Bias: Female Digital Assistant Voices

October 17, 2019

It was a seemingly benign choice based on consumer research, but there is an unforeseen complication. TechRadar considers, “The Problem with Alexa: What’s the Solution to Sexist Voice Assistants?” From smart speakers to cell phones, voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri generally default to female voices (and usually sport female-sounding names) because studies show humans tend to respond best to female voices. Seems like an obvious choice—until you consider the long-term consequences. Reporter Olivia Tambini cites a report UNESCO issued earlier this year that suggests the practice sets us up to perpetuate sexist attitudes toward women, particularly subconscious biases. She writes:

“This progress [society has made toward more respect and agency for women] could potentially be undone by the proliferation of female voice assistants, according to UNESCO. Its report claims that the default use of female-sounding voice assistants sends a signal to users that women are ‘obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command like “hey” or “OK”.’ It’s also worrying that these voice assistants have ‘no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it’ and respond to queries ‘regardless of [the user’s] tone or hostility’. These may be desirable traits in an AI voice assistant, but what if the way we talk to Alexa and Siri ends up influencing the way we talk to women in our everyday lives? One of UNESCO’s main criticisms of companies like Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft is that the docile nature of our voice assistants has the unintended effect of reinforcing ‘commonly held gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment’. This subservience is particularly worrying when these female-sounding voice assistants give ‘deflecting, lackluster or apologetic responses to verbal sexual harassment’.”

So what is a voice-assistant maker to do? Certainly, male voices could be used and are, in fact, selectable options for several models. Another idea is to give users a wide variety of voices to choose from—not just different genders, but different accents and ages, as well. Perhaps the most effective solution would be to use a gender-neutral voice; one dubbed “Q” has now been created, proving it is possible. (You can listen to Q through the article or on YouTube.)

Of course, this and other problems might have been avoided had there been more diversity on the teams behind the voices. Tambini notes that just seven percent of information- and communication-tech patents across G20 countries are generated by women. As more women move into STEM fields, will unintended gender bias shrink as a natural result?

Cynthia Murrell, October 17, 2019

Geospatial Innovation: SenSat

October 8, 2019

Last week, there was conference chatter about geo-spatial technology. The conference focused on LE and intel technology and knowing where an entity is remains an important capability for certain software systems.

There was also talk in one of my sessions about “innovation drift.” This is my way of characterizing the movement of “good ideas” from the US to other countries. “Drift” is inevitable: Economic, political, and social pressure ensures that digital ideas move.

I noted this morning (Sunday, October 6, 2019) the article “Tencent Leads $10 Million Investment in SenSat to Create Real-Time Simulated Realities.” The write up reported:

SenSat, a geospatial technology startup that digitizes real-world places for infrastructure projects, has raised $10 million in a series A round of funding led by Chinese tech titan Tencent, with participation from Russian investment firm Sistema Venture Capital.

SenSat processes satellite and other imagery. Then the company’s software constructs representations of what’s on the ground. The write up pointed out:

[SenSat] said it translates the real world into a version that can be understood by machines and is thus suitable for training artificial intelligence (AI) systems.

DarkCyber noted this statement in the write up:

SenSat constitutes part of another growing trend across the technology spectrum: the meshing of large swathes of disparate data to generate real and meaningful insights.

The technology developed by SenSat, founded in London in 2015, is interesting.

For DarkCyber, the most important information in the write up was the assertion that the company has obtained financial support from companies in China and Russia.

The idea, DarkCyber believes, is that the technological drift is not going to be left to chance. Reconstructions like the ones generated by SenSat, Cape Analytics, and others are likely to make the targeting options of nanodrones more interesting.

Drift is one thing; directed and managed technology drift is another.

Stephen E Arnold, October 8, 2019

Amazon AWS, DHS Tie Up: Meaningful or Really Meaningful?

October 7, 2019

In my two lectures at the TechnoSecurity & Digital Forensics conference in San Antonio last week, my observations about Amazon AWS and the US government generated puzzled faces. Let’s face it. Amazon means a shopping service for golf shirts and gym wear.

I would like to mention — very, very briefly because interest in Amazon’s non shopping activities is low among some market sectors — “DHS to Deploy AWS-Based Biometrics System.” The deal is for Homeland Security:

to deploy a cloud-based system that will process millions of biometrics data and support the department’s efforts to modernize its facial recognition and related software.

