Welcome to the Spring 2022 edition of the Academy Quarterly Review (AQR). As I write this it is too cold to believe it`s spring, but the photograph I took in Vancouver a couple of years ago at the UBC Botanical Gardens offers a promise of prodigious blooms on a grand old rhododendron bush.
This quarter we continue to highlight life at the Academy, albeit still via zoom for the most part. Workshops are, of course, the mainstay of our activities, and Don Plumb reports on a workshop and presentations. Don gives us a preview of a new workshop for the fall, which is a collaboration between the Academy and MCLL (McGill Community for Lifelong Learning). Our featured person in this issue is Trudy Akler, ably interviewed by Karena de Souza.
In our Arts and Literature section we have a review by Caroline Gray of Antonio Damasio’s Feeling and Knowing: Making Minds Conscious.
The Opinions section brings comments by Barrie Wilson and David Philips on being first time facilitators. As promised in the truncated review of one of our forums about transforming democracy (given by Dave Meslin), we are including Don Plumb`s complete review. Ron Miller and Helen Prislinger give us insights into data and algorithms in our Technology Report.
Lastly, I have included three from Eveleen Armour`s collection of sayings that ring true in our current unstable world. Eveleen would have been appalled by the war raging in the Ukraine.
We are very interested in your opinions and comments. Please use the email email@example.com to let us know what you think. We are always interested in articles for the AQR too.
Workshop Spotlight: New Yorker Readers
A winter session of the New Yorker Readers seminar, facilitated by Silvia Milne and Donald Wallace, featured an eclectic mix of topics from two January issues of the magazine. Participants had been encouraged to present their choice of topics from these issues, and five volunteers from the group introduced subjects that ranged from puzzles to politics to poetry.
For many casual readers of the New Yorker, the cartoons are a favourite and the session started with presentation and discussion of “Covers and Captions”, literally the first and last pages of the magazine. The two covers could not have been much more different. The first cover featured a serious illustration drawn by Ronald Wimberley, based on a famous 1958 photograph of Martin Luther King in police custody. He was trying to attend a court hearing as an observer and was arrested by two policemen, taken away, and charged with loitering. The background on the event and the cover led to discussion of African-American artists and the power of images in social change. The second cover was a whimsical cartoon of a clock-watching dog, drawn by George Booth, who was described as the New Yorker’s funniest cartoonist after six decades of contributions. His cartoons usually feature an older everyman or everywoman, often beset by modern complexity or interacting with cats or dogs. He continues at the age of 95 to produce material for the magazine. Apart from the cartoons within each issue, another favourite feature is the back page where readers are invited to invent their own tag-lines to “captionless” cartoons. The magazine publishes the top three subscriber submissions each week, and several members of the group offered their own possible captions for these cartoons to much general amusement.
The first article discussed was “Fun with Math”, a description of a math dinner theatre at an Italian restaurant in New York. A math problem was posed with each course by Dr. Peter Winkler, a mathematics professor and author of several books of mathematical mindbenders. The concept of solving mathematics puzzles over dinner did not necessarily appeal to the group but the discussion, including reference to MoMATH, the National Museum of Mathematics, provided yet another reason to visit New York City.
An article from the same issue, “The Great Thaw”, dealt with the melting of permafrost in arctic regions, particularly Siberia and Canada, as a consequence of global warming. This melting destabilizes building foundations and causes damage to infrastructure, as well as endangering arctic fauna such as reindeer. Moreover, it releases trapped carbon dioxide and methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas, thus exacerbating the climate change that is causing the melting. Possible remediation methods such as drilling pylons into rock to support houses were discussed. The discussion included some interesting experiences of people who had lived in Yellowknife and Coppermine.
The next topic was “Eat, Prey, Love”, an article about “Bambi, a Life in the Woods”, the 1923 Austrian novel thought to be one of the first environmental novels. The book was highly influential and praised in its time, until it was banned (and burned) by the Nazis as an allegory on the treatment of Jews in Europe. It remained very popular, particularly in North America. The presentation led to a wide-ranging discussion of many topics: book burning (past and present), a movie producing lifelong aversion to hunting, frightening fairy tales (Grimms’ Fairy tales really are grim), the real Red Riding Hood story, and whether the 1942 Disney animated “Bambi” was a movie for children or adults. Several members of the group had vivid recollections of seeing the movie.
