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#432021 Unleashing Some of the Most Ambitious ...

At Singularity University, we are unleashing a generation of women who are smashing through barriers and starting some of the most ambitious technology companies on the planet.

Singularity University was founded in 2008 to empower leaders to use exponential technologies to solve our world’s biggest challenges. Our flagship program, the Global Solutions Program, has historically brought 80 entrepreneurs from around the world to Silicon Valley for 10 weeks to learn about exponential technologies and create moonshot startups that improve the lives of a billion people within a decade.

After nearly 10 years of running this program, we can say that about 70 percent of our successful startups have been founded or co-founded by female entrepreneurs (see below for inspiring examples of their work). This is in sharp contrast to the typical 10–20 percent of venture-backed tech companies that have a female founder, as reported by TechCrunch.

How are we so dramatically changing the game? While 100 percent of the credit goes to these courageous women, as both an alumna of the Global Solutions Program and our current vice chair of Global Grand Challenges, I want to share my reflections on what has worked.

At the most basic level, it is essential to deeply believe in the inherent worth, intellectual genius, and profound entrepreneurial caliber of women. While this may seem obvious, this is not the way our world currently thinks—we live in a world that sees women’s ideas, contributions, work, and existence as inherently less valuable than men’s.

For example, a 2017 Harvard Business Review article noted that even when women engage in the same behaviors and work as men, their work is considered less valuable simply because a woman did the job. An additional 2017 Harvard Business Review article showed that venture capitalists are significantly less likely to invest in female entrepreneurs and are more likely to ask men questions about the potential success of their companies while grilling women about the potential downfalls of their companies.

This doubt and lack of recognition of the genius and caliber of women is also why women are still paid less than men for completing identical work. Further, it’s why women’s work often gets buried in “number two” support roles of men in leadership roles and why women are expected to take on second shifts at home managing tedious household chores in addition to their careers. I would also argue these views as well as the rampant sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women that exists today stems from stubborn, historical, patriarchal views of women as living for the benefit of men, rather than for their own sovereignty and inherent value.

As with any other business, Singularity University has not been immune to these biases but is resolutely focused on helping women achieve intellectual genius and global entrepreneurial caliber by harnessing powerful exponential technologies.

We create an environment where women can physically and intellectually thrive free of harassment to reach their full potential, and we are building a broader ecosystem of alumni and partners around the world who not only support our female entrepreneurs throughout their entrepreneurial journeys, but who are also sparking and leading systemic change in their own countries and communities.

Respecting the Intellectual Genius and Entrepreneurial Caliber of Women
The entrepreneurial legends of our time—Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin—are men who have all built their empires using exponential technologies. Exponential technologies helped these men succeed faster and with greater impact due to Moore’s Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns which states that any digital technology (such as computing, software, artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc.) will become more sophisticated while dramatically falling in price, enabling rapid scaling.

Knowing this, an entrepreneur can plot her way to an ambitious global solution over time, releasing new applications just as the technology and market are ready. Furthermore, these rapidly advancing technologies often converge to create new tools and opportunities for innovators to come up with novel solutions to challenges that were previously impossible to solve in the past.

For various reasons, women have not pursued exponential technologies as aggressively as men (or were prevented or discouraged from doing so).

While more women are founding firms at a higher rate than ever in wealthy countries like the United States, the majority are small businesses in linear industries that have been around for hundreds of years, such as social assistance, health, education, administrative, or consulting services. In lower-income countries, international aid agencies and nonprofits often encourage women to pursue careers in traditional handicrafts, micro-enterprise, and micro-finance. While these jobs have historically helped women escape poverty and gain financial independence, they have done little to help women realize the enormous power, influence, wealth, and ability to transform the world for the better that comes from building companies, nonprofits, and solutions grounded in exponential technologies.

We need women to be working with exponential technologies today in order to be powerful leaders in the future.

Participants who enroll in our Global Solutions Program spend the first few weeks of the program learning about exponential technologies from the world’s experts and the final weeks launching new companies or nonprofits in their area of interest. We require that women (as well as men) utilize exponential technologies as a condition of the program.

