Google’s autocompletion: algorithms, stereotypes and accountability

Google autocompletion algorithms questions xkcd

“questions” by xkcd

Women need to be put in their place. Women cannot be trusted. Women shouldn’t have rights. Women should be in the kitchen. …

You might have come across the latest UN Women awareness campaign. Originally in print, it has been spreading online for almost two days. It shows four women, each “silenced” with a screenshot from a particular Google search and its respective suggested autocompletions.

Researching interaction with Google’s algorithms for my phd, I cannot help but add my two cents and further reading suggestions in the links …

Google's sexist autocompletion UN Women

Women should have the right to make their own decisions

Guess what was the most common reaction of people?

They headed over to Google in order to check the “veracity” of the screenshots, and test the suggested autocompletions for a search for “Women should …” and other expressions. I have seen this done all around me, on sociology blogs as well as by people I know.

In terms of an awareness campaign, this is a great success.

And more awareness is a good thing. As the video autofill: a gender study concludes “The first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one.” However, people’s reactions have reminded me, once again, how little the autocompletion function has been problematized, in general, before the UN Women campaign. Which, then, makes me realize how much of the knowledge related to web search engine research I have acquired these last months I already take for granted… but I disgress.

This awareness campaign has been very successful in making people more aware of the sexism in our world Google’s autocomplete function.

Google's sexist autocompletion UN Women

Women need to be seen as equal

Google’s autocompletion algorithms

At DH2013, the annual Digital Humanities conference, I presented a paper I co-authored with Frederic Kaplan about an ongoing research of the DHLab about Google autocompletion algorithms. In this paper, we explained why autocompletions are “linguistic prosthesis”: they mediate between our thoughts and how we express these thought in (written) language. So do related searches, or the suggestion “Did you mean … ?” But of all the mediations by algorithms, the mediation by autocompletion algorithms acts in a particularly powerful way because it doesn’t correct us afterwards. It intervenes before we have completed formulating our thoughts in writing. Before we hit ENTER.

Thus, the appearance of an autocompletion suggestion during the search process might make people decide to search for this suggestion although they didn’t have the intention to. A recent paper by Baker and Potts (2013) consequently questions “the extent to which such algorithms inadvertently help to perpetuate negative stereotypes“:

It is not possible to know how many people have typed in stereotyping questions about various social groups, and we do not know if such people represent the majority in a population. As noted above, we would guess that actual numbers of people asking such questions are relatively low, but those who do, tend to ask the stereotyping ones. However, even if it emerges that many people are interested in such questions and click on the auto-suggestions that appear, is there an over-riding moral imperative to remove these auto-suggestions?

Google’s autocompletion has been around for quite some time (almost 9 years to be exact, although the official roll-out was in 2008 only). According to the company, the function suggests what it deems “useful queries” (without defining “useful”, bien sûr) to users “by analyzing a variety of characteristics of your custom search engine”. The volume of searches for a specific search term (from different locations) seems to be the main determinate. But there is no reason to believe that suggestions aren’t, to some degree, personalized (the way search results are). And: autocompletion isn’t entirely automated. Google influences (“censors”, some say) autocompletion globally and locally through hardcoding, be it for commercial, legal or puritarian reasons. (Bing does so, too.)

Google's sexist autocompletion UN Women

Women cannot accept the way things are

There is no “veracity” to be established because Google is not the objective mirror it claims to be. Google is a company that works however it chooses. Instead of veracity, let’s focus on accountability. Because Google, the very existence of Google, as well as the specific way it works, is having an impact on our lives.

Who is in charge when algorithms are in charge?

I am not implying the negative stereotyped search term suggestions about women are Google’s intent – I rather suspect a coordinated bunch of MRAs are to be blamed for the volume of said search terms – but that doesn’t mean Google is completely innocent. The question of accountability goes beyond a binary option of intentionality or complete innocence.

Unsurprisingly, Google doesn’t take any responsiblity. It puts the blame on its own algorithms … as if the algorithms were beyond the company’s control.