The final presentation was a challenging poem, “My Mother in Bardo” by T.R. Hummer. Bardo is a Buddhist concept of an intermediate state between death and rebirth. The presenter analysed the structure, rhythm and content of the poem. A lively discussion of its complexity and meaning followed the reading aloud of the poem. The presenter recommended that people take advantage of the online audio reading by the poet himself, offered by the New Yorker.
One participant commented that the meeting today was bracketed by a mathematical puzzle at the beginning and a poetic puzzle at the end, a reflection on the rich variety of topics that the New Yorker offers to this workshop.
Presentation Focus: Sweden
A January session of the Oh, the places you’ll go! travel workshop featured a presentation by John Weatherburn. Presenters in this seminar chose either places they have visited or places they hope to visit when our travel options normalize. John had chosen Sweden as a topic for future travel because of his fond memories of a trip to Sweden in the ‘70s, a desire to start planning a longer visit, and personal family connections. His research included popular travel books such as the Lonely Planet, Rick Steves and Eyewitness series, as well as ubiquitous Google. His PowerPoint presentation included many images of tourist attractions in Sweden.
John started with some history of Sweden, a country of only 10 million people that nonetheless sent a million emigrants to North America in the early 20th century. With one of the lower population densities in Europe, Sweden has large areas of natural forests and coastline, part of the reason that Sweden is such a strong outdoor activity and sporting nation. While the stereotype of the blond Scandinavian persists, a generous immigration policy has changed its demographics. Similarly, Sweden may be noted for IKEA and ABBA, but also has a global impact in communications (Ericsson), aerospace (Saab), transportation (Scania and Volvo) and entertainment (The Bridge).
John also talked about the major cities, Stockholm and Goteborg. Stockholm has been described as the “Venice of the North,” spread over 14 islands, and has numerous museums and other cultural attractions including the royal palace. The most notable museum is the Vasa Museum, built around the famous imperial warship salvaged in the 1950s, which sank only 1300 metres into its maiden voyage in 1628, due to a combination of wind and an unfortunate top- heavy ship design. Goteborg, Sweden’s “second” city on the west coast, has a particular emphasis on cultural events, whether literary, cinematic or culinary.
John’s last destination in his presentation was Norrland, including Umea and Pitea from which John’s family had emigrated. The north is home to the Sami, Scandinavia’s indigenous people, and has more reindeer than cars. We were advised that we could buy moose cheese if we were willing to spend $850 for a kilogram.
John spoke briefly about Swedish culture. Just as Denmark is noted for hygge, everyday Swedish life is noted for fika, translated as "a coffee and cake break" but really much more than that. Fika is a noun or verb, a state of mind or an attitude, where food and drink are connected to making time for companionship with friends and colleagues. If not enjoying fikawith cinnamon buns, John recommended a dinner of herring or meatballs with lingonberry jam.
The group discussion included questions about ease of travel (English is spoken everywhere), as well as personal experiences in a countryside that was described as looking much like Muskoka and northern Ontario. Personal recollections included reading Pippi Longstocking, kayaking in the Stockholm archipelago, and learning firsthand the superior curative powers of saunas over pharmacy cold medications.
In summary, John felt that the central idea in his presentation was the wide range of attractions that Sweden offers. Travellers should plan in advance whether cities or nature, Northern Lights or Viking museums, or summer or winter activities most appeal. He was surprised that such a relatively small country could have had so much impact on the world. At the end of the presentation, we were encouraged to visit Sweden ourselves in the future and also, in the meantime, to enjoy fika during our break!
Unique New Workshop for Fall 2022
The ALLTO and MCLL (McGill Community for Lifelong Learning) organizations are pleased to announce an innovative joint workshop starting on Tuesdays next fall. The workshop will be facilitated by Lorne Huston (MCLL) and Andris Rubenis (ALLTO). “Tales of Two Cities: Montreal and Toronto” will involve Zoom participants exploring the comparative histories and cultures of the two cities in the pre- and post-WW1 eras. Areas of attention will include the pre-contact Indigenous era, founding of the cities, effects of various wars, bilingualism and multiculturalism, politics, and commercial and cultural evolution. Each workshop session will feature a shared presentation by each city, with each presentation followed by a general discussion. The facilitators have assured participants that they will be able to wear Canadiens and Maple Leafs jerseys if they wish.
