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March 25, 2019
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Diversity

The damage of defaults

in AirPods/algorithmic accountability/algorithmic bias/Apple/Apple earbuds/apple inc/Artificial Intelligence/Bluetooth/Delhi/Diversity/Gadgets/headphones/hearables/India/iphone accessories/mobile computing/Politics/siri/smartphone/TC by

Apple popped out a new pair of AirPods this week. The design looks exactly like the old pair of AirPods. Which means I’m never going to use them because Apple’s bulbous earbuds don’t fit my ears. Think square peg, round hole.

The only way I could rock AirPods would be to walk around with hands clamped to the sides of my head to stop them from falling out. Which might make a nice cut in a glossy Apple ad for the gizmo — suggesting a feeling of closeness to the music, such that you can’t help but cup; a suggestive visual metaphor for the aural intimacy Apple surely wants its technology to communicate.

But the reality of trying to use earbuds that don’t fit is not that at all. It’s just shit. They fall out at the slightest movement so you either sit and never turn your head or, yes, hold them in with your hands. Oh hai, hands-not-so-free-pods!

The obvious point here is that one size does not fit all — howsoever much Apple’s Jony Ive and his softly spoken design team believe they have devised a universal earbud that pops snugly in every ear and just works. Sorry, nope!

A proportion of iOS users — perhaps other petite women like me, or indeed men with less capacious ear holes — are simply being removed from Apple’s sales equation where earbuds are concerned. Apple is pretending we don’t exist.

Sure we can just buy another brand of more appropriately sized earbuds. The in-ear, noise-canceling kind are my preference. Apple does not make ‘InPods’. But that’s not a huge deal. Well, not yet.

It’s true, the consumer tech giant did also delete the headphone jack from iPhones. Thereby depreciating my existing pair of wired in-ear headphones (if I ever upgrade to a 3.5mm-jack-less iPhone). But I could just shell out for Bluetooth wireless in-ear buds that fit my shell-like ears and carry on as normal.

Universal in-ear headphones have existed for years, of course. A delightful design concept. You get a selection of different sized rubber caps shipped with the product and choose the size that best fits.

Unfortunately Apple isn’t in the ‘InPods’ business though. Possibly for aesthetic reasons. Most likely because — and there’s more than a little irony here — an in-ear design wouldn’t be naturally roomy enough to fit all the stuff Siri needs to, y’know, fake intelligence.

Which means people like me with small ears are being passed over in favor of Apple’s voice assistant. So that’s AI: 1, non-‘standard’-sized human: 0. Which also, unsurprisingly, feels like shit.

I say ‘yet’ because if voice computing does become the next major computing interaction paradigm, as some believe — given how Internet connectivity is set to get baked into everything (and sticking screens everywhere would be a visual and usability nightmare; albeit microphones everywhere is a privacy nightmare… ) — then the minority of humans with petite earholes will be at a disadvantage vs those who can just pop in their smart, sensor-packed earbud and get on with telling their Internet-enabled surroundings to do their bidding.

Will parents of future generations of designer babies select for adequately capacious earholes so their child can pop an AI in? Let’s hope not.

We’re also not at the voice computing singularity yet. Outside the usual tech bubbles it remains a bit of a novel gimmick. Amazon has drummed up some interest with in-home smart speakers housing its own voice AI Alexa (a brand choice that has, incidentally, caused a verbal headache for actual humans called Alexa). Though its Echo smart speakers appear to mostly get used as expensive weather checkers and egg timers. Or else for playing music — a function that a standard speaker or smartphone will happily perform.

Certainly a voice AI is not something you need with you 24/7 yet. Prodding at a touchscreen remains the standard way of tapping into the power and convenience of mobile computing for the majority of consumers in developed markets.

The thing is, though, it still grates to be ignored. To be told — even indirectly — by one of the world’s wealthiest consumer technology companies that it doesn’t believe your ears exist.

Or, well, that it’s weighed up the sales calculations and decided it’s okay to drop a petite-holed minority on the cutting room floor. So that’s ‘ear meet AirPod’. Not ‘AirPod meet ear’ then.

But the underlying issue is much bigger than Apple’s (in my case) oversized earbuds. Its latest shiny set of AirPods are just an ill-fitting reminder of how many technology defaults simply don’t ‘fit’ the world as claimed.

Because if cash-rich Apple’s okay with promoting a universal default (that isn’t), think of all the less well resourced technology firms chasing scale for other single-sized, ill-fitting solutions. And all the problems flowing from attempts to mash ill-mapped technology onto society at large.