The Spiegel wrote (about another autocompletion affair):

The company maintains that the search engine only shows what exists. It’s not its fault, argues Google, if someone doesn’t like the computed results. [...]
Google increasingly influences how we perceive the world. [...] Contrary to what the Google spokesman suggests, the displayed search terms are by no means solely based on objective calculations. And even if that were the case, just because the search engine means no harm, it doesn’t mean that it does no harm.

If we, as a society, do not want negative stereotypes (be they sexist, racist, ablist or otherwise discriminatory) to prevail in Google’s autocompletion, where can we locate accountability? With the people who first asked stereotyping questions? With the people who asked next? Or with the people who accepted Google’s suggestion to search for the stereotyping questions instead of searching what they originally intended? What about Google itself? …

Google's sexist autocompletion UN Women

Women shouldn’t suffer from discrimination anymore

Of course, algorithms imply automation. And digital literacy helps understanding the process of automatation – I have been saying this before – but Algorithms are more than a technological issue: they involve not only automated data analysis, but also decision-making (cf. “Governing Algorithms: A Provocation Piece” #21. No, actually you should not only read #21 but the whole, very thoughtprovoking provokation piece!). Which makes it impossible to ignore the question whether algorithms can be accountable.

In a recent Atlantic article, advocating reverse engineering, N. Diakopoulos asserts:

[...] given the growing power that algorithms wield in society it’s vital to continue to develop, codify, and teach more formalized methods of algorithmic accountability.

Which I think would be a great thing because, at the very least, this will raise awareness. (I don’t agree that “algorithmic accountability” can be assigned à priori, though). But when algorithms are not accountable, then who is? The people/organization/company creating them? The people/organization/company deploying them? Or the people/organization/company using them? This brings us back to the conclusion that the question of accountability goes beyond a binary option of intentionality or complete innocence… which makes the whole thing an extremely complex issue.

Who is in charge when algorithms are in charge?

PS:
Oh, and of course algorithms are not simply “bad”. The proof: Google Autocomplete can also produce nice things, e.g. poetry. ;)

TEDxCERN: about science, research and consciousness

TEDxCERN aka TEDxTent

TEDxCERN aka TEDxTent

Science and research, particle physics and astronomy, talks and music… On Friday, I had the honour and pleasure of spending a very special day at CERN: a guided visit plus TEDxCERN.

For those of you who are not familiar with this acronym: it stands for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire and has been a bit in the news lately for discovering a new particle, most probably the Higgs boson (cf. understandable explanations of the Higgs boson).

Back to my very special day: the morning was dedicated to visiting the impressive CMS experiment facility and in the afternoon, the TEDx conference took place. We were welcomed in a tent, but the actual event was held in the beautiful Globe of Science and Innovations.

It was not my first TEDx experience, and I enjoyed the scientific emphasis. Below, I will share my personal thoughts and highlights, but would like to underline that the whole program was on a very high level.

Science and marketing

One of my favourite catch phrase comes from entertaining Marc Abrahams and goes more or less like this:

If you do research and you know what you are going to find, you’re not doing research – you’re doing marketing.

Abrahams must know: he has been following improbable research for a long time, awarding studies that first makes you laugh, then think, with the IgNobel Prize since 1991. (A quick heads-up for people based in Geneva: an IgNobel-show will take place on May 7!)

Science and findings

Unsurprising for a science-heavy program, there were several speakers sharing their journey from not knowing to actual findings:

Maya Tolstoy, a marine geophysicist with an impressive track record, spoke about her noticing oddly recurrent signals in her data – which would then pave the way for the discovery of correlations between tides and seafloor seismicity. Theoretical physicist Gian Giudice showed the impact of the discovery of the Higgs boson on the calculation of the stability of the universe. (Bad news, by the way: with Giudice’s current premises, the calculations reveal a highly unstable universe; however, it seems we don’t have to worry since our sun will blow up anyway before anything happens to our universe.)