In this sense, at Singularity University women start their endeavors with all of us believing and behaving in a way that assumes they can achieve global impact at the level of our world’s most legendary entrepreneurs.

Creating an Environment Where Woman Can Thrive
While challenging women to embrace exponential technologies is essential, it is also important to create an environment where women can thrive. In particular, this means ensuring women feel at home on our campus by ensuring gender diversity, aggressively addressing sexual harassment, and flipping the traditional culture from one that penalizes women, to one that values and supports them.

While women were initially only a small minority of our Global Solutions Program, in 2014, we achieved around 50% female attendance—a statistic that has since held over the years.

This is not due to a quota—every year we turn away extremely qualified women from our program (and are working on reformulating the program to allow more people to participate in the future.) While part of our recruiting success is due to the efforts of our marketing team, we also benefited from the efforts of some of our early female founders, staff, faculty, and alumnae including Susan Fonseca, Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, Kathryn Myronuk, Lajuanda Asemota, Chiara Giovenzana, and Barbara Silva Tronseca.

As early champions of Singularity University these women not only launched diversity initiatives and personally reached out to women, but were crucial role models holding leadership roles in our community. In addition, Fonseca and Silva also both created multiple organizations and initiatives outside of (or in conjunction with) the university that produced additional pipelines of female candidates. In particular, Fonseca founded Women@TheFrontier as well as other organizations focusing on women, technology and innovation, and Silva founded BestInnovation (a woman’s accelerator in Latin America), as well as led Singularity University’s Chilean Chapter and founded the first SingularityU Summit in Latin America.

These women’s efforts in globally scaling Singularity University have been critical in ensuring woman around the world now see Singularity University as a place where they can lead and shape the future.

Also, thanks to Google (Alphabet) and many of our alumni and partners, we were able to provide full scholarships to any woman (or man) to attend our program regardless of their economic status. Google committed significant funding for full scholarships while our partners around the world also hosted numerous Global Impact Competitions, where entrepreneurs pitched their solutions to their local communities with the winners earning a full scholarship funded by our partners to attend the Global Solution Program as their prize.

Google and our partners’ support helped individuals attend our program and created a wider buzz around exponential technology and social change around the world in local communities. It led to the founding of 110 SU chapters in 55 countries.

Another vital aspect of our work in supporting women has been trying to create a harassment-free environment. Throughout the Silicon Valley, more than 60% of women convey that while they are trying to build their companies or get their work done, they are also dealing with physical and sexual harassment while being demeaned and excluded in other ways in the workplace. We have taken actions to educate and train our staff on how to deal with situations should they occur. All staff receives training on harassment when they join Singularity University, and all Global Solutions Program participants attend mandatory trainings on sexual harassment when they first arrive on campus. We also have male and female wellness counselors available that can offer support to both individuals and teams of entrepreneurs throughout the entire program.

While at a minimum our campus must be physically safe for women, we also strive to create a culture that values women and supports them in the additional challenges and expectations they face. For example, one of our 2016 female participants, Van Duesterberg, was pregnant during the program and said that instead of having people doubt her commitment to her startup or make her prove she could handle having a child and running a start-up at the same time, people went out of their way to help her.

“I was the epitome of a person not supposed to be doing a startup,” she said. “I was pregnant and would need to take care of my child. But Singularity University was supportive and encouraging. They made me feel super-included and that it was possible to do both. I continue to come back to campus even though the program is over because the network welcomes me and supports me rather than shuts me out because of my physical limitations. Rather than making me feel I had to prove myself, everyone just understood me and supported me, whether it was bringing me healthy food or recommending funders.”

Another strength that we have in supporting women is that after the Global Solutions Program, entrepreneurs have access to a much larger ecosystem.

Many entrepreneurs partake in SU Ventures, which can provide further support to startups as they develop, and we now have a larger community of over 200,000 people in almost every country. These members have often attended other Singularity University programs, events and are committed to our vision of the future. These women and men consist of business executives, Fortune 500 companies, investors, nonprofit and government leaders, technologists, members of the media, and other movers and shakers in the world. They have made introductions for our founders, collaborated with them on business ventures, invested in them and showcased their work at high profile events around the world.

