A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the New Adventures conference in Nottingham. I had a brilliant time and came away totally inspired. At this point I’m going to avoid going into a five paragraph love fest about how much I loved staying at the Premier Inn and how comfy their beds are, suffice to say that if they ever want to replace Lenny Henry, I am totally the girl.
Having been to New Adventures in the past I totally expected to feel inspired, which I did, but it was not in the way that I expected. Parts of the day were hilarious and other parts were thought provoking and at times even a little frightening.
This was my second time at New Adventures, I originally attended in 2013, during my time as a mature undergraduate student. The good thing about being a student, is that people don’t expect you to have any money, so there are often special discounts available. These discounts can often get you cheap tickets, so I took advantage of the student rate and went along. I saw Jessica Hische on stage, where she introduced me to the concept of Procrastiworking, the work you do whilst you’re procrastinating, which might just be the work that you should be doing. That idea resinated with me and keeps coming back as a little reminder.
When I started studying web development I expected to be building websites all day every day for a company somewhere. Fast forward to last year and although I’m self employed, I actually spent less time building websites than I did doing the various other things that I do. I didn’t deliberately procrastinate by doing other things, but I just started prioritising the work I do as a volunteer, over the work that pays my bills. Understandably this led to a drop in income, along with intermittent periods of panic and self doubt, none of which was helped by phone calls from people wanting to know “when I’d be bringing my account up to date” It appears that my procrastiworking is the work that I do with the Online Centres Network and the work that I do with SPACE to support local families. Seven years after my first trip to New Adventures and that concept is still there in my head.
When I first saw that New Adventures was on this year, I eagerly visited the website and concluded that I wouldn’t be able to go, because I simply didn’t have enough money in the bank for a ticket. For those of you that follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I was excited to be there, mainly because I didn’t think I’d be able to go. The only reason I was able to attend, was thanks to their amazing scholarship ticket scheme and I would like to whole heartedly thank them. There are lots of ways to increase diversity in tech and one of them is to make it easier for people to attend industry events. That was one of the many things that I personally appreciated about this event. I liked the diverse line up and the opportunity to watch lightning talks during lunch. The swag policy was another positive. Rather than either leaving attendees with no swag at all or generating endless waste by issuing everybody with a ‘gift bag’ full of badges, stickers and t-shirts that they might not want, people were encouraged to take whatever swag they wanted. If you work for a software company and attend a dozen conferences every year, then I can see how you’d get fed up of it all, I however am 100% a person that likes to receive swag at the small number of conferences I get to attend and thanks to New Adventures, I am now the proud owner of an Affinity t-shirt, one metal badge, a couple of stickers and a small notepad.
Throughout the day, attendees heard from speakers on a range of topics all of which were designed to encourage the audience to think a little bit more, question themselves and sow the seeds of a change in behaviour. As it is now a few weeks since the conference, there will already be lots of comprehensive round ups of the event so I’m going to fast forward to sharing the things which are still forefront in my mind and the best way to sum up one of the key themes I took away from New Adventures can be explained through my “owl on the trampoline” story.
Like many people, my garden contains a ten foot trampoline, complete with safety netting. Nobody uses it, yet I’m regularly informed that I’m not allowed to get rid of it (but apparently I’m the hoarder!) Anyhoo, a few nights ago I opened the back door to let the dog out and I could see an owl perched on the netting of the trampoline.
First thought – Oh wow there’s an owl on the trampoline!
Second thought – I’d better get the dog back in, because he’ll start barking and wake up every kid in the village.
Third thought – Where’s my phone? I really want to try and get a badly taken picture of the owl to put on social media.
Fourth thought – Fuck! The owl is probably sat on the trampoline staring at the dead rat at the side of the garage, which eventually led to my fifth thought that whilst rats die all the time, in a variety of ways, this particular one is probably dead because I paid the council to put poison in my cellar to deal with the problem of rodents getting into the house.
The next hour took an almost comical turn of me clambering around my garden, in the dark, retching and gagging whilst I moved the dead rat, using an old mop and some discarded packaging. If my antics had been caught on camera, the part where I slipped and almost fell over alone, would have guaranteed me £250 from You’ve Been Framed. After a great deal of sliding, climbing, shuddering and loud involuntary noises, I managed to put the deceased rat safely in the wheelie bin.
(For those wondering why we had knowingly left a dead rat at the side of the garage, Mr WorthyOnTheWeb and I had decided we’d move it the following day, because he was on his way to work, it was getting dark and frankly neither of us wanted to do it at all, so we made sure the dog couldn’t get near it and put the whole thing off)
So what on earth does my ridiculous owl, trampoline rat story have to do with the New Adventures tech conference?
Do no harm trumps don’t be evilAkil Benjamin
You don’t have to be evil to cause harm. I’m not evil and I do not wish to cause owls any harm. Owls are beautiful majestic creatures, and I would never attempt to kill one, but I could easily have done so whilst resolving my rodent problem, because the unintended consequence of allowing the council to poison “my” rats, is that I potentially introduced a toxic substance into the food chain of local owls.
The things we do have consequences, even when those consequences are unintended.