The system will run on the AWS GovCloud platform. Amazon snagged this deal from the incumbent Northrop Grumman. AWS takes over the program in 2021. DarkCyber estimates that the contract will be north of $80 million, excluding ECOs and scope changes.

This is not a new biometrics system. Its been up and running since the mid 1990s. What’s interesting is that the seller of golf shirts displaced one of the old line vendors upon which the US government has traditionally relied.

DarkCyber finds this suggestive which is a step toward really meaningful. Watch for “Dark Edge: Amazon Policeware”. It will be available in the next few months.

Stephen E Arnold, October 7, 2019

Yale Image Search: Innovation and Practicality

September 5, 2019

Yale University, according to Open Culture, has made available 170,000 photographs which document the Depression. Well, not just the Depression. The review conducted by DarkCyber revealed photos into the 1940s.

What sets this image collection apart is its interface. Unlike the near impossible presentations of other august institutions, Yale has hit upon:

  • A map based approach
  • A “search by photographer”
  • Useful basic photo information.

There’s even a functional, clear search component with old fashioned fields. (Google, why not check it out? Not all good ideas originate near Standford.)


Kudos to Yale. DarkCyber hopes that other online image archives learn from what Yale has rolled out. A little “me too” from Internet Archive, the American Memory project, and assorted museums would be welcomed here in Harrod’s Creek. (One river shore photo looked a great deal like Tibby the Dog’s favorite playground.)

Stephen E Arnold, September 5, 2019

Imagery: Capabilities in the Surveillance Context

September 1, 2019

DarkCyber spotted a video about US satellite imagery resolution. You can view the program on YouTube at this link. Several observations:

  1. Quality of imagery is improving
  2. The facial recognition and entity recognition systems will generate higher probability outputs due to improved image quality
  3. Surveillance systems are advancing in two dimensions: Resolution is going up and costs are coming down.

Implications? DarkCyber will leave speculation to you, gentle reader.

Stephen E Arnold, September 1, 2019

Google Does Podcasts Too

August 27, 2019

Everyone and his or her dog has a podcast, but the problem is you cannot find individual episodes in a search engine. Sure, you can go to individual Web sites, iTunes, or Anchor to track down specific episodes, but that requires a lot of searching and typing. Thankfully, Google has changed its search algorithm to be friendlier for individual podcast episodes. Tech Radar explains the news in the article, “Google Search Just Got Smarter At Finding Podcast Episodes.”

Now when people search for a podcast through Google, the podcast will appear in the search results along with a display carousel of individual episodes. Google is able to do this, because it is a direct result of natural language processing and artificial intelligence programming. Google’s AI department is hard at work developing the search engine’s ability to “understand what is being talked about” in search terms.

It might be a simple return on state of the art technology, but it proves how Google’s search algorithm is getting smarter.

While search results list the podcast and its individual episodes, there are still some limitations:

“You can’t currently listen to the podcast direct from the search results, it will instead click through to the Google Podcasts web app, but support for third-party apps and websites that may hold exclusive rights to a podcast will be supported in the future, greatly increasing the potential search results. The blog post also mentions that the tech giant will be bringing the same functionality to Google Assistant later in the year, as well as the dedicated Google Podcasts for web, from which you’ll be able to also listen directly to the episode from the search result.”

Will Google put podcasts in YouTube? That’s an original idea. So if you want to find your dog’s podcast, all you have to do is type it into Google and it will appear. That’s the theory at least.

Whitney Grace, August 27, 2019

Google and Its Amazing, Proliferating Services

August 22, 2019

It is all about the live streaming, backed by strong DVR capabilities. Digital Trends asks and answers, “What Is YouTube TV? Here’s Everything You Need to Know.” At a pricy $50 a month (minimum), the service is quite the entertainment investment. For some, though, it may be worth it. Writer Josh Levenson insists that the available features, particularly YouTube TV’s version of a cloud-storage DVR, more than make up for its limitations. These shortfalls include fewer channels than competitors, like AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now) and Sling TV, and support for fewer devices. He tells us:

“Out of all the various features baked into YouTube TV, one stands out from the crowd: Cloud DVR. Granted, that’s a tool that most live TV streaming services offer these days, but Google has hit the nail on the head offering a more natural experience—letting you record as much content as you want, which can be stored for up to nine months at an end, putting an end to the storage limits that most competitors impose. …

We also noted:

“Like most streaming services, YouTube TV also offers its customers the option to watch the content on multiple screens at once. To be specific, you’ll have the option to create up to six sub-accounts for family members, of which three can watch at the same time. There is no option to upgrade to a higher plan, either—so that’s a firm cap at three streams at the same time, but that should be more than enough for most families.”

