Software Bias Is Being Addressed

February 27, 2017

Researchers are working to fix the problem of bias in software, we learn from the article, “He’s Brilliant, She’s Lovely: Teaching Computers to Be Less Sexist” at NPR’s blog, All Tech Considered. Writer Byrd Pinkerton begins by noting that this issue of software reflecting human biases is well-documented, citing this article from his colleague. He then informs us that Microsoft, for one, is doing something about it:

Adam Kalai thinks we should start with the bits of code that teach computers how to process language. He’s a researcher for Microsoft and his latest project — a joint effort with Boston University — has focused on something called a word embedding. ‘It’s kind of like a dictionary for a computer,’ he explains. Essentially, word embeddings are algorithms that translate the relationships between words into numbers so that a computer can work with them. You can grab a word embedding ‘dictionary’ that someone else has built and plug it into some bigger program that you are writing. …

Kalai and his colleagues have found a way to weed these biases out of word embedding algorithms. In a recent paper, they’ve shown that if you tell the algorithms to ignore certain relationships, they can extrapolate outwards.

And voila, a careful developer can teach an algorithm to fix its own bias. If only the process were so straightforward for humans. See the article for more about the technique.

Ultimately, though, the problem lies less with the biased algorithms themselves and more with the humans who seek to use them in decision-making. Researcher Kalai points to the marketing of health-related products as a project for which a company might actually want to differentiate between males and females. Pinkerton concludes:

For Kalai, the problem is not that people sometimes use word embedding algorithms that differentiate between gender or race, or even algorithms that reflect human bias. The problem is that people are using the algorithms as a black box piece of code, plugging them in to larger programs without considering the biases they contain, and without making careful decisions about whether or not they should be there.

So, though discoveries about biased software are concerning, it is good to know the issue is being addressed. We shall see how fast the effort progresses.

Cynthia Murrell, February 27, 2017



Microsoft May Want to Help Make Global Policy

February 22, 2017

Denmark is ahead of the game. As we reported last week (February 14, 2017), Denmark has created an ambassador to liaise with big US high technology companies. Microsoft qualifies because it is big and has hundreds of employees in Plastic Fantastic Land and in San Francisco.

The policy idea appeared in “’Digital Geneva Convention’ Needed to Deter Nation-State Hacking: Microsoft President.” Sounds like a great idea. How do those “conventions” for use of certain types of weapons or building an arsenal work? How does one know if a party to the convention is playing by the rules? How does one determine if a clever 16 year old in Moldova is goofing off or working for a government entity or a cut out or a plain old bad guy?

Hey, annoying details, right?

The write up said:

Microsoft President Brad Smith on Tuesday pressed the world’s governments to form an international body to protect civilians from state-sponsored hacking, saying recent high-profile attacks showed a need for global norms to police government activity in cyberspace.

I noted this passage:

Smith likened such an organization, which would include technical experts from governments and the private sector, to the International Atomic Energy Agency, a watchdog based at the United Nations that works to deter the use of nuclear weapons.

Yeah, about those nuclear weapons.

Perhaps Microsoft will become the head of US cyber policy. Nice work if one can get it. Then Microsoft can use its Windows 10 upgrade expertise to convince people to do what the “policy” in the “convention” says. Microsoft may want to talk with IBM Watson about cybersecurity, or step back and think about the people compromising systems and the non US companies in this game.

Better yet, Microsoft could buy Gamma Group, Hacking Team, and five or six other companies and dig into their customer list, the tasks these outfits perform, and the ideological orientation of the companies’ employees.

Ah, Microsoft. Thinking big. Perhaps a trip to Denmark is next.

Stephen E Arnold, February 22, 2017

Google Shoots for Star Status in the Cloud Space

February 21, 2017

Competition continues in the realm of cloud technology. Amigo Bulls released an article, Can Google Cloud Really Catch Up With The Cloud Leaders?, that highlights how Google Cloud is behind Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. However, some recent wins for Google are also mentioned. One way Google is gaining steam is through new clients; they signed Spotify and even some of Apple’s iCloud services are moving to Google Cloud. The article summarizes the current state,

Alphabet Inc’s-C (NSDQ:GOOG) Google cloud has for a long time lived in relative obscurity. Google Cloud results do not even feature on the company’s quarterly earnings report the way AWS does for Amazon (NSDQ:AMZN) and Azure for Microsoft (NSDQ:MSFT). This appears somewhat ironic considering that Google owns one of the largest computer and server networks on the planet to handle tasks such as Google Search, YouTube, and Gmail. Further, the Google Cloud Platform is actually cheaper than offerings by the two market leaders.