When it comes to wrong-sized physical kit I’ve had similar issues with standard office computing equipment and furniture. Products that seems — surprise, surprise! — to have been default designed with a 6ft strapping guy in mind. Keyboards so long they end up gifting the smaller user RSI. Office chairs that deliver chronic back-pain as a service. Chunky mice that quickly wrack the hand with pain. (Apple is a historical offender there too I’m afraid.)

The fixes for such ergonomic design failures is simply not to use the kit. To find a better-sized (often DIY) alternative that does ‘fit’.

But a DIY fix may not be an option when discrepancy is embedded at the software level — and where a system is being applied to you, rather than you the human wanting to augment yourself with a bit of tech, such as a pair of smart earbuds.

With software, embedded flaws and system design failures may also be harder to spot because it’s not necessarily immediately obvious there’s a problem. Oftentimes algorithmic bias isn’t visible until damage has been done.

And there’s no shortage of stories already about how software defaults configured for a biased median have ended up causing real-world harm. (See for example: ProPublica’s analysis of the COMPAS recidividism tool — software it found incorrectly judging black defendants more likely to offend than white. So software amplifying existing racial prejudice.)

Of course AI makes this problem so much worse.

Which is why the emphasis must be on catching bias in the datasets — before there is a chance for prejudice or bias to be ‘systematized’ and get baked into algorithms that can do damage at scale.

The algorithms must also be explainable. And outcomes auditable. Transparency as disinfectant; not secret blackboxes stuffed with unknowable code.

Doing all this requires huge up-front thought and effort on system design, and an even bigger change of attitude. It also needs massive, massive attention to diversity. An industry-wide championing of humanity’s multifaceted and multi-sized reality — and to making sure that’s reflected in both data and design choices (and therefore the teams doing the design and dev work).

You could say what’s needed is a recognition there’s never, ever a one-sized-fits all plug.

Indeed, that all algorithmic ‘solutions’ are abstractions that make compromises on accuracy and utility. And that those trade-offs can become viciously cutting knives that exclude, deny, disadvantage, delete and damage people at scale.

Expensive earbuds that won’t stay put is just a handy visual metaphor.

And while discussion about the risks and challenges of algorithmic bias has stepped up in recent years, as AI technologies have proliferated — with mainstream tech conferences actively debating how to “democratize AI” and bake diversity and ethics into system design via a development focus on principles like transparency, explainability, accountability and fairness — the industry has not even begun to fix its diversity problem.

It’s barely moved the needle on diversity. And its products continue to reflect that fundamental flaw.

Many — if not most — of the tech industry’s problems can be traced back to the fact that inadequately diverse teams are chasing scale while lacking the perspective to realize their system design is repurposing human harm as a de facto performance measure. (Although ‘lack of perspective’ is the charitable interpretation in certain cases; moral vacuum may be closer to the mark.)

As WWW creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has pointed out, system design is now society design. That means engineers, coders, AI technologists are all working at the frontline of ethics. The design choices they make have the potential to impact, influence and shape the lives of millions and even billions of people.

And when you’re designing society a median mindset and limited perspective cannot ever be an acceptable foundation. It’s also a recipe for product failure down the line.

The current backlash against big tech shows that the stakes and the damage are very real when poorly designed technologies get dumped thoughtlessly on people.

Life is messy and complex. People won’t fit a platform that oversimplifies and overlooks. And if your excuse for scaling harm is ‘we just didn’t think of that’ you’ve failed at your job and should really be headed out the door.

Because the consequences for being excluded by flawed system design are also scaling and stepping up as platforms proliferate and more life-impacting decisions get automated. Harm is being squared. Even as the underlying industry drum hasn’t skipped a beat in its prediction that everything will be digitized.

Which means that horribly biased parole systems are just the tip of the ethical iceberg. Think of healthcare, social welfare, law enforcement, education, recruitment, transportation, construction, urban environments, farming, the military, the list of what will be digitized — and of manual or human overseen processes that will get systematized and automated — goes on.

Software — runs the industry mantra — is eating the world. That means badly designed technology products will harm more and more people.

But responsibility for sociotechnical misfit can’t just be scaled away as so much ‘collateral damage’.

So while an ‘elite’ design team led by a famous white guy might be able to craft a pleasingly curved earbud, such an approach cannot and does not automagically translate into AirPods with perfect, universal fit.

It’s someone’s standard. It’s certainly not mine.

We can posit that a more diverse Apple design team might have been able to rethink the AirPod design so as not to exclude those with smaller ears. Or make a case to convince the powers that be in Cupertino to add another size choice. We can but speculate.

What’s clear is the future of technology design can’t be so stubborn.

It must be radically inclusive and incredibly sensitive. Human-centric. Not locked to damaging defaults in its haste to impose a limited set of ideas.

Above all, it needs a listening ear on the world.