But will most households have a device on hand that can play YouTube TV? To run the service on a 4K television, one needs a set-top stream-capable box or a dedicated streaming stick. And as with any service but PlayStation Vue, viewing on a Playstation 4 is out, but all Xbox Ones are supported. It can be run through a Chrome or Firefox browser on a PC or from the operating system on Android and Apple devices. YouTube TV is also supported on Android TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, Fire TV, Roku OS, Vizio SmartCast televisions, and post-2016 smart TVs from LG and Samsung.

Yes, most could probably find something on which to watch YouTube TV. Is it worth the monthly cost? How long will Google stick with the service? Who has time for multiple streaming services? What about How can a YouTuber message another? What about child suitable options? Perhaps benched AI whiz Mustafa Suleyman is available to contribute to resolving thorny YouTube questions?

Many questions for a company with remarkable management acumen.

Cynthia Murrell, August 22, 2019

Audio Data Set: Start Your AI Engines

August 16, 2019

Machine learning projects have a new source of training data. BoingBoing announces the new “Open Archive of 240,000 Hours’ Worth of Talk Radio, Including 2.8 Billion Words of Machine-Transcription.” A project of MIT Media Lab, Radiotalk holds a wealth of machine-generated transcriptions of talk radio broadcasts between October 2018 and March 2019. Naturally, the text is all tagged with machine-readable metadata. The team hopes their work will enrich research in natural language processing, conversational analysis, and social sciences. Writer Cory Doctorow comments:

“I’m mostly interested in the social science implications here: talk radio is incredibly important to the US political discourse, but because it is ephemeral and because recorded speech is hard to data-mine, we have very little quantitative analysis of this body of work. As Gretchen McCulloch points out in her new book on internet-era language, Because Internet, research on human speech has historically relied on expensive human transcription, leading to very small and corpuses covering a very small fraction of human communication. This corpus is part of a shift that allows social scientists, linguists and political scientists to study a massive core-sample of spoken language in our public discourse.”

The metadata attached to these transcripts includes information about geographical location, speaker turn boundaries, gender, and radio program information. Curious readers can access the researchers’ paper here (PDF).

Cynthia Murrell, August 16, 2019

Deep Fake Round Up

August 5, 2019

DarkCyber spotted “8 Deepfake Examples That Terrified the Internet.” This type of article is interesting because it catalogs items which can be forgotten or which become difficult to locate even with the power of Bing, DuckDuckGo, or Google search at one’s fingertips. The Dark Cyber team was not “terrified.” In fact, we were amused once again by item three: “Zuckerberg speaks frankly.”

Stephen E Arnold, August 5, 2019

Pinterest Offers Soothing Activities for Stressed Users

July 31, 2019

Pinterest does send email about “pins that might interest you.” Distressed? Well, that’s different.

A remarkable new feature at Pinterest aims to help distressed users, reports in, “New Pinterest Tools Help Calm Anxiety, Reduce Stress.” The soothing activities are accessed by searching for phrases like “stress quotes,” “work anxiety,” or related terms. They will even keep these searches private—a rare mercy these days. Writer Stephanie Mlot reports:

“But don’t expect the usual litany of colorful thumbnails and interspersed ads. These new resources look different from the rest of Pinterest—‘because the experience is kept separate,’ according to product manager Annie Ta. ‘People’s interactions with these activities are private and not connected to their account,’ she explained in a blog announcement. ‘This means we won’t show recommendations or ads based on their use of these resources.’

We noted this “do not track” comment too:

“Pinterest also does not track who uses them; all activity is stored anonymously using a third-party service. And, as always, if someone searches for self-harm-related content, they will be directed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—just two taps away.”

Ta stressed these tools were developed in response to a startling statistic—the Centers for Disease Control reports that more than half of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental disorder or illness at one time or another. The folks at Pinterest also noticed millions of emotional-health-related searches coming across their platform. Though these activities do not take the place of professional care, Pinterest hopes they will help their users cope with distress in their lives.

Cynthia Murrell, July 31, 2019

Next Page »

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Meta