Do you remember the last in-person Presenting the Presenter talks in March 2020? If you were there you might have already met Trudy Akler giving her talk on Elsa Schiaparelli. It was a nice capstone on her first year as an academy member.
I offer you just the tip of the iceberg of the full person that is Trudy Akler – teacher, artist, facilitator. You will hopefully get to meet when we are back in person.
How did you discover the Academy?
Karena: Lovely to meet you, Trudy. You are one of the newer members of ALLTO, joining us for the 2019-2020 year. How did you discover the Academy?
Trudy: I started searching for opportunities three years before I planned to retire. I wanted to meet people with similar interests, where I could find the intellectual stimulation I was craving. I discovered the Academy while searching online. It went beyond the traditional lecture-format learning that other options offered. I liked that it had a broad selection of workshops. The peer learning approach appealed to me, but so did the fact that it also
included the walks and talks. I signed up as soon as registration opened, and I remember nervously approaching my very first July Academy walk at the south-east corner of Yonge and Lawrence. But as we both know the group could not have been more welcoming.
I took four workshops that first year. I loved the format. In my second year I co-facilitated a workshop with Donna Reid on gender issues through literature and film. I love research and planning and spent months collecting material across text forms, genre, artists and authors.
I co-facilitated two workshops in 2021-2022 (Gender’s Voice and Artist’s Lives). For the coming year Terry Murray and I are continuing Artist’s Lives. Janet Maher and I are launching a new workshop called Women’s Stories and Histories: 1920s – 1930s Paris.
How have your experiences as a facilitator and volunteer changed your experience at ALLTO?
Trudy: I was able to participate in the curriculum committee in my second year here, which was an interesting experience. I have a keen interest in literature, art, and women’s stories and histories, and wanted workshops dealing with these topics. I aim to create small, tight-knit workshop groups. Having single presentation sessions with much longer, in-depth discussion helps create such an intimacy. As a result, we often connect outside of the designated workshop time.
Karena: Is there one workshop that stands out, and why?
Trudy: Each of my workshops was wonderful. But Janet Maher and Tanya Long created two workshops that have greatly influenced my experience and enjoyment at the Academy. One was on T.S. Eliot. And last year, on Virginia Woolf. The latter has been outstanding. The facilitators are thoughtful, knowledgeable and have created a community of “Woolfians” who are engaged in the learning with elements of respect, passion and fun. I feel I have entered a sisterhood. I have borrowed elements from that experience for my own workshops. And included a few of my own creative touches, like in-role interviews and theme- related activities.
Karena: What can you tell me about yourself and your life when you are not involved in the Academy?
Trudy: I have two sons in their 20s. One is a classically trained actor working in web development. The other is completing his MA in Cinema Studies at UofT.
I love our travels when they were younger – horseback riding down Bryce Canyon, the red rocks of Sedona and sunset at the Grand Canyon. And then enjoying the views of the Swiss Alps and strolling Lac Léman in Montreux.
I grew up in North York, Toronto, with four younger brothers and graduated with a BA in literature that I extended with a UofT Institute of Child Study two-year program, intending to go into teaching. But there were few jobs in that industry when I graduated, so I took a Corporate Communications graduate-level program. As a result, I was able to work as a PR specialist for a marketing firm. One of our main clients was Microsoft, and a clear memory is being one of the group of four personally escorting Bill Gates around a computer show when he visited Toronto.
But teaching kept calling me, and I switched back to a career in education. I spent the next 30 years teaching JK to 8 in North York (TDSB) and Durham School Boards until I retired.
Karena: You have some amazing other interests, Trudy. Will you share them with us?