And cosmologist Hiranya Peiris, wonderfully starting off the TEDxCERN talks with a whodunnit about the beginning of the universe, reminded us that all research – even when not revealing a ground-breaking discovery – trumps never leaving the point of not knowing:

“Looking and not finding is not the same as not looking.” (H. Peiris)

Science and resources

The focus of TEDxCERN was, accordingly, not only on the outcome of research, but also on science itself, and on the very importance of enabling and undertaking research:

Computer scientist Ian Foster, who is to be credited with the analogy between research and journey (and, accessorily, grid computing), explained very well how an “ocean liner” such as CERN may be best adapted for certain kinds of research-journeys – but not for all kinds of research-journeys. And scientists who are not aboard an ocean liner (but a sailboat, for example) need to get ahead, too…

“Today, a person can run a company from a coffee shop thanks to cloud computing… what about labs?” (I. Foster)

He presented many cloud platforms empowering small-scale labs and researchers, notably Globus online which allows scientists to focus on the data content rather than data storing, sharing and maintenance.

On the other hand, TED veteran Lee Cronin stressed the need for his field, chemistry, to advance not only in sailboats, but to engage and collaborate on ocean liner scale in order to discover the origin of life.

Science and tomorrow’s scientists

Accidentally or not, two of the most personal talks were dedicated to the situation of young academics – although each one from a very different viewpoint: Becky Parker is a teacher of physics and astronomy at Simon Langton School, acting along the lines of the “radical” idea that interest in science can be sown and supported by engaging students in actual scientific projects. LUCID proves her right. Her innovative approach and personal enthusiasm has triggered many “I wish I had had a teacher like her” thoughts and tweets.

In a society where Becky Parkers are an exception rather than a rule, insatiable curiosity and personal experience may make up for a lack of intellectual stimulation in school: Brittany Wenger began studying neural networks (by herself!) when she was just 13 years old, learnt programming and is now providing Cloud4Cancer, a service to detect breast cancer less invasively than standard methods.

The special guest scheduled right after Brittany Wenger’s talk, Will.I.am, also advocated for young scientists: on direct via webcam, he explained why he is fascinated by science and why he encourages young people, no matter what neighbourhood they grow up in, to learn about science and programming. He underlined the importance of engaging every kid in education and science, no matter their background.

(Unfortunately, I spotted some of the white grey-haired men in the public frown upon hearing a black musician (read: “non-scientist”) talking about science in his own words – kudos to the TEDxCERN curators for not sharing this elitist mindset.)

Science and collaboration

SESAME transnational scientific cooperation TEDxCERN

SESAME: transnational scientific cooperation

A propos science and elitism: astronomer Chris Lintott‘s talk was a perfect illustration of the benefits scientist can gain from considering laypeople as a complement rather than an opposition. His Zooniverse, regrouping citizen science projects, makes for a great POC of collaborative and/or crowdsourced science.

Collaboration of another kind is at the heart of SESAME, presented by Zehra Sayers and Eliezer Rabinovici: much like CERN has been a unique transeuropean venture in Europe post world war II, SESAME is a unique undertaking and aspires international cooperation across cultural and political divides through first-class science in the Middle East.

Science and subjectivity

By affinity, I guess – I am a sociologist – the talks addressing objectivity/subjectivity in science and research were the talks I personally liked best:

John Searle explained that ignoring consciousness was science’s biggest fallacy, which contributed to upholding, unfortunately, the wrong dichotomy of objective science as opposed to subjective consciousness. He argued for the objectivity in subjectivity (and vice versa!) and, accessorily, trashed behaviorism. Which makes me think: for subsequent editions of TEDxCERN, it would be a great addition to give more room to research about science.

Many of the examples mentioned in Londa Schiebinger‘s talk were a perfect illustration of how objectivity and subjectivity co-exist – and thus why science and innovation need to be inclusive of diversity in subjectivity in order to be as objective as possible.

“Gender bias in society create gender bias into knowledge.” (L. Schiebinger)

(For instance: childless urban planners modelled people’s movements by categorising each trip as “work”, “shopping”, “leisure”, “visits” etc. This might work for them. However, for people with care obligations who often zig-zag around the city – bring one child to school, the other one to day-care, and pass by the dry-cleaners etc. … all this on their way to work – single, finite categories for each trip simply didn’t work. For more examples and resources cf. Schiebinger’s project Gendered Innovations at Stanford.)