Indifference to difference and a blindspot for diversity will find no future here.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Twitter wants workforce to be at least 5% black, 5% Latinx by the end of this year

in Delhi/Diversity/Include/India/Politics/Twitter by

Twitter unveiled its latest diversity report and announced a new vice president of people experience and head of diversity and inclusion. In order to “unify I&D with critical People functions under one leader who owns the decisions for both,” Twitter CMO Leslie Brand tweeted today, the company promoted Dalana Brand to VP of People Experience and Head of Diversity and Inclusion.

According to its report, Twitter is now 40.2 percent female, 4.5 percent black and 3.9 percent Latinx. These figures are better than last year.

At the leadership level, Twitter’s representation of women, black and Latinx people also improved.

Meanwhile, of all the attrition Twitter experienced in 2018, women made up 39.6 percent of it, while black employees accounted for 3.9 percent and Latinx employees made up 4.2 percent.

Twitter has also implemented new targets for each member of the leadership team. Those targets are to attract, retain and include.

Here’s the full breakdown of Twitter’s demographics.

“Missing from this chart is sexual orientation and gender identity because we had lower participation in our self-ID survey for this category,” Twitter wrote in its blog post. “We believe a refresh of our self-identification efforts and a new anonymous survey will allow us to better understand and share a more accurate representation of our company moving forward. This will also put us in a position to report on representation for employees with disabilities and with military status.”

Moving forward, Twitter plans to release its report quarterly instead of annually and share data around pay equity and promotions. In a tweet today, Berland said the company is currently conducting the analyses and will share the results once they’re ready.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Google is not great at retaining black, Latinx and Native American employees

in Delhi/Diversity/Google/Include/India/Personnel/Politics/TC by

Believe it or not, the retention of black and Latinx employees at Google was better last year than in 2017. Though, Google’s attrition rates of black and Latinx — which indicate the rate at which employees leave on an annual basis — are still higher than the national average.

For Native American employees, Google’s attrition rates significantly increased from the year prior. To be clear, that’s a bad thing. For what it’s worth, Google is also not great at retaining white employees.

Google publishes the data as a weighted index and treats the average attrition rate as 100. The closer each group is to 100, the closer Google is to parity. If a group’s index is 90, that means the group’s attrition rate was 10 percent lower than the average.

“While there are positive trends, there is still work to be done,” global director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Melanie Parker wrote in a blog post. “Specifically, attrition for Native Americans worsened. And while rates improved for Black and Latinx Googlers, they are still not on par with the average. These are all areas we plan to focus on over the coming year.”

Google released its first attrition index last year to show how many employees left the company on an annual basis. Based on last year’s data, it was clear Google had the hardest time retaining black and brown employees. In fact, black and brown people were leaving Google at rates faster than the national average.

At the time, then-Google VP of Diversity and Inclusion Danielle Brown told TechCrunch the attrition rates for black and Latinx people were “a clear low light.”

A highlight, however, was that women were leaving Google at lower rates than the average. And this year’s data for women is slightly better, with an attrition rate of 90 compared to 94 the year prior. But we’ll see how the latest wave of controversy (harassment, walkouts, etc.) at Google affects its attrition rates for 2019.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Meet GV investors at the TechCrunch Include March Office Hours

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GV (formerly Google Ventures) is partnering with TechCrunch Include to host Office Hours for underserved and underrepresented founders on March 5th. From 10:30am – 12:30pm, GV investors Dave Munichiello, Graham Spencer, Laura Melahn, Brian Bendett and Barkha Gvalani will meet for one-on-one sessions with founders. Apply here.

In 2014, TechCrunch launched the Include program, which facilitates opportunities for underserved and underrepresented founders in tech through our vast network and resources. Include Office Hours is one of TechCrunch’s initiatives. TechCrunch partners with VC firms to give founders access to investors for guidance as well as product and business model feedback. Investors host private 20-minute one-on-one meetings with founders, roundtables or lunches.

Founders from diverse backgrounds are encouraged to apply. Underrepresented and underserved founders include, but are not limited to, veteran, female, Latino/a, Black, LGBTQ and founders with handicaps.

The March Include Office Hours will be hosted by GV (formerly Google Ventures) on March 5th from 10:30am – 12:30pm PT. Founded in 2009, GV is a venture fund based in California with more than 300 investments. Apply here.

Meet the participating investors:

Dave Munichiello – General Partner

Dave is a general partner at GV and leads the team’s investments in data, platforms and infrastructure. Prior to GV, Dave built and led enterprise software sales and operations teams for highly technical products, under pressure in rapidly changing markets.