Enterprise accounts with legacy systems will likely go for Microsoft as a no-brainer given the familiarity factor and connectivity. Considering the enterprise sector will make up a large portion of cloud customers, Amazon is probably Google’s toughest competition. Spotify apparently moved to Google from Amazon because of the quality tools, including machine-learning, and excellence in customer service. We will continue following whether Google Cloud makes it as high in the sky as its peers.

Megan Feil, February 21, 2017

Be Like Cortana, Really Microsoftish

February 20, 2017

We noted “Microsoft Adds More AI Tools to Dev Cognitive Services Suite.” The battle for lock in continues. Facebook, Google, and others in the online oligopolistic club want to initiate members to their group. The best way, it seems, is to shower the developers with freebies. This is a variant of the Xalisco approach to drug distribution in the United States. Free stuff gets folks coming back for me. Well, that’s the theory.

The write up says:

Microsoft has released three artificial intelligence (AI) tools used in its Skype Translator, Bing search and Cortana speech recognition services to developers as part of a bundle of 25 tools in Microsoft Cognitive Services.

Yes, cognitive. That’s the IBM Watson word, isn’t it? The write up adds:

The collection of tools will enable developers to add features such as emotion and sentiment detection, vision and speech recognition, and language understanding to their applications, according to Microsoft, which claims that they will require “zero expertise in machine learning” to use.

How are these tools working? I would ask Tay, but I prefer a less biased type of Microsoft smart software. And Cortana? Isn’t that the intrusive thing in Windows 10. I can type, thank you.

But, hey, free is free. What’s the long term cost? Good question. Perhaps I can ask Bing? On the other hand, I could swing by H&R Block and ask Watson.

Stephen E Arnold, February 20, 2017

Bing Improvements

February 17, 2017

Online marketers are usually concerned with the latest Google algorithm, but Microsoft’s Bing is also a viable SEO target. Busines2Community shares recent upgrades to that Internet search engine in its write-up, “2016 New Bing Features.” The section on the mobile app seems to be the most relevant to those interested in Search developments. Writer Asaf Hartuv tells us:

For search, product and local results were improved significantly. Now when you search using the Bing app on an iPhone, you will get more local results with more information featured right on the page. You won’t have to click around to get what you want.

Similarly, when you search for a product you want to buy, you will get more options from more stores, such as eBay and Best Buy. You won’t have to go to as many websites to do the comparison shopping that is so important to making your purchase decision.

While these updates were made to the app, the image and video search results were also improved. You get far more options in a more user-friendly layout when you search for these visuals.

The Bing app also includes practical updates that go beyond search. For example, you can choose to follow a movie and get notified when it becomes available for streaming. Or you can find local bus routes or schedules based on the information you select on a map.

Hartuv also discusses upgrades to Bing Ads (a bargain compared to Google Ads, apparently), and the fact that Bing is now powering AOL’s search results (after being dropped by Yahoo). He also notes that, while not a new feature, Bing Trends is always presenting newly assembled, specialized content to enhance users’ understanding of current events. Hartuv concludes by prompting SEO pros to remember the value of Bing.

Cynthia Murrell, February 17, 2017

Google and the Cloud Take on Corporate Database Management

February 1, 2017

The article titled Google Cloud Platform Releases New Database Services, Fighting AWS and Azure for Corporate Customers on GeekWire suggests that Google’s corporate offerings have been weak in the area of database management. Compared to Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, Google is only wading into the somewhat monotonous arena of corporate database needs. The article goes into detail on the offerings,

Cloud SQL, Second Generation, is a service offering instances of the popular MySQL database. It’s most comparable to AWS’s Aurora and SQL Azure, though there are some differences from SQL Azure, so Microsoft allows running a MySQL database on Azure. Google’s Cloud SQL supports MySQL 5.7, point-in-time recovery, automatic storage resizing and one-click failover replicas, the company said. Cloud Bigtable is a NoSQL database, the same one that powers Google’s own search, analytics, maps and Gmail.