Science and soprano (and other music)

Listening to Maria Ferrante singing about galaxies and C8H10N4O2 was pure delight and fit the overall program very well. So did the re-edition of the first interplanetary transmitted song Reach for the stars, performed by Collège International de Ferney-Voltaire Choir and International School of Geneva Chorus. Yaron Herman and Bijan Chemirani played together at the very end of TEDxCERN. I remembered Yaron Herman from when he played at TEDxHelvetia at EPFL, a few months ago, where he also shared his fascinating story. A pleasure listening to him again, especially in harmony with Bijan Chemirani.

Last but not least

I need to mention geneticist George Church‘s talk, but I am not embarrassed to admit that I was not able to follow everything he said. What I understood and recall: DNA bears immense potential; transdisciplinary research is the future.

Big thanks to CERN, the TEDxCERN team and everyone else involved for a well-curated, diverse yet coherent program. Thanks to the speakers for making me think, and laugh.

By the way: another account of the TEDxCERN day can be found on TEDxCERN volunteer Alex Brown’s blog.

Oh, and you might want to have a look at the TED Ed videos co-produced with CERN. My favorites:

and

Why Lift 13 was good. And how Lift 14 can be better.

It is post-conference week: I am back from Lift 13. Some of my articles here mention previous editions of LIFT (e.g. Lift 11), but up to now, I have not yet blogged about the actual conference. Which is a shame, because this has been my 6th Lift conference. I discovered the conference in 2010 only, but I have tried to catch up by also attending LIFT France. Twice.

And this time, I promised to blog.

I have been a fan since my very first LIFT. And it is as a fan, acknowledging the efforts and energy of every single one of the organizers and contributors, that I take the liberty of pointing out what could make Lift 14 even better than Lift 13 was. Please do keep in mind that the critiques express complaints on a high level: LIFT, overall, is a great unique event. Then why point them out, you ask? For (at least) two reasons:

  • I’m interested in having a public discussion. Because I would like to know what others think… first time lifters, but also other liftosaurs.
  • Also, I am convinced that some points are weak signals of something crucial to be taken into account by the organizers – the earlier the better. (I’ll elaborate.)

What is so special about LIFT conference?

Lift 13 conference weird presentation slide

One of Lift 13′s weirder presentation slides

These lines are for those of you who don’t know LIFT: you have been missing something (hey, I told you I was a fan!). I have had the honor of welcoming first time lifters several times, and everything I said the first time is still true: it is all about interaction and magic.

LIFT is interaction between people coming from very diverse backgrounds: students, CEOs, artists, engineers, journalists, designers, sociologists, communication professionals, lawyers, IT specialists, futurists, professors, entrepreneurs etc. Not surprisingly, LIFT is a place where ideas are born. And where ideas meet. Most of the time, ideas do not just happen: there is a prologue. There is a setting. And there are the people making it happen.

The way I have come to know Lift conference, the organizers and conference designers have always been eager to provide a stimulating setting. Magic. And the people making it happen? Well, the LIFT community is one of the most outstanding communities I know…

LIFT Community and LIFT spirit: the DNA of success

The LIFT community is more than the participants. It includes also the amazing volunteers (info desk, cloak room, stage management, coffee stands, social media management etc. – all handled greatly by volunteers. Have you noticed? Have you left a tip?), the workshop hosts, past attendees (Christian, Honor, Yasmin, Marcel, Charles and many more – know that you were missed!), the speakers and the organizers. People with very different backgrounds and characters, all meeting and interacting, being more or less shy – but similarly open-minded.
Lift Atmosphere by Ivo Näpflin
And the LIFT community is more than the sum of all people.

During three days, there is something in the air I’d like to call the LIFT mindset. Or the LIFT spirit.

And there was a lot of LIFT spirit in the air during Lift 13. A lot more than I expected in my worst nightmare scenarios beforehand where I pictured a new wave of first time lifters consisting of strictly business-oriented entrepreneurs, heads of business development and social media consultants discovering – and smothering – my favorite conference.