Humans invent things that later go on to be used for a variety of other uses and digital products are no different. The innovative tech products, which are currently being created, by people who are in no way evil, could go on to cause harm to others. A key theme at New Adventures was to remind people of this. The opening keynote by Cennydd raised not only the plight of the environment but also the fact that designers hold an enormous amount of power and that they ultimately don’t only design the things of the future but in some cases actually design the future. Somebody somewhere is building the software and writing the algorithms. Somebody somewhere is designing the tech that could potentially become the dystopian future we don’t want.
The excitement about AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the potential for fantastic shiny new things is more marketable, than the potential for harm that the algorithms and machine learning could result in. Lots of dangerous current and future technology didn’t start out that way and throughout his keynote Cennydd encouraged those in the room to start taking responsibility for the unintended consequences of the things our industry designs and creates.
When I worked for Royal Mail, AI stood for Address Interpretation, it helped the sorting machines read a greater percentage of addresses on envelopes. It was a “self learning system” and over time the sorting machines learnt to read not only typed addresses, printed in recommended fonts, but also hand writing. The software learnt from human beings. Anything they couldn’t read they gave to a human postal worker to process and the machine learnt from that. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are everywhere and the danger of this is that the decisions based on those algorithms might not be checked. They may and often will, contain bias and the end result of this could have devastating consequences for people and those consequences will be much worse than some mis-sorted letters.
Akil Benjamin shared his personal journey and talked about how he has changed since starting his first business. including the pressures he faced and the effect it had on him personally. Akil discussed the idea of embedded ethics and the fact that his organisation Comuzi uses consequence scanning. I would personally trust every one of the New Adventures speakers to go further than “not evil” but when evil is down to perspective and capitalism is running most, if not all of the world, how many other organisations would be willing to scrap a project if they identified that potentially their new software could do harm.
One feature of New Adventures was that they provided a captioning service. On stage next to the speakers was a large screen and as the speakers spoke, their words appeared on the screen next to them thanks to a very talented gentleman transcribing the whole thing live. During Liz Jackson’s talk she shared her experiences at a US tech conference where the organisers failed to provide an interpreter or captioning, despite being told that they’d be needed and introduced us to an app called Thisten that offers live text to speech on your phone. The talks from New Adventures are still available on the app.
Liz’s talk was entertaining but also really powerful and it encouraged the audience to think about the power dynamic of innovations designed to help those with disabilities. Are they really needed? Do they really help? or are they cool ideas that in real life are more about the inventors than solving the needs of the community who should benefit from the innovation.
A couple of days after attending, I saw a Mashable post about a wheelchair that allowed users to “stand up” and move about in a similar way to a segway, which on the face of it seemed like a good idea, but after hearing Liz’s talk about hi-tech wheelchairs that climbed stairs versus providing ramps so that anybody in any wheel chair could access a building, I found myself questioning the idea and wondering whether this was an idea that offered real benefits to the community it supposedly served. The ideas she shared have stayed with me.
It was recently announced that a company had scraped a number of images from networks such as Facebook and was using them, along with a number of other data sources to create what was described on Twitter as a “human Shazam” where somebody could take a photograph of somebody in public and potentially utilise that service to find out lots of information about them. I find that concept absolutely terrifying. A random stranger could find out information about you, without your knowledge or consent. Perhaps my fears are fuelled by my experiences as somebody, who has been on the scary end of an abusive relationship. The idea of there being a digital product where violent partners are able to upload pictures of their ex-girlfriends and get information back is scarier than any horror film that I can imagine. Creepy blokes in clubs that you won’t give your number to, would be able to casually take your picture and get your details. Making this technology openly available to predatory men will endanger women. In terms of not being evil, I’m struggling to think of an appropriate and positive use for this technology.
This particular software is built on the shoulders of other technology that already exists and which probably wasn’t created with the intention of endangering lives, yet that is exactly how it could be used. It also raises the issue of diversity. Who else should have been in the room when this was invented? Could more women at a senior level have stopped this idea getting further than an ignored suggestion at a brain storming session? Certain platforms already ask whether I’d like them to “help” me by using face recognition on my images. Would I like a company I don’t trust to catalogue pictures of my friends and family on their massive database? No thanks mate, I’m good!
When you join Facebook to stay connected to your friends or look for customers for your small business, most people don’t realise the potential consequences. Even the most informed of us assumed that the rich data profile we allowed them to create, was for selling adverts, who knew everything else it could lead to. None of us knew exactly how much information we were providing both in and out of the app and could never have dreamed that it would be used in the ways that it has been. I don’t really mind Facebook helping somebody sell me a new jacket, but I object greatly to the idea that their influence resulted in my new racist Prime Minister.
Despite all the problems with Facebook I continue to use it. I use that platform to run an online community that supports families with ADHD and whilst I could quit Facebook, there is currently no way that I could have the effect I have now, on any other platform. During the panel session the speakers discussed the immense privilege of being able to “quit Facebook” and why should we as users be forced to abandon a platform, rather than the platform being forced to behave better. Evil is a matter of perspective but in most cases legislation makes those blurred lines a lot clearer.
There is an argument that it doesn’t matter how much information is stored about us unless we’re doing something we shouldn’t. The UK is one of the most surveilled societies in the world and many people believe that this keeps us safe or at least helps the police find the bad guy if something happens to us. What if the bias in the software encourages the police to pursue the wrong people and leads to innocent people being arrested?
Not everybody in the tech industry has the power to make changes, many of us will never create a technology with the potential to change the world, but by raising questions and asking us to at least think about it, New Adventures sowed those seeds.