The Cloud Bigtable database is made to handle major workloads of 100+ petabytes, and it comes equipped with resources such as Hadoop and Spark. It will be fun to see what happens as Google’s new service offering hits the ground running. How will Amazon and Microsoft react? Will price wars arise? If so, only good can come of it, at least for the corporate consumers.

Chelsea Kerwin, February 1, 2017

Microsofts Researcher Feature Offers Shortcut to Finding Sources

January 23, 2017

The article titled Microsoft Launches Researcher and Editor in Word, Zoom in PowerPoint on VentureBeat discusses the pros and cons of the new features coming to Office products. Editor is basically a new and improved version of spellcheck that goes beyond typos to report back on wordiness, passive voice, and cliché usage. This is an exciting tool that might put a few proofreaders out of work, but it is hard to see any issues beyond that. The more controversial introduction by Microsoft is Researcher, and the article explains why,

Researcher… will give users a way to find and incorporate additional information from outside sources. This makes it easy to add a quote and even generate proper academic citations for use in papers. Explicit content won’t appear in search results, so you won’t accidentally import it into your work. And you won’t find yourself in some random Wikipedia rabbit hole, because the search for additional information happens in a panel on the right side of your Word document.

Researcher pulls information from the Bing Knowledge Graph to provide writers with relevant connections to their topics. The question is, will users rely on Researcher to fact-check for them, or will they make sure that the suggested source material is appropriate and substantiated? In spite of the lessons of the Republic National Convention, plagiarism can get you into big trouble (in a college classroom, anyway.) It is easy to see student users failing to properly cite or quote the suggested information, unless Researcher also offers help in those activities as well. Is this a good thing, or is it another way to make our children dumber by enabling shortcuts?

Chelsea Kerwin, January 23, 2017

Zo Tay! Piz Daint. Microsoft Talks Quantum But Goes Cray

December 8, 2016

There’s a new Microsoft chatbot coming. Microsoft wants to deploy smarter, less racist chatbots I assume. To achieve that goal, Microsoft talks quantum computing and qubits (not Quberts). However, when it comes to crunching data, Microsoft is embracing the ever popular and somewhat iconic Cray outfit.

Navigate to “Microsoft Goes Cray for Deep Learning on Supercomputers.” The write up informed me that:

The deep learning process could be about to change dramatically thanks to work being carried out Cray, Microsoft and the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre. In existing architectures and conventional systems, deep learning requires a slow training process that can take months, something that can lead to significantly higher costs and delays in making scientific discoveries. Cray believes that its work with Microsoft and CSSC could have solved this problem by applying supercomputing architectures to accelerate the training process.

The name of my servers are derived from dogs owned by my friends. Yes, there was an Oreo and a Biscuit.

But what is the name of the pricey, complex, and semi fast Cray supercomputer?

Give up? Here’s a clue: “A prominent peak in Grisons that overlooks the Fuorn pass.”

Need more time?

Give up?


The answer is…

Piz Daint

There you go. Tay, Zo, and Piz Daint. Outstanding.

The write up told me:

According to the supercomputer manufacturer, deep learning problems share algorithmic similarities with applications that are traditionally run on a massively parallel supercomputer. So by optimizing inter-node communication using the Cray XC Aries network and a high performance MPI library, each training job is said to be able to leverage more compute resources and therefore reduce the amount of time required to train them.

I too believe everything computer assemblers tell me. I recall a demonstration online system which boasted fancy Dan machines from Sun Microsystems. The high powered, expensive hardware could support four—yep, four—simultaneous users. Another example is the system designed to search video news which boasted a five minute response time. Flashy hardware. Software seemed to be the problem. And Microsoft rarely distributes software which does not work as advertised. I wish I knew how to get that Word numbering system to work. Oh, well.