Building for the Future
While our Global Solutions Program is making great strides in supporting female entrepreneurs, there is always more work to do. We are now focused on achieving the same degree of female participation across all of our programs and actively working to recruit and feature more female faculty and speakers on stage. As our community grows and scales around the world, we are also intent at how to best uphold our values and policies around sexual harassment across diverse locations and cultures. And like all businesses everywhere, we are focused on recruiting more women to serve at senior leadership levels within SU. As we make our way forward, we hope that you will join us in boldly leading this change and recognizing the genius and power of female entrepreneurs.

Meet Some of Our Female Moonshots
While we have many remarkable female entrepreneurs in the Singularity University community, the list below features a few of the women who have founded or co-founded companies at the Global Solutions Program that have launched new industries and are on their way to changing the way our world works for millions if not billions of people.

Jessica Scorpio co-founded Getaround in 2009. Getaround was one of the first car-sharing service platforms allowing anyone to rent out their car using a smartphone app. GetAround was a revolutionary idea in 2009, not only because smartphones and apps were still in their infancy, but because it was unthinkable that a technology startup could disrupt the major entrenched car, transport, and logistics companies. Scorpio’s early insights and pioneering entrepreneurial work brought to life new ways that humans relate to car sharing and the future self-driving car industry. Scorpio and Getaround have won numerous awards, and Getaround now serves over 200,000 members.

Paola Santana co-founded Matternet in 2011, which pioneered the commercial drone transport industry. In 2011, only military, hobbyists or the film industry used drones. Matternet demonstrated that drones could be used for commercial transport in short point-to-point deliveries for high-value goods laying the groundwork for drone transport around the world as well as some of the early thinking behind the future flying car industry. Santana was also instrumental in shaping regulations for the use of commercial drones around the world, making the industry possible.

Sara Naseri co-founded Qurasense in 2014, a life sciences start-up that analyzes women’s health through menstrual blood allowing women to track their health every month. Naseri is shifting our understanding of women’s menstrual blood as a waste product and something “not to be talked about,” to a rich, non-invasive, abundant source of information about women’s health.

Abi Ramanan co-founded ImpactVision in 2015, a software company that rapidly analyzes the quality and characteristics of food through hyperspectral images. Her long-term vision is to digitize food supply chains to reduce waste and fraud, given that one-third of all food is currently wasted before it reaches our plates. Ramanan is also helping the world understand that hyperspectral technology can be used in many industries to help us “see the unseen” and augment our ability to sense and understand what is happening around us in a much more sophisticated way.

Anita Schjøll Brede and Maria Ritola co-founded Iris AI in 2015, an artificial intelligence company that is building an AI research assistant that drastically improves the efficiency of R&D research and breaks down silos between different industries. Their long-term vision is for Iris AI to become smart enough that she will become a scientist herself. Fast Company named Iris AI one of the 10 most innovative artificial intelligence companies for 2017.

Hla Hla Win co-founded 360ed in 2016, a startup that conducts teacher training and student education through virtual reality and augmented reality in Myanmar. They have already connected teachers from 128 private schools in Myanmar with schools teaching 21st-century skills in Silicon Valley and around the world. Their moonshot is to build a platform where any teacher in the world can share best practices in teachers’ training. As they succeed, millions of children in some of the poorest parts of the world will have access to a 21st-century education.

Min FitzGerald and Van Duesterberg cofounded Nutrigene in 2017, a startup that ships freshly formulated, tailor-made supplement elixirs directly to consumers. Their long-term vision is to help people optimize their health using actionable data insights, so people can take a guided, tailored approaching to thriving into longevity.

Anna Skaya co-founded Basepaws in 2016, which created the first genetic test for cats and is building a community of citizen scientist pet owners. They are creating personalized pet products such as supplements, therapeutics, treats, and toys while also developing a database of genetic data for future research that will help both humans and pets over the long term.

Olivia Ramos co-founded Deep Blocks in 2016, a startup using artificial intelligence to integrate and streamline the processes of architecture, pre-construction, and real estate. As digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and robotics advance, it no longer makes sense for these industries to exist separately. Ramos recognized the tremendous value and efficiency that it is now possible to unlock with exponential technologies and creating an integrated industry in the future.