To be honest, I was even ready to declare that the LIFT spirit was as ubiquitous at Lift 13 as it was during previous editions. Until others (mostly not-first-time lifters) shared their experiences with me, and why they thought it wasn’t. Which has made me re-evaluate my Lift 13… and led to the present lines. All while appreciating Lift’s speed dating, some stated – and regretted – that they had made much fewer unstructured serendipity encounters. Some thought that fondue and coffee break discussions were more formal and utilitarian, in a careerist way, than before. Some found the overall mood among participants less friendly. Some simply miss Laurent.

But it is not about Laurent. It is about what people have found at LIFT that they haven’t found at other conferences: interaction. Ideas. Unplanned serendipity encounters in a friendly, informal ambiance, leading to seemingly off-topic – but highly inspiring – discussions. These are crucial because they are part of Lift’s successful DNA.

By the way: this is why the LIFT fondue is often quoted as the essential Lift moment. And I did enjoy this year’s LIFT fondue – despite the fact that the venue’s kicking out began quite early (at 10pm, with clearing the tables where people were still sitting, the refusal to serve any more drinks and obnoxiously loud music). Now let me tell you an anecdote: like in 2011, I deliberately chose to join a table where I didn’t know anyone yet. I understood quickly that the five(?) people already seated belonged to the same company, incl. spouses, and strangely enough, they would not only block empty seats around them (for colleagues who finally wouldn’t show up during the whole fondue), they also dodged every attempt by their table neighbors to start a conversation… Frankly, if you want to avoid talking to other people, maybe don’t come to the LIFT fondue. Never mind me or your other table neighbors. But it is contrary to the LIFT spirit. You basically hijacked a community event for your company outing.

To me, this anecdote remains exactly this: an anecdote. And please don’t get me wrong: at the fondue, I was more amused than irritated. But now I think it might be illustrative of that lack of LIFT spirit other lifters have expressed.

What if these apparent negligible experiences are the top of an iceberg which are the result of a less community-oriented conference design and ambiance?

Communities don’t just happen

Suddenly, along this line of thinking, I am able to find strikingly many separate examples of a rather careless handling of the LIFT community. Let’s start with the conference design, something Lift used to be – rightfully – proud of.

Well, the conference design of Lift 13 was practically a copy of Lift 12. But poorer. The conference layout hasn’t changed a bit – except for LIFT experience having become very very small and thus, sorry to say so but: almost irrelevant. (I remember spending so much time in the LIFT experience section I accidentally missed talks. No risk of this kind of immersion this year!) The name badges seem to have been standardized, whereas previously discovering your badge was part of the surprise, deciphering its meaning a playful challenge…

There was no omnipresent Lift 13 theme. (Remember Lift 11?) Actually, there was no theme at all. Only a gorgeous conference poster, left unused on its poster paper. True that I might have been spoilt by the PICNIC 12 experience. And true that this might sound like a “good ol’ times” rant. But I do recall the conference being more attentive to its overall design. Surprises and playfulness were part of LIFT and catered to the LIFT spirit.

Yes, I noticed – and loved – the post-it tribute to Aaron Swartz. And I liked the two white giants. They were great. They were a surprise. But this surprise was such an isolated experience that a first-time lifter asked me which sponsor had sent the giants. Because, unaware of the “no pitch” rule, he didn’t realize that LIFT was where the magic happens. Usually. All the time.

A propos “no pitch” rule – it is part of how Lift has managed to build trust. Trust is crucial. Lifters know that their time and attention will not be misused for advertising purposes. Some Lift 13 talks seem to have been gambling with that trust…

Also, I know I am not alone to miss the old website. The community platform was simple but efficient. I even linked to my Lift profile from my website (“I am a LIFTER”). No Facebook page or LinkedIn group can replace the great hub of people and ideas the old website used to be: its richness in terms of content, a readable participants’ list, the personalized participants’ profiles, a legible schedule, transparent workshop subscriptions, videos and line-ups of former editions easy to find (btw: the videos are here)… and above all a description of LIFT that resembled less the one of yet another agency – a description of LIFT that actually made me want to be part of it!

Let’s upgrade LIFT

In my favorite talk of Wednesday afternoon, Micah Daigle suggested to “upgrade democracy”: to innovate when it comes to our political structures, but to keep the old humanist values. Which corresponds probably quite exactly to the challenge LIFT is facing since its change of ownership a little more than a year ago (now belonging to LIFT President A.Oreibi, Agency Emakina.ch/Label.ch and LIFT CEO S.Reinhard): to move ahead without ignoring its DNA.