Trudy: I love reading, researching and preparing presentations. I am also into writing poetry, meditation and Qi Gong. And here is something you probably did not know about me! I briefly ran my own word puzzle business. But a core passion is art. I sometimes make miniature-room box scenes. I
made one for my grandmother on the occasion of her 100 th birthday, replicating in miniature all her favourite things – furnishings, books, décor, clothing, art, food, photos and more. I’ve also participated in the biennial Global Art Project for Peace since 2005. I’ve had exchange partners from US, Bulgaria, Australia, China and Morocco. A favourite was an exchange with a group of Bavarian embroiderers who unexpectedly sent us a very abstract piece. To thank us for the soft sculptures we sent them, they made us beautifully embroidered pillows. I am looking forward to my pairing for this year. We will find out in April.
Karena: Thank you for sharing this time with me Trudy. I look forward to meeting you in person.
Feeling and Knowing: Making Minds Conscious, by Antonio Damasio, is a new book (2020) for people interested in how brains and bodies work together to create what we humans experience as life. The author is a renowned neuroscientist, currently the David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience, as well as Professor of Psychology, Philosophy, and Neurology, at the University of Southern California. He has researched and written extensively about this area for over 20 years.
There are many books on mind, consciousness and self written by cognitive psychologists (Daniel Hofstadter), AI specialists, philosophers (Daniel Dennett), and mathematicians, all with different theoretical takes on the origins of consciousness and the concept of the self. Their topic is mostly the mind as an instrument of cognition and a unique gateway to the world (“Descartes Error,” as Damasio titles another of his earlier books). Damasio’s work is unique among these thinkers in its focus on the brain and mind as fundamentally embodied phenomena that are the product of our human evolutionary heritage and regulated by the same principles that rule all life. Damasio theorizes that our predicament is responsible for our consciousness. He argues for this, as he does for many other aspects of our mental capabilities, by demonstrating its evolutionary advantage and how this is accomplished.
Many neuroscientists have argued that consciousness is created by vast networks of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. While it’s clear that the brain plays a major role in conscious experiences, it doesn’t act alone, Damasio argues. Consciousness is generated by a variety of structures within an organism, some neural, some not. What’s more, feelings — mental experiences of body states — help connect the brain to the rest of the body. “The feelings that we have of, say, hunger or thirst, or pain, or well-being, or desire, etc. — these are the foundation of our mind,” Damasio says. In his view, feelings have played a central role in the life- regulating processes of animals throughout the history of life.
Damasio’s work in the area of mind and consciousness is also somewhat unique in that his writings about these difficult and still poorly understood subjects have a descriptive lyricism about them that is captivating. They sweep the reader along like the tide and read more like fascinating stories than clinical explanations. Apparently this style of explanation has caused some of his readers to miss key ideas in previous books, so in this book Damasio’s aim is to zero in on the key ideas, such as homeostasis, in brief, succinct chapters. These chapters are then contained within larger sections titled provocatively On Being, The Purpose of Life, and In the Beginning Was Not the Word.
I liked this more piecemeal approach, but also found it somewhat repetitive since many of the ideas had been covered in his other books. There is some important new material and research into body/ brain communication that this book explores which was well worth reading however. As an introduction to Damasio and his theory of mind, consciousness and self-concept, I would definitely recommend this book. It is quite accessible and Damasio’s approach to minds as being grounded in bodies reminds us that our embodiment is integral to our intelligence. We do face competition from the purely computational, AI versions of us promising a brighter tomorrow, but Damasio demonstrates how lacking in fundamentals these creations could be.
Reflections of Two First-Time Facilitators
We co-facilitate an Academy workshop called “Extraordinary Lives.” Along with some 20 participants, we explore biographical books and films about people who have made a difference in many different fields of endeavour. Typically one book and one film are discussed at each session.
The workshop came about as a result of COVID. That pandemic presented all of us with serious personal challenges: how to rejig our lives with serious impingements on travel, work, play, socializing and visiting family. That was the spark for thinking about biographies. How did other people successful surmount the challenges they faced?
In the workshop we have examined biographies of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Lawrence of Arabia, Golda Meir, Alma Mahler, Winston Churchill, Leonard Bernstein, Mary Shelley, and many others, focusing on the issues they faced. Participants come to the workshop sessions prepared, either having read the book available from the Toronto Public Library or else watched the film on one of the various streaming services. Discussion has been lively.