Please also visit our website to learn more about other female entrepreneurs, staff and faculty who are pioneering the future through exponential technologies. Continue reading

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#432009 How Swarm Intelligence Is Making Simple ...

As a group, simple creatures following simple rules can display a surprising amount of complexity, efficiency, and even creativity. Known as swarm intelligence, this trait is found throughout nature, but researchers have recently begun using it to transform various fields such as robotics, data mining, medicine, and blockchains.

Ants, for example, can only perform a limited range of functions, but an ant colony can build bridges, create superhighways of food and information, wage war, and enslave other ant species—all of which are beyond the comprehension of any single ant. Likewise, schools of fish, flocks of birds, beehives, and other species exhibit behavior indicative of planning by a higher intelligence that doesn’t actually exist.

It happens by a process called stigmergy. Simply put, a small change by a group member causes other members to behave differently, leading to a new pattern of behavior.

When an ant finds a food source, it marks the path with pheromones. This attracts other ants to that path, leads them to the food source, and prompts them to mark the same path with more pheromones. Over time, the most efficient route will become the superhighway, as the faster and easier a path is, the more ants will reach the food and the more pheromones will be on the path. Thus, it looks as if a more intelligent being chose the best path, but it emerged from the tiny, simple changes made by individuals.

So what does this mean for humans? Well, a lot. In the past few decades, researchers have developed numerous algorithms and metaheuristics, such as ant colony optimization and particle swarm optimization, and they are rapidly being adopted.

Swarm Robotics
A swarm of robots would work on the same principles as an ant colony: each member has a simple set of rules to follow, leading to self-organization and self-sufficiency.

For example, researchers at Georgia Robotics and InTelligent Systems (GRITS) created a small swarm of simple robots that can spell and play piano. The robots cannot communicate, but based solely on the position of surrounding robots, they are able to use their specially-created algorithm to determine the optimal path to complete their task.

This is also immensely useful for drone swarms.

Last February, Ehang, an aviation company out of China, created a swarm of a thousand drones that not only lit the sky with colorful, intricate displays, but demonstrated the ability to improvise and troubleshoot errors entirely autonomously.

Further, just recently, the University of Cambridge and Koc University unveiled their idea for what they call the Energy Neutral Internet of Drones. Amazingly, this drone swarm would take initiative to share information or energy with other drones that did not receive a communication or are running low on energy.

Militaries all of the world are utilizing this as well.

Last year, the US Department of Defense announced it had successfully tested a swarm of miniature drones that could carry out complex missions cheaper and more efficiently. They claimed, “The micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.”

Some experts estimate at least 30 nations are actively developing drone swarms—and even submersible drones—for military missions, including intelligence gathering, missile defense, precision missile strikes, and enhanced communication.

NASA also plans on deploying swarms of tiny spacecraft for space exploration, and the medical community is looking into using swarms of nanobots for precision delivery of drugs, microsurgery, targeting toxins, and biological sensors.

What If Humans Are the Ants?
The strength of any blockchain comes from the size and diversity of the community supporting it. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Litecoin are driven by the people using, investing in, and, most importantly, mining them so their blockchains can function. Without an active community, or swarm, their blockchains wither away.

When viewed from a great height, a blockchain performs eerily like an ant colony in that it will naturally find the most efficient way to move vast amounts of information.

Miners compete with each other to perform the complex calculations necessary to add another block, for which the winner is rewarded with the blockchain’s native currency and agreed-upon fees. Of course, the miner with the more powerful computers is more likely to win the reward, thereby empowering the winner’s ability to mine and receive even more rewards. Over time, fewer and fewer miners are going to exist, as the winners are able to more efficiently shoulder more of the workload, in much the same way that ants build superhighways.

Further, a company called Unanimous AI has developed algorithms that allow humans to collectively make predictions. So far, the AI algorithms and their human participants have made some astoundingly accurate predictions, such as the first four winning horses of the Kentucky Derby, the Oscar winners, the Stanley Cup winners, and others. The more people involved in the swarm, the greater their predictive power will be.