Keep in mind that Cray is providing some Microsoft hardware with its machines. Plus, Cray is based in Seattle. Microsoft’s and Cray’s partner in the test is the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS). I like Switzerland, and I assume there will be some meetings there. The Swiss also enjoy US holiday shopping. I assume there will be or have been some visits by Swiss wizards to Seattle. I am not sure how many meetings will be scheduled in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, however. I thought Cray was owned by Tera Computer. I did a quick check on the financial health of the Cray outfit. I concluded that the tie up will definitely be a plus for the Cray folks. By the way, Cray was founded in 1972.

Stephen E Arnold, December 8, 2016


IBM Thinks Big on Data Unification

December 7, 2016

So far, the big data phenomenon has underwhelmed. We have developed several good ways to collect, store, and analyze data. However, those several ways have resulted in separate, individually developed systems that do not play well together. IBM hopes to fix that, we learn from “IBM Announces a Universal Platform for Data Science” at Forbes. They call the project the Data Science Experience. Writer Greg Satell explains:

Consider a typical retail enterprise, which has separate operations for purchasing, point-of-sale, inventory, marketing and other functions. All of these are continually generating and storing data as they interact with the real world in real time. Ideally, these systems would be tightly integrated, so that data generated in one area could influence decisions in another.

The reality, unfortunately, is that things rarely work together so seamlessly. Each of these systems stores information differently, which makes it very difficult to get full value from data. To understand how, for example, a marketing campaign is affecting traffic on the web site and in the stores, you often need to pull it out of separate systems and load it into excel sheets.

That, essentially, has been what’s been holding data science back. We have the tools to analyze mountains of data and derive amazing insights in real time. New advanced cognitive systems, like Watson, can then take that data, learn from it and help guide our actions. But for all that to work, the information has to be accessible.”

The article acknowledges that progress that has been made in this area, citing the open-source Hadoop and its OS, Spark, for their ability to tap into clusters of data around the world and analyze that data as a single set. Incompatible systems, however, still vex many organizations.

The article closes with an interesting observation—that many business people’s mindsets are stuck in the past. Planning far ahead is considered prudent, as is taking ample time to make any big decision. Technology has moved past that, though, and now such caution can render the basis for any decision obsolete as soon as it is made. As Satell puts it, we need “a more Bayesian approach to strategy, where we don’t expect to predict things and be right, but rather allow data streams to help us become less wrong over time.” Can the humans adapt to this way of thinking? It is reassuring to have a plan; I suspect only the most adaptable among us will feel comfortable flying by the seat of our pants.

Cynthia Murrell, December 7, 2016

On Accountability for Search Engine Content

December 6, 2016

For better or worse, Google and, to a lesser extent other Internet search engines, shape the way many people view the world. That is a lot of power, and some folks are uneasy about allowing those companies to wield it without some sort of oversight. For example, MIT Technology Review asks, “What’s Behind Google’s Secretive Ad-Blocking Policy?” At the heart of the issue is Google’s recent decision to ban ads for payday loans, a product widely considered to be predatory and currently under investigation by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Reporter Elizabeth Woyke observes that such concerns about gate-keeping apply to other major online companies, like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Baidu. She writes:

Consumers might not realize it, but Google—and other ad-supported search engines—have been making editorial decisions about the types of ads they will carry for years. These companies won the right to reject ads they consider objectionable in 2007, when a Delaware district court ruled that constitutional free-speech guarantees don’t apply to search engines since they are for-profit companies and not ‘state actors.’ The decision cited earlier cases that upheld newspapers’ rights to decide which ads to run.

Google currently prohibits ads for ‘dangerous,’ ‘dishonest,’ and ‘offensive’ content, such as recreational drugs, weapons, and tobacco products; fake documents and academic cheating services; and hate-group paraphernalia. Google also restricts ads for content it deems legally or culturally sensitive, such as adult-oriented, gambling-related, and political content; alcoholic beverages; and health care and medicine. It may require additional information from these advertisers and limit placement to certain geographical locations.”

Legal experts, understandably, tend to be skittish about ceding this role to corporations. How far, and in which directions, will they be allowed to restrict content? Will they ever be required to restrict certain content that could cause harm? And, where do we as a society draw those lines? One suggestion that seems to make sense is a call for transparency. That way, at least, users could tap into the power of PR to hold companies accountable. See the write-up for more thoughts on the subject from legal minds.

Cynthia Murrell, December 6, 2016

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