As Academy members, we enjoy meeting people, sharing common interests and developing new friendships. The two of us met in our second year in the Academy while we were both doing a workshop with Cathy Spark on the British Empire. After our morning session at Knox, we happened to meet again after lunch, this time in one of U of T’s School of Continuing Ed courses, on Arthurian Romances. We discovered we had similar interests in history, politics and social issues.
This encounter led to our plotting the Extraordinary Lives courses together. We came to the material from different vantage points, David a lawyer who worked primarily in the financial services sector and Barrie a history professor from York University.
Being a facilitator involves a bit of work upfront to organize material in an interesting fashion. But the task is not onerous. As we sourced readily available biographical books and films, we wondered how people would react. Would they read the books or watch films ahead of time? Would everyone participate? Would we manage the Zoom technology successfully?
We enjoyed the experience of putting the workshop together. Our expectations were exceeded and this was one of the rich benefits of being facilitators. People dipped into the material, prepared ahead of time, researched their topic well and contributed to the discussion. It was a fabulous experience overall and enhanced our Academy membership. We encourage others to propose new workshops … but also to take a crack at being a facilitator.
Barrie Wilson, David Phillips
ALL Forum 2 March 2022 “Transforming Democracy: From Conflict To Collaboration”
How are Cheerios, jello and Harry Potter relevant to democracy? A lively presentation by Dave Meslin at an Academy forum in March provided some answers. Dave is a seasoned social activist, self-described as a “political biologist”, who is the Creative Director of Unlock Democracy Canada, a grassroots non-partisan national campaign focused on democratic renewal. He is also the author of Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up, an analysis of and re-imagining of our current democracy. He analysed some of the problems in our democracy, but also offered positive alternatives and possible solutions.
Dave is interested in how the machine of democracy works and why it seems to be so dysfunctional. Part of the problem is that, while other areas of our lives have evolved as technology and world norms have changed, the “operating system of democracy has not been upgraded”. We still operate under rules and procedures that have been used for decades if not centuries in parliamentary democracies. Tradition is embraced at the expense of innovation. This dysfunction is exemplified by the poor turnout that we typically have in elections. Usually, more voters choose not to vote than choose a particular party.
One serious issue is that politics has become a “blood sport”. Parliamentary question periods have devolved into shouting matches -- an adversarial system where opposing parties aggressively abuse each other, rather than look for possible compromise. Exit interviews with MPs leaving politics have shown a common thread of shame and embarrassment at the behaviour of members in the house. Where politicians’ guiding ethical principles should be their own, their constituents’, and their party’s in that order, the power of the party whip means that the imposed positions of the party become predominant. Solutions to this problem exist: in some democratic assemblies, members do not sit in opposing blocks in the house. Rather, seating is arranged by geography or randomly, something like the sorting hat in Harry Potter. People who sit together inevitably start to develop more social relationships that foster cooperation and compromise.
A second major issue in our democracy is the first-past-the-post (FPTP) election system. The party that wins the most votes wins the seat, even if their share of the popular vote is less than 50%. In Dave’s analogy, if two parties that promote Cheerios in their platform get 30% of the votes each, and a third party that promotes jello gets 40%, the winner will be the “jello party” despite the fact that 60% of voters wanted Cheerios. In some municipal elections, the successful candidate can win with less than 18% of the ballots cast; a 35% popular vote in a provincial election can translate to a majority government. Again, solutions to this problem are already used in other democracies. Ranked ballots and proportional voting systems are just two successful examples of alternatives to FPTP. And, consistent with Dave’s view that change happens at the grassroots level, a successful municipal election was held in London, Ontario using ranked ballots in 2016.
Dave had some further suggestions for improving our democratic system, starting with our schools. The present Civics curriculum focuses on structure (which animals are on the coat of arms, the purpose of the Mace, the number of seats in the Senate), but should focus on the possibilities for individual social advocacy. Media literacy -- teaching kids how to be skeptical and recognize fake news rather than expect some external organization to filter data, should be a priority. Finally, in Ontario, the June 2 provincial election is a significant call to action. It gives individuals their greatest opportunity to engage politicians in discussion of issues that matter. Even if a position does not become part of an official party platform, the candidates become aware of it and the chances for reform are increased more than between elections.