To be clear, this is not a prediction based on group consensus. Rather, the swarm of humans uses software to input their opinions in real time, thus making micro-changes to the rest of the swarm and the inputs of other members.

Studies show that swarm intelligence consistently outperforms individuals and crowds working without the algorithms. While this is only the tip of the iceberg, some have suggested swarm intelligence can revolutionize how doctors diagnose a patient or how products are marketed to consumers. It might even be an essential step in truly creating AI.

While swarm intelligence is an essential part of many species’ success, it’s only a matter of time before humans harness its effectiveness as well.

Image Credit: Nature Bird Photography / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

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#431862 Want Self-Healing Robots and Tires? ...

We all have scars, and each one tells a story. Tales of tomfoolery, tales of haphazardness, or in my case, tales of stupidity.
Whether the cause of your scar was a push-bike accident, a lack of concentration while cutting onions, or simply the byproduct of an active lifestyle, the experience was likely extremely painful and distressing. Not to mention the long and vexatious recovery period, stretching out for weeks and months after the actual event!
Cast your minds back to that time. How you longed for instant relief from your discomfort! How you longed to have your capabilities restored in an instant!
Well, materials that can heal themselves in an instant may not be far from becoming a reality—and a family of them known as elastomers holds the key.
“Elastomer” is essentially a big, fancy word for rubber. However, elastomers have one unique property—they are capable of returning to their original form after being vigorously stretched and deformed.
This unique property of elastomers has caught the eye of many scientists around the world, particularly those working in the field of robotics. The reason? Elastomer can be encouraged to return to its original shape, in many cases by simply applying heat. The implication of this is the quick and cost-effective repair of “wounds”—cuts, tears, and punctures to the soft, elastomer-based appendages of a robot’s exoskeleton.

Researchers from Vrije University in Brussels, Belgium have been toying with the technique, and with remarkable success. The team built a robotic hand with fingers made of a type of elastomer. They found that cuts and punctures were indeed able to repair themselves simply by applying heat to the affected area.
How long does the healing process take? In this instance, about a day. Now that’s a lot shorter than the weeks and months of recovery time we typically need for a flesh wound, during which we are unable to write, play the guitar, or do the dishes. If you consider the latter to be a bad thing…
However, it’s not the first time scientists have played around with elastomers and examined their self-healing properties. Another team of scientists, headed up by Cheng-Hui Li and Chao Wang, discovered another type of elastomer that exhibited autonomous self-healing properties. Just to help you picture this stuff, the material closely resembles animal muscle— strong, flexible, and elastic. With autogenetic restorative powers to boot.
Advancements in the world of self-healing elastomers, or rubbers, may also affect the lives of everyday motorists. Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a self-healing rubber material that could be used to make tires that repair their own punctures.
This time the mechanism of self-healing doesn’t involve heat. Rather, it is related to a physical phenomenon associated with the rubber’s unique structure. Normally, when a large enough stress is applied to a typical rubber, there is catastrophic failure at the focal point of that stress. The self-healing rubber the researchers created, on the other hand, distributes that same stress evenly over a network of “crazes”—which are like cracks connected by strands of fiber.
Here’s the interesting part. Not only does this unique physical characteristic of the rubber prevent catastrophic failure, it facilitates self-repair. According to Harvard researchers, when the stress is released, the material snaps back to its original form and the crazes heal.
This wonder material could be used in any number of rubber-based products.
Professor Jinrong Wu, of Sichuan University, China, and co-author of the study, happened to single out tires: “Imagine that we could use this material as one of the components to make a rubber tire… If you have a cut through the tire, this tire wouldn’t have to be replaced right away. Instead, it would self-heal while driving, enough to give you leeway to avoid dramatic damage,” said Wu.
So where to from here? Well, self-healing elastomers could have a number of different applications. According to the article published by Quartz, cited earlier, the material could be used on artificial limbs. Perhaps it will provide some measure of structural integrity without looking like a tattered mess after years of regular use.
Or perhaps a sort of elastomer-based hybrid skin is on the horizon. A skin in which wounds heal instantly. And recovery time, unlike your regular old human skin of yesteryear, is significantly slashed. Furthermore, this future skin might eliminate those little reminders we call scars.
For those with poor judgment skills, this spells an end to disquieting reminders of our own stupidity.
Image Credit: Vrije Universiteit Brussel / Prof. Dr. ir. Bram Vanderborght Continue reading

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#431859 Digitized to Democratized: These Are the ...

