4 questions to ask when evaluating AI prototypes for bias

It’s true there has been progress around data protection in the U.S. thanks to the passing of several laws, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and nonbinding documents, such as the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights. Yet, there currently aren’t any standard regulations that dictate how technology companies should mitigate AI bias and discrimination.

As a result, many companies are falling behind in building ethical, privacy-first tools. Nearly 80% of data scientists in the U.S. are male and 66% are white, which shows an inherent lack of diversity and demographic representation in the development of automated decision-making tools, often leading to skewed data results.

Significant improvements in design review processes are needed to ensure technology companies take all people into account when creating and modifying their products. Otherwise, organizations can risk losing customers to competition, tarnishing their reputation and risking serious lawsuits. According to IBM, about 85% of IT professionals believe consumers select companies that are transparent about how their AI algorithms are created, managed and used. We can expect this number to increase as more users continue taking a stand against harmful and biased technology.

So, what do companies need to keep in mind when analyzing their prototypes? Here are four questions development teams should ask themselves:

Have we ruled out all types of bias in our prototype?

Technology has the ability to revolutionize society as we know it, but it will ultimately fail if it doesn’t benefit everyone in the same way.

To build effective, bias-free technology, AI teams should develop a list of questions to ask during the review process that can help them identify potential issues in their models.

There are many methodologies AI teams can use to assess their models, but before they do that, it’s critical to evaluate the end goal and whether there are any groups who may be disproportionately affected by the outcomes of the use of AI.

For example, AI teams should take into consideration that the use of facial recognition technologies may inadvertently discriminate against people of color — something that occurs far too often in AI algorithms. Research conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2018 showed that Amazon’s face recognition inaccurately matched 28 members of the U.S. Congress with mugshots. A staggering 40% of incorrect matches were people of color, despite them making up only 20% of Congress.

By asking challenging questions, AI teams can find new ways to improve their models and strive to prevent these scenarios from occurring. For instance, a close examination can help them determine whether they need to look at more data or if they will need a third party, such as a privacy expert, to review their product.

Plot4AI is a great resource for those looking to start.

4 questions to ask when evaluating AI prototypes for bias by Ram Iyer originally published on TechCrunch

Silicon Valley’s competing philosophies on tech ethics with The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz

“If Silicon Valley is going to keep telling itself the story that the only uses of their technology will be the most optimistic, the most hopeful, the most salubrious, the most prosocial,” New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz told me in Part 1 of this recent conversation for Extra Crunch, “you can try to rebut that logically, or you can just disprove it by showing a very glaring counterexample. If somebody is going around and saying, ‘all swans are white,’ you can argue against that logically, or you can just show them a black swan.”

Author Photo Andrew Marantz credit Luke Marantz fix

Image via Penguin Random House

Marantz, a brilliant and eclectic writer, has in recent years trained his attention on the tech world and its contribution to social unrest in the United States and beyond. He has just published a new book, “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation“, which, along with recent New Yorker essays expanding on the book’s themes, is sure to provoke debate.

In part 2 of our conversation below, we discuss the Alt-Right and White Nationalists in tech and politics; Silicon Valley spirituality today; competing philosophies of tech ethics; and more.

Greg Epstein: If you look at the alt-right later that year and in 2017, I myself spent a lot of time poring over these figures like Richard Spencer and Gavin McInnes, and their videos, and their writings, and whatever thinking, ‘These guys are really taking over our society right now.

How ‘the Internet broke America’ with The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz

When Elizabeth Warren took on Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook earlier this week, it was a low moment for what New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz calls “techno-utopianism.”

That the progressive, populist Massachusetts Senator and leading Democratic Presidential candidate wants to #BreakUpBigTech is not surprising. But Warren’s choice to spotlight regulating and trust-busting Facebook was nonetheless noteworthy, because of what it represents on a philosophical level. Warren, along with like-minded political leaders, social activists, and tech critics, has begun to offer the first massively popular alternative to the massively popular wave of aggressive optimism and “genius” ambition that characterized tech culture for the past decade or two.

“No,” Warren and others seem to say, “your vision is not necessarily making the world a better place.” This is a major buzzkill for tech leaders who have made (positive) world-changing their number one calling card — more than profits, popularity, skyscrapers like San Francisco’s striking Salesforce Tower, or any other measure.