And as I said before, the unique essence of Lift’s DNA is the informal, friendly LIFT spirit. “A conference that acts as decompression.”

This is why there is not much point in arguing over the quality of the talks when describing Lift. (In my opinion, the speakers were all wonderfully chosen, but some did have some difficulty in getting their message across – a feedback Lift seems to have received in 2010 already and, well, remember how they geared up for Lift 11?) Or as a fellow lifter, coming from abroad, said: “I don’t care about the talks. I’m only here for the people anyway.”

Still, a few words about the talks: they will find their way into future articles. I’m still processing the three conference days. Many many impressions. Much information. And I do not wish to diminish their importance by trying to squeeze them into what has finally become a much longer article with a different focus than I originally intended to write.

I am very happy that there have been many new first time lifters at Lift 13. And I am even happier to read their positive experience when it comes to interactions with other lifters (thank you for blogging, Marcel and Rich).

Therefore I am convinced that an “upgraded” LIFT will keep on valuing the LIFT community, and not take it for granted.

Will I be back?

Yes. And you?

Looking forward to LIFT 13

Three months from now, my favourite conference will take place: LIFT.

What do I like about LIFT conference? I have been given the opportunity to explain this in a recent mini-interview for their website:

Why do you come to Lift?
Lift treats technology and innovation the only sensible way: from a people’s perspective. It goes beyond specific “fields” (tech, marketing, etc.) and easy dichotomies (good/bad, real/virtual), always with a clear focus on our future as individuals and society. It is all about interaction and the intersection of different kinds of knowledge. Same goes for the participants: I love engaging with designers, programmers, artists, entrepreneurs, journalists, students… and sociologists, of course. At Lift, I feel both understood and challenged, which is unique, because Lift is about the big picture as much as it is about the details.

This will be my 5th edition and this time, I promise, I will talk about it here. I blogged about TEDxZurich and the Crisis Mapping Conference in 2011, but I have not found the right approach for LIFT yet.

However, there is one articles directly inspired by a LIFT talk (about algorithms), and two other articles that I know would not exist without everything I got from the conferences (about the porn TLD .xxx and about general web issues).

The parts of their 2013 program which are announced already are very promising… Will I see you there?

Internet, Power and Semantics

Millions of links are shared on Twitter each day.

A fraction of these links end up in my timeline, shared (and sometimes authored) by the accounts I follow. Most of the time, they point me to great articles I might have missed otherwise.

Below you can find links to some of these articles.

I have selected them for their originality and relevance. They have all been brought to my attention via Twitter and provide crucial insights into various issues  related to the internet:

I urge you to read them now. All of them.

Interview: Community Management in Switzerland

A few weeks ago, I have had the honour of being asked by Victoria Marchand about my views on community management in Switzerland. The interview [in French] has been published in the spring issue of CominMag (trade magazine for communication experts) as well as on communitymanagers.ch (official site of the Swiss community managers association). It has since also been picked up by my former faculty and included in their spring newsletter. A big thank you to everyone involved in spreading my humble opinion. I have, in the meantime, translated the interview into English and now decided to publish it on my blog in order to keep the discussion going:

Community Management is …?

Community management means taking care of the online presence of a company, brand or product. This includes managing a community actively (e.g. with publications) as well as passively (e.g. monitoring).

Ideally, community management contributes to coherence between strategy, corporate culture, desired reputation and perception from outside – this is why an overall vision and approach should go beyond a single department or hierarchical level (“silo”). And although I am aware that this opinion is widely discussed, I advocate for a clear distinction between social management and community management since the later means implication on a strategic level. Continue reading

Social media – a general sociological approach (1/3 – structure)

Of course there are many ways sociology can contribute to a better understanding of what is happening online: the field is vast, and so is the number of experts and studies. This blogpost has become a series and is – more or less – an English translation of a presentation I have recently given in French, picking up a few of the theoretical frameworks which illustrate the impact of social media on the way we do business… and on our lives in general. Continue reading