“The Six Ds are a chain reaction of technological progression, a road map of rapid development that always leads to enormous upheaval and opportunity.”
–Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Bold
We live in incredible times. News travels the globe in an instant. Music, movies, games, communication, and knowledge are ever-available on always-connected devices. From biotechnology to artificial intelligence, powerful technologies that were once only available to huge organizations and governments are becoming more accessible and affordable thanks to digitization.
The potential for entrepreneurs to disrupt industries and corporate behemoths to unexpectedly go extinct has never been greater.
One hundred or fifty or even twenty years ago, disruption meant coming up with a product or service people needed but didn’t have yet, then finding a way to produce it with higher quality and lower costs than your competitors. This entailed hiring hundreds or thousands of employees, having a large physical space to put them in, and waiting years or even decades for hard work to pay off and products to come to fruition.

“Technology is disrupting traditional industrial processes, and they’re never going back.”

But thanks to digital technologies developing at exponential rates of change, the landscape of 21st-century business has taken on a dramatically different look and feel.
The structure of organizations is changing. Instead of thousands of employees and large physical plants, modern start-ups are small organizations focused on information technologies. They dematerialize what was once physical and create new products and revenue streams in months, sometimes weeks.
It no longer takes a huge corporation to have a huge impact.
Technology is disrupting traditional industrial processes, and they’re never going back. This disruption is filled with opportunity for forward-thinking entrepreneurs.
The secret to positively impacting the lives of millions of people is understanding and internalizing the growth cycle of digital technologies. This growth cycle takes place in six key steps, which Peter Diamandis calls the Six Ds of Exponentials: digitization, deception, disruption, demonetization, dematerialization, and democratization.
According to Diamandis, cofounder and chairman of Singularity University and founder and executive chairman of XPRIZE, when something is digitized it begins to behave like an information technology.

Newly digitized products develop at an exponential pace instead of a linear one, fooling onlookers at first before going on to disrupt companies and whole industries. Before you know it, something that was once expensive and physical is an app that costs a buck.
Newspapers and CDs are two obvious recent examples. The entertainment and media industries are still dealing with the aftermath of digitization as they attempt to transform and update old practices tailored to a bygone era. But it won’t end with digital media. As more of the economy is digitized—from medicine to manufacturing—industries will hop on an exponential curve and be similarly disrupted.
Diamandis’s 6 Ds are critical to understanding and planning for this disruption.
The 6 Ds of Exponential Organizations are Digitized, Deceptive, Disruptive, Demonetized, Dematerialized, and Democratized.

Diamandis uses the contrasting fates of Kodak and Instagram to illustrate the power of the six Ds and exponential thinking.
Kodak invented the digital camera in 1975, but didn’t invest heavily in the new technology, instead sticking with what had always worked: traditional cameras and film. In 1996, Kodak had a $28 billion market capitalization with 95,000 employees.
But the company didn’t pay enough attention to how digitization of their core business was changing it; people were no longer taking pictures in the same way and for the same reasons as before.
After a downward spiral, Kodak went bankrupt in 2012. That same year, Facebook acquired Instagram, a digital photo sharing app, which at the time was a startup with 13 employees. The acquisition’s price tag? $1 billion. And Instagram had been founded only 18 months earlier.
The most ironic piece of this story is that Kodak invented the digital camera; they took the first step toward overhauling the photography industry and ushering it into the modern age, but they were unwilling to disrupt their existing business by taking a risk in what was then uncharted territory. So others did it instead.
The same can happen with any technology that’s just getting off the ground. It’s easy to stop pursuing it in the early part of the exponential curve, when development appears to be moving slowly. But failing to follow through only gives someone else the chance to do it instead.
The Six Ds are a road map showing what can happen when an exponential technology is born. Not every phase is easy, but the results give even small teams the power to change the world in a faster and more impactful way than traditional business ever could.
Image Credit: Mohammed Tareq / Shutterstock Continue reading

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#431839 The Hidden Human Workforce Powering ...