Dave is a strong believer that the individual has power in the political process and that significant change occurs at the grassroots level, not at the top levels of government. Overall, his enthusiastic, positive approach offered cause for optimism that our democracy can be reimagined. We look forward to possibly seeing him at some future forum and, meanwhile, many of us will both investigate his book and plan to engage our election candidates in the coming months.
Over the past few years in our workshops at the Academy we have had presentations on the effect on society of the internet, “Artificial Intelligence,” privacy, cell phone addiction, the consequences of social media and similar topics. For those of us attending these workshops and/or interested in technology, there have been many new books, articles, podcasts and even YouTube video explanations to explore. This article is for the rest of us. We hope to describe without too much jargon or buzzwords two important aspects of our experience in today’s digital world: data and algorithms.
The word “data” used to refer to measurement data, financial data, or perhaps statistical survey data from polling. It was mainly numeric. Today data can refer to any piece of information in digital form, which can be acquired from a device or sensor, personal device, or appliance, and that can be transmitted and stored. Let’s consider personal data. This data can be a health record, a video, your cell phone current location, or even your image captured by any of the cameras in our city or from friends’ cell phones, which they post on social media. Our transactions account for the bulk of the personal data vacuumed up. This includes paying for goods and services, using ATMs, browsing history, “clicks” when visiting websites and choice selections when using various streaming services such as Spotify or Netflix. When it comes to how our data is collected, used and stored there is a steady stream of bad news: ransomware, hacking, data breaches, biased algorithms and various scams.
IS DATA THE NEW OIL?
Back in 2017, The Economist called it the world’s most valuable resource and compared it to oil. There are similarities: we can’t live without it; it offers many benefits and is very lucrative (for a very few). It also requires large infrastructure, which has allowed monopolies to form. It is also problematic, with conflict between tech platforms and their users, political agendas and national security. As with oil there is significant harm, both immediate and downstream, intentional and incidental.
However, unlike oil, it is not a single substance that comes from similar sources with known processing methods. It is non-fungible and specific, that is, while a car doesn’t care if the fuel comes from Alberta or Alaska, an insurance company does care if the driving data comes from a 25-year-old male or a 65-year-old female. Along these lines, the data about a car driver isn’t worth much on its own; it’s only useful in comparison to other drivers. Data production is in a way infinite and ever-changing and much of it is produced unintentionally (with corresponding issues of “ownership”).
The idea of “algorithm” is not new and pre-dates computers. An algorithm is a finite sequence of steps used to solve a problem. It you follow a recipe to bake a cake, you are using an algorithm. If you are solving a long division problem, you are using an algorithm. The term “algorithm” comes from the name of the Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi, the author of the 9th century book on arithmetic techniques. In today’s usage, although all computer programs are algorithms, we tend to use the label for the more recent AI programs and “recommendation engines;” If it is predicting some aspect of human behaviour, it is an algorithm.
There are two key changes that have enabled this: Data collection and Increased computing power.
First, there has been an explosion of data collection. We’ve collected information and recorded it since the time of clay tablets, but this is different in scale (“big data”) and granularity: it captures data from entire populations down to individual behaviours.
For starters we are increasingly moving our daily activities online; everything from the obvious shopping and social connections, to monitoring our weight, health, finances, children and homes - it’s all recorded.
In addition, sensors of all kinds are now ubiquitous - a car these days has up to 30 sensors. They have become cheaper and more innovative; for example, there are now photoelectric, self-powered, nano and bio/implantable sensors. They are both incredibly useful and incredibly invasive.
Both of these factors create data, both intentional and as by-products often called “data exhaust” such as browsing history, cell phone movement, clicks and likes, texts and emails. It even includes what we pay attention to and what we ignore, where and when, for how long and how often.
In theory, the more data we have, the better our models and algorithms. However, not all data is proving to be useful, some is just noise. But because data is so available, cheap or even free to collect and inexpensive to store, there is a lot of indiscriminate collection. Who knows what might prove useful next month – better to grab it now rather than miss it later. For example, why is that the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner is sending back a mapped floorplan of your home to the factory?