Enter Marantz, a longtime New Yorker staff writer and Brooklyn, N.Y. resident who has recently trained his attention on tech culture, following around iconic figures on both sides of what he sees as the divide of our time — not between tech greats whose successes make us all better and those who would stop them, but between the alternative figures on the “new right” and the self-understood liberals of Silicon Valley who, according to Marantz, have both contributed to “hijacking the American conversation.”

Author Photo Andrew Marantz credit Luke Marantz fix

Image via Penguin Random House

Marantz’s first book, “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation,” will be released next week, and I recently had a chance to talk with him for this series the ethics of technology.

Greg Epstein: Congratulations on your absolutely fascinating new book Antisocial, and on everything you’ve been up to.

TC’s Greg Epstein and Kate Clark talk mental health startups and the ‘Cult of the Founder’

Some weeks, tech ethics is in the news. And some weeks, it IS the news. This week was one of the latter,

There were so many ethically fraught news stories about technology companies over these past few days, I had trouble keeping track of them all. So I’m delighted that my latest interviewee for this series on ethics and technology is TechCrunch’s own Kate Clark, a reporter covering startups and venture capital.

Kate is one of the tech reporters on whom I rely most heavily for insight into what the hell is going on in Silicon Valley, and not just because she’s prolific, a fine writer, and so hardworking she seems to attend every VC dinner and startup product launch in Northern California (though she is all of those things).

I also turn to her (well actually, I turn to her Twitter — we’ve never met in person) because, though she would never claim to have any special training or authority in ethics, she has three of the top qualities I look for in an ethical leader: a passion for equitable inclusion; a well-modulated bullshit detector; and enough compassion for humanity to expect better of us all.

When Kate and I spoke on Wednesday afternoon, she was as harried as you might expect, at least based on her tweets.

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Image via Twitter / Kate Clark / @KateClarkTweets

Greg Epstein: I’ve been looking forward to talking to you for a while now, and I certainly picked a busy day.

Kate Clark: Not as bad as yesterday.

Epstein: I follow your work closely; it informs mine. I’m sitting here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I work, and I’m thinking about the ethics of technology.

“Am I as brave as I think I am?” MIT Media Lab student Arwa Mboya on the aftermath of a scandal

It’s been another hard week at MIT. Our campus has been divided by revelations of inappropriate fundraising, coverups, and the harboring of far too many tech geniuses who seemingly put their own interests and careers over the safety of women, among other marginalized groups.

As a chaplain to students and faculty at the Institute, but also as an opinion writer on the ethics of technology who is supposed to be on sabbatical from the chaplaincy to focus on the writing, I’ve been torn all week as to what to say. If you don’t know what a chaplain is, and you would hardly be alone in any ignorance there, it is a position that emphasizes confidentiality and trust. I know there are a lot of people on MIT’s campus who are scared, sad, and hurting for various reasons, and I wouldn’t want any of them to feel less able to speak with someone like me because I’ve chosen to speak out publicly.

At other times, in the midst of other campus controversies, I’ve personally opted to remain relatively silent, leaning into the part of my job that is, officially, one of quiet service to a university as a whole. I’ve been critical of a lot of big institutions over the years, including much of religion, but also a lot of organized atheism.

But as a chaplain at big educational institutions, I’ve rarely felt comfortable being too critical of those institutions, the universities, which at least in my judgement have more power and influence (not to mention more money, though they don’t really pay it to me) than even the oldest and grandest of churches and temples.

Maybe I was wrong in some of those cases; at other times, maybe I was able to do some good by keeping quiet. I reflect on this out loud not because anyone reading it should particularly care about my situation or my inner conflict. You most likely shouldn’t.

I share my own ambivalence, however, because I know countless executives, administrators, and other kinds of leaders have been through similar thought processes. It’s not my place to speak. If I do speak, maybe they’ll fire me, and then I can’t do anyone any good. Even if they don’t fire me, I’m supposed to be ‘objective;’ if I enter the fray, I’ll lose the trust and confidence of half the community.

But then I think about the students and faculty who need support the most. What they need are educators, peers, and administrators who are willing to join them in taking some risk to do what is right.

I was proud, last week, to share the first half of an exclusive interview with an MIT student named Arwa Mboya who brilliantly and bravely spoke out, helping bring about the resignation of one of the world’s most influential tech ethicists, former MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito. As I said on Twitter, for my money Mboya has been the biggest of the many heroes in this Media Lab scandal.

For her efforts, Mboya was awarded a “Bold Prize,” and celebrating students for their bravery seems unequivocally good. Leaving them alone with their courage, however, by remaining