The tech industry touts its ability to automate tasks and remove slow and expensive humans from the equation. But in the background, a lot of the legwork training machine learning systems, solving problems software can’t, and cleaning up its mistakes is still done by people.
This was highlighted recently when Expensify, which promises to automatically scan photos of receipts to extract data for expense reports, was criticized for sending customers’ personally identifiable receipts to workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) crowdsourcing platform.
The company uses text analysis software to read the receipts, but if the automated system falls down then the images are passed to a human for review. While entrusting this job to random workers on MTurk was maybe not so wise—and the company quickly stopped after the furor—the incident brought to light that this kind of human safety net behind AI-powered services is actually very common.
As Wired notes, similar services like Ibotta and Receipt Hog that collect receipt information for marketing purposes also use crowdsourced workers. In a similar vein, while most users might assume their Facebook newsfeed is governed by faceless algorithms, the company has been ramping up the number of human moderators it employs to catch objectionable content that slips through the net, as has YouTube. Twitter also has thousands of human overseers.
Humans aren’t always witting contributors either. The old text-based reCAPTCHA problems Google used to use to distinguish humans from machines was actually simultaneously helping the company digitize books by getting humans to interpret hard-to-read text.
“Every product that uses AI also uses people,” Jeffrey Bigham, a crowdsourcing expert at Carnegie Mellon University, told Wired. “I wouldn’t even say it’s a backstop so much as a core part of the process.”
Some companies are not shy about their use of crowdsourced workers. Startup Eloquent Labs wants to insert them between customer service chatbots and human agents who step in when the machines fail. Many times the AI is pretty certain what particular work means, and an MTurk worker can step in and quickly classify them faster and cheaper than a service agent.
Fashion retailer Gilt provides “pre-emptive shipping,” which uses data analytics to predict what people will buy to get products to them faster. The company uses MTurk workers to provide subjective critiques of clothing that feed into their models.
MTurk isn’t the only player. Companies like Cloudfactory and Crowdflower provide crowdsourced human manpower tailored to particular niches, and some companies prefer to maintain their own communities of workers. Unlabel uses an army of 50,000 humans to check and edit the translations its artificial intelligence system produces for customers.
Most of the time these human workers aren’t just filling in the gaps, they’re also helping to train the machine learning component of these companies’ services by providing new examples of how to solve problems. Other times humans aren’t used “in-the-loop” with AI systems, but to prepare data sets they can learn from by labeling images, text, or audio.
It’s even possible to use crowdsourced workers to carry out tasks typically tackled by machine learning, such as large-scale image analysis and forecasting.
Zooniverse gets citizen scientists to classify images of distant galaxies or videos of animals to help academics analyze large data sets too complex for computers. Almanis creates forecasts on everything from economics to politics with impressive accuracy by giving those who sign up to the website incentives for backing the correct answer to a question. Researchers have used MTurkers to power a chatbot, and there’s even a toolkit for building algorithms to control this human intelligence called TurKit.
So what does this prominent role for humans in AI services mean? Firstly, it suggests that many tools people assume are powered by AI may in fact be relying on humans. This has obvious privacy implications, as the Expensify story highlighted, but should also raise concerns about whether customers are really getting what they pay for.
One example of this is IBM’s Watson for oncology, which is marketed as a data-driven AI system for providing cancer treatment recommendations. But an investigation by STAT highlighted that it’s actually largely driven by recommendations from a handful of (admittedly highly skilled) doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Secondly, humans intervening in AI-run processes also suggests AI is still largely helpless without us, which is somewhat comforting to know among all the doomsday predictions of AI destroying jobs. At the same time, though, much of this crowdsourced work is monotonous, poorly paid, and isolating.
As machines trained by human workers get better at all kinds of tasks, this kind of piecemeal work filling in the increasingly small gaps in their capabilities may get more common. While tech companies often talk about AI augmenting human intelligence, for many it may actually end up being the other way around.
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