Jaques, a researcher at Google Brain, thinks that language models should still play a role, however. It’s odd for language to be entirely missing from LeCun’s proposals, she says: “We know that large language models are super effective and bake in a bunch of human knowledge.”
Jaques, who works on ways to get AIs to share information and abilities with each other, points out that humans don’t have to have direct experience of something to learn about it. We can change our behavior simply by being told something, such as not to touch a hot pan. “How do I update this world model that Yann is proposing if I don’t have language?” she asks.
There’s another issue, too. If they were to work, LeCun’s ideas would create a powerful technology that could be as transformative as the internet. And yet his proposal doesn’t discuss how his model’s behavior and motivations would be controlled, or who would control them. This is a weird omission, says Abhishek Gupta, the founder of the Montreal AI Ethics Institute and a responsible-AI expert at Boston Consulting Group.
“We should think more about what it takes for AI to function well in a society, and that requires thinking about ethical behavior, amongst other things,” says Gupta.
Yet Jaques notes that LeCun’s proposals are still very much ideas rather than practical applications. Mitchell says the same: “There’s certainly little risk of this becoming a human-level intelligence anytime soon.”
LeCun would agree. His aim is to sow the seeds of a new approach in the hope that others build on it. “This is something that is going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people,” he says. “I’m putting this out there because I think ultimately this is the way to go.” If nothing else, he wants to convince people that large language models and reinforcement learning are not the only ways forward.
“I hate to see people wasting their time,” he says.
The Download: Yann LeCun’s AI vision, and smart cities’ unfulfilled promises
“We’re addicted to being on Facebook.”
—Jordi Berbera, who runs a pizza stand in Mexico City, tells Rest of World why he has turned to selling his wares through the social network instead of through more conventional food delivery apps.
The big story
“Am I going crazy or am I being stalked?” Inside the disturbing online world of gangstalking
Jenny’s story is not linear, the way that we like stories to be. She was born in Baltimore in 1975 and had a happy, healthy childhood—her younger brother Danny fondly recalls the treasure hunts she would orchestrate. In her late teens, she developed anorexia and depression and was hospitalized for a month. Despite her struggles, she graduated high school and was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college.
There, things went downhill again. Among other issues, chronic fatigue led her to drop out. When she was 25 she flipped that car on Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. At 30, after experiencing delusions that she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized for half a year and began treatment, regularly receiving shots of an antipsychotic drug. “It was like having my older sister back again,” Danny says.
On July 17, 2017, Jenny jumped from the tenth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. After her death, her family searched her hotel room and her apartment, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave a note. “We wanted to find a reason for why she did this,” Danny says. And so, a week after his sister’s death, Danny—a certified ethical hacker—decided to look for answers on Jenny’s computer. He found she had subscribed to hundreds of gangstalking groups across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit; online communities where self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations—and the internet legitimizes them. Read the full story.
The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What does that mean?
Access to legal abortion is now subject to state laws, allowing each state to decide whether to ban, restrict or allow abortion. Some parts of the country are much stricter than others—Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky are among the 13 states with trigger laws that immediately made abortion illegal in the aftermath of the ruling. In total, around half of states are likely to either ban or limit access to the procedure, with many of them refusing to make exceptions, even in pregnancies involving rape, incest and fetuses with genetic abnormalities. Many specialized abortion clinics may be forced to close their doors in the next few days and weeks.
While overturning Roe v Wade will not spell an end to abortion in the US, it’s likely to lower its rates, and force those seeking them to obtain them using different methods. People living in states that ban or heavily restrict abortions may consider travelling to other areas that will continue to allow them, although crossing state lines can be time-consuming and prohibitively expensive for many people facing financial hardship.
The likelihood that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions is also higher following the decision. This information could be used to criminalize them, making it particularly dangerous for those leaving home to cross state lines.
Vigilante volunteers already stake out abortion clinics in states including Mississippi, Florida and North Carolina, filming people’s arrival on cameras and recording details about them and their cars. While they deny the data is used to harass or contact people seeking abortions, experts are concerned that footage filmed of clients arriving and leaving clinics could be exploited to target and harm them, particularly if law enforcement agencies or private groups were to use facial recognition to identify them.
Another option is to order so-called abortion pills to discreetly end a pregnancy at home. The pills, which are safe and widely prescribed by doctors, are significantly less expensive than surgical procedures, and already account for the majority of abortions in the US.