Good morning, Quartz readers!
For years, tech’s most influential companies have faced pressure to build ethics checks into their software development process, especially with regard to artificial intelligence.
As AI algorithms make their way into ever more services and products, from social media apps to bail recommendation software for judges, flaws in how AI is trained could affect every corner of society. For example, one risk assessment algorithm widely used in US courtrooms was found to recommend harsher prison sentences to black people than white people.
Tech giants are starting to create mechanisms for outside experts to help them with AI ethics—but not always in the ways ethicists want. Google, for instance, announced the members of its new AI ethics council this week—such boards promise to be a rare opportunity for underrepresented groups to be heard. It faced criticism, however, for selecting Kay Coles James, the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. James has made statements against the Equality Act, which would protect sexual orientation and gender identity as federally protected classes in the US. (Google declined Quartz’s request for comment.)
If James or others were to lobby against the inclusion of transgender representation in datasets, similar to objections of the Equality bill, the effects could ripple through Google algorithms in subtle ways. For example, Harvard researcher Latanya Sweeney found that simple indicators like race affected search results. “Black” names like Latanya were often placed next to ads for websites with offers like “Find Latanya Sweeney’s arrest records.” And consider that something as simple as the gender of the voice of AI-driven virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa can shape how a generation unconsciously thinks about gender.
Other tech companies are also seeking input on AI ethics, including Amazon, which this week announced a $10 million grant in partnership with the National Science Foundation. The funding will support research into fairness in AI.
To maintain rigid control of their operations, tech’s top companies have historically used legal loopholes and consolidated voting shares. We should welcome them ceding a little power on AI ethics. But how they do so should also be closely followed, as it could affect nearly all of us down the road. —Dave Gershgorn
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
Humans ruin everything sometimes. Sorry, but it’s true. Nowhere is this more evident than the slew of tourist “attractions” that have been destroyed by an onslaught of Instagrammers in recent months. But as Rosie Spinks writes, these aren’t your grandparents’ tourist spots; rather than mobbing the Eiffel Tower or Grand Canyon, they’re trampling fields of California poppies and crowding otherwise pleasant cobbled Parisian streets lined with pastel-colored houses. All in the name of the perfect backdrop.
The big business of immortality. We’ve always wanted to live forever. But in 2019, the pursuit of immortality is big business, and Silicon Valley is at its epicenter. From young-blood transfusions to freezing our bodies after death, Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz explores today’s war on death and its potentially dangerous consequences (membership).
Move over, America: Many Indian techies are Canada-bound. With the uncertainty and difficulties surrounding the US immigration system, more Indian tech talent is heading to a far more receptive Canada—where they might end up working for an American company, reports Ananya Bhattacharya. More than six in 10 American employers consider Canada’s immigration policy to be more favorable than that of the US and plan to expand their businesses there.
Exploring the twilight zone. Tiny fish that live in the deepest parts of the ocean are helping to keep carbon out of the atmosphere and may be key to sustainably feeding the planet. In a Quartz News video, Kayle Hope travels to the Bahamas and follows scientists on a dive in a submersible 1,500 ft (457 m) below the surface, where many creatures have never been seen by human eyes.
Redesigning GDP for the 21st century. Remarkably, a single number—gross domestic product—has become a proxy for the health of entire national economies. Devised a century ago, its flaws are increasingly apparent when it comes to capturing the value of the digital economy. Eshe Nelson spoke to MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson about GDP-B, a new measure he helped create to measure the benefits of free digital goods and services and overhaul GDP for the digital age.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
The hidden cameras of Airbnb. As it heads toward a massive IPO, many are wondering what Airbnb even is these days. Essentially, though, it’s just a broker. It has rules, including ones governing hosts’ use of hidden cameras, but those rules are superseded by local laws. For the Atlantic, Sidney Fussell explains how one guest got in trouble with police for bringing them evidence of a host’s secret surveillance—and shows it wasn’t an isolated case.
The truth behind an infamous tiger trick. The Siegfried & Roy show ranks as one of the most popular Las Vegas acts ever. It ended abruptly in 2003 after a tiger nearly killed Roy Horn while audience members watched in horror. For the Hollywood Reporter, Gary Baum profiles Chris Lawrence, an animal handler who says a story about the incident was concocted to protect the illusionists’ reputation—and that he has the real one.
A subtler way to fight cancer. Charles Darwin’s evolutionary principles would seem unrelated to fighting cancer. But the cells inside a tumor are in competition, not only with healthy cells, but also each other—and the fittest will survive. When doctors “carpet bomb” a patient’s body with toxic treatments, they might actually be giving drug-resistant cells an unfair advantage. For Wired, Roxanne Khamsi reports on an approach to cancer that involves outsmarting it, not curing it.
The cozy relationship between the FAA and lobbyists. Dan Elwell, the acting administrator of the US Federal Aviation Administration, is a former airline industry lobbyist. As regulators and passengers around the world question whether the agency is sufficiently regulating the industry in light of the Boeing 737 Max crisis, Derek Kravitz and Jack Gillum, using emails obtained following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, report for ProPublica on Elwell’s disturbingly cozy relationship with former lobbyist colleagues.
The real goal of the college-admissions scammers. Olivia Jade Giannulli became the target of much scorn when her mother, actress Lori Loughlin, was accused of basically buying her daughter’s way into USC. But the teen has long been open about her greater interest in work than school. Were the parents of the children who allegedly benefited from college-admissions shenanigans actually trying to help themselves? So wonders Amanda Hess (paywall) in the New York Times.
Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, camera detectors, and twilight-zone creatures to email@example.com. Join the next chapter of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Steve Mollman and Holly Ojalvo.