The second change is the huge increase in computing power and storage facilities that lets us crunch this massive amount of data and produce useful information. The computing power plus data has enabled “machine learning” programs that train themselves on millions of records of data through an iterative process, faster than any human could find relationships and write enough code.
HOW IS IT USED?
We’ve all become familiar with social media and customer facing algorithms (Netflix, dating sites, Spotify) but these are vastly outnumbered by third party companies selling services to other businesses. They offer algorithms for everything from employee monitoring, hiring and training, to student grading and interactive education; from composing music to predicting seismic activity. One of the more controversial usages is predictive policing, but there are other less obvious ones such as setting loan rates that will affect the quality of lives, often unequally.
WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS WITH DATA AND ALGORITHMS?
For data it is privacy and ownership. For algorithms it is accuracy, transparency and appropriate use in decision making. It’s tempting to become pessimistic or to ignore the impacts, but these problems will not go away because the collection and use of data 1) is very lucrative and 2) has huge potential for good in addition to harm.
Data does not fall neatly into the category of either a product or intellectual property, so our current laws are not adequate.
Legally, no one can actually own data (US); it falls in the public domain, which means that you can’t use patents or copyrights, so IP laws won’t work. Unless you have physical possession of a set of data, you cannot control it or maintain exclusive rights to it. The closest existing laws would be something like the Trade Secrecy Laws, which allow you to license for specific purpose; any misappropriation would be penalized and there would be a fiduciary responsibility when handling confidential information. This is still not a perfect fit.
There are significant obstacles to overcome in order to ensure equitable and fair use of data. Speed is a problem: the impact of algorithms is happening now but enacting new laws or even applying existing ones (like the attempts to revive the anti-trust laws in the US) take a long time and depend on political will. Often political agendas and lack of expertise in the government will stall innovations. There is also massive corporate resistance because they are being asked to change their profit model; less obvious is that there is often civic resistance, either to more government or to losing “free” services.
Suggestions for Managing Data Usage
Before we can look at solutions it is important to set parameters around things such as interoperability, portability, privacy and criteria for transparency, fairness, accuracy, accountability and shared benefits.
Data Marketplace – user sells own data directly; it can enable competition and efficiencies, but the power may still lie with big tech companies.
Middleware - software that allows the user to control what information others can see and set filters on browsers.
Data Co-operative - New layer between user and (separate from) big tech platform, which would mediate the flow of data in terms privacy, usage and storage. The user gets paid in $ or in useful information that can be used to improve local schools, healthcare and communities. It would require government oversight but would have positive impacts e.g. high-quality data sets, informed consent and advocacy.
Federated Learning - Learn from data without ever seeing the data through techniques that allow an algorithm to analyze data held separately and never actually visible to the researcher.
The impact of algorithms is often only visible long term and on a collective level. Yet, given that so many aspects of our lives are touched by algorithms, we need them to be accurate and reliable, and when they’re not, we need accountability and legal recourse.
Initially the efforts were focused on the front end, trying to understand how the algorithms worked. This was unsatisfactory – the algorithms were too big and complex; sometimes not even the developers could fully explain how the code worked. They were also usually proprietary and there was no legal obligation to make the coding public.
So instead, evaluation is shifting towards the back end, to the results and impacts of the algorithm.
Suggestions for Managing Algorithm Usage
More Investigative Reporting – e.g., Propublica, Citizen Lab, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
Impact Assessment Tools – onus on developer to conduct risk assessment and prove results are fair, lawful, transparent and accurate, with data and storage minimization and accountability.
Audit Oversight Board – 3rd party auditors who are trained and empowered to enforce the rules. They would maintain a public National Incident Reporting database and set standards. Access would be a challenge because companies can block it by denying access or taking legal steps. Identifying negative outcomes is also a problem due to the scale and timing: the algorithms can be very large and change frequently as they adapt to new data; in some ways the harm is a moving target.
Ron Miller and Helen Prislinger
The last word....
From Eveleen Armour`s collection of sayings
“Democracy dies in darkness” - motto of Washington Post
The rush of battle is often a potent, lethal addiction…
for war is a drug.
We need to be careful with words.
No statement is absolutely true.
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