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We need to talk

May 10 · Issue #3 · View online
iAfrikan Daily Brief
We need to talk about this. With every year that passes, it gets more serious. I have talked about this before, here, here, here, and here. I also gave a talk about it in Maputo during December of 2017. More recently, Anjana Susarla wrote about how it affects poorer people, especially in Africa, more than it does people with higher incomes.

Given how Internet network effects end up concentrating power into the hands of a handful of platforms, it is no surprise that Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook keep popping up when we talk about algorithm bias (and by extension, Artificial Intelligence bias). Some people argue that it’s “much ado about nothing” given we are only (so far) talking about news feeds and search results, but it is getting more serious than “just” Google and Facebook, and, if we are not careful, Africa will suffer the negative effects of this bias.

Brisha Borden was rated a higher risk and higher probability to commit future crimes after a petty theft of items worth $80. Vernon Prater was rated a lower risk and lower probability to commit future crimes after shoplifting items worth $86,35. Both were assessed by an algorithm used by a private American company, Northpointe, which is used to allocate risk scores for prisoners. Despite Prater being a hardened criminal and Borden not, she was considered a higher criminal risk. The algorithm has been known on numerous occasions to allocate higher risk to black prisoners irrespective of the offenses committed relative to their white counterparts.
It’s becoming more serious, and a much bigger problem. More importantly, it is slowly shaping narratives and that is dangerous. The most recent example of this is research which has revealed that Google’s search algorithm allegedly, and consistently, discriminates against women and black people. In this specific example, when you search for “woman” or “girl” on Google, the results will have you needing to possibly pick up your jaw from the flaw. As if that is not enough, and to prove the opposite of this, search for “unprofessional hair”.

Now, imagine, like me, your children using Google to do their research and homework. What narrative are they being sold? What picture of the world they live in is being painted?

Google has argued, many a times, and I understand their argument, that their algorithm merely reflects society. However, it goes deeper than that. As Jonathan Cohn puts it:

To make matters worse, Google suggests that I narrow down my search results with adjectives ranging from “attractive” to “skinny” to “pregnant.” In contrast, when searching for “men” (a category that also over represents whiteness), the first three adjectives are “cartoon,” “hair style” and “old.” These adjectives may be descriptive, but they also replicate the stereotype that women are primarily valued for their beauty and reproductive organs and men are important for their personality and wisdom.

There’s a flip side to this, and this where I partially agree with Google and something we need to also talk about. According to Google, their Image Search “analyzes the text on the page adjacent to the image, the image caption and dozens of other factors to determine the image content,” and that’s where we, Africans, have to play our part.

We need to write. We need to podcast. We need to vlog. We need to tell our stories on the Internet, specifically on our own platforms (not behind the walled gardens of social media platforms), our own websites, that are out on the open web. That no Jack, Mark or Larry can censor or suspend you from.

We must tell these stories ourselves, so that, when technology such as Artificial Intelligence reaches critical mass, it can find our data, our content, as told by us.

You could dismiss my argument as frivolous. Perhaps it is. I’d love to hear from you on how you see this.

🤖 It’s not just algorithms and AI that affects our daily lives. Here are 6 ways robots affect your day to day life that you probably didn’t know about. Link

💻 This is how you can keep track of the 2019 South African National and Provincial election results in real-time. Link

📱 A new report has noted an increase in SIM swap fraud by cyber criminals targeting financial and online services in Africa. Link

📈 In this article, Daniel Mwesigwa argues that (investment) capital is not patriotic, nor does it have a nationality as he offers his thoughts on JUMIA’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Link

📉 In the previous issue of the iAfrikan Daily Brief I wrote about how startup venture funding is akin to a Ponzi scheme. Today, a short trader and researcher has published their investigations in a report that contains “smoking gun” evidence of how JUMIA is a “fraud” and misstated many of its key numbers. Scathing stuff that saw the stock price tumbling 20% so far today. Link

Signing off. Until tomorrow, ✌🏽 - Tefo Mohapi
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