As a senior executive at Kiva Systems, he helped grow the enterprise-enabling robotics and software platform to $120 million in annual revenue before it was purchased by Amazon. Dave’s career prior to Kiva included management consulting for The Boston Consulting Group and leading teams as a Captain in the U.S. military’s most elite units. His military leadership roles ranged from running a high-tech organization in Europe to serving as an aide-de-camp to the four-star general responsible for U.S. forces in Europe, Africa and Afghanistan to deploying with elite special operations teams worldwide, ensuring they were enabled by the world’s most advanced technologies.

Dave is a combat veteran and former paratrooper.

Graham Spencer – Managing Partner

Graham Spencer is a managing partner at GV. He was an engineering director at Google following the 2006 acquisition of JotSpot, which he co-founded with Joe Kraus. Graham was one of the original six founders of Excite.com and was the chief technology officer of the company until its sale to @Home.

In 1999, Graham left Excite@Home to co-found DigitalConsumer.org, a 50,000-member nonprofit consumer organization dedicated to protecting fair-use rights for digital media. Graham is also on the board of the Santa Fe Institute.

Laura Melahn – Investing Partner

Laura joined GV in 2011 and is a partner on the investing team. Previously, she established GV’s marketing function, working with their portfolio on branding and growth.

Laura named Calico, Alphabet’s company aiming to slow aging and counteract age-related diseases. Prior to joining GV, Laura was a product marketing manager at Google, where she worked on Search, Maps, Analytics and the brand. She developed the Street View snowmobile for the 2010 Winter Olympics and helped bring Search Stories to TV. Previously, Laura conducted research at the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and in the University of Oxford biochemistry department.

Brian Bendett – Investing Partner

Brian is a partner on the GV investing team focusing on investments in platforms, machine learning and infrastructure.

Prior to joining GV, Brian managed projects at Google across people operations, finance, marketing and corporate development. In a former life, Brian worked in private equity and spent time in Washington, D.C. supporting the White House Council of Economic Advisers and the Office of the Vice President.

Barkha Gvalani – Engineering Partner

Barkha works on investing operations, product management and analytics at GV. She also helps portfolio companies scale their operations through analytics, data-warehousing, and business intelligence.

Prior to joining GV, Barkha worked extensively with Google’s Ads and Hardware finance teams solving their hard data problems. She was also chief of staff on the team overseeing Google’s financial systems strategy. Before Google, Barkha worked at Tata Consultancy Services, where she specialized in the leasing business and consulted for GE Commercial Finance.

If you are a partner/managing director of a firm and are interested in supporting underserved and underrepresented founders, email neesha@techcrunch.com.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Zendesk just hired three former Microsoft, Salesforce and Adobe execs

in Cloud/customer experience/Customer Service/Delhi/Diversity/Enterprise/Hiring/India/Politics/SaaS/Zendesk by

Today, Zendesk announced it has hired three new executives — Elisabeth Zornes, former general manager of global support for Microsoft Office, as Zendesk’s first chief customer officer; former Adobe executive Colleen Berube as chief information officer and former Salesforce executive Shawna Wolverton as senior vice president, product.

The company emphasized that the hirings were about expanding the executive suite and bringing in top people to help the company grow and move into larger enterprise organizations.

From left to right: Shawna Wolverton, Colleen Berube and Elisabeth Zornes

Zornes comes to Zendesk with 20 years of experience including time Microsoft working in a variety of roles around Microsoft Office. She says that what attracted her to Zendesk was its focus on the customer.

“When I look at businesses today, no matter what size, what type or what geography, they can agree on one thing: customer experience is the rocket fuel to drive success. Zendesk has positioned itself as a technology company that empowers companies of all kinds to drive a new level of success by focusing on their customer experience, and helping them to be at the forefront of that was a very intriguing opportunity for me,” Zornes told TechCrunch.

New CIO Berube, who comes with two decades of experience, also sees her new job as a chance to have an impact on customer experience and help companies that are trying to transform into digital organizations. “Customer experience is the linchpin for all organizations to succeed in the digital age. My background is broad, having shepherded many different types of companies through digital transformations, and developing and running modern IT organizations,” she said.

Her boss, CEO and co-founder Mikkel Svane, sees someone who can help continue to grow the company and develop the product. “We looked specifically for a CIO with a modern mindset who understands the challenges of large organizations trying to keep up with customer expectations today,” Svane told TechCrunch.

As for senior VP of product Wolverton, she comes with 15 years of experience, including a stint as head of product at Salesforce. She said that coming to Zendesk was about having an impact on a modern SaaS product. “The opportunity to build a modern, public, cloud-native CRM platform with Sunshine was a large part of my decision to join,” she said.

The three leaders have already joined the organization — Wolverton and Berube joined last month and Zornes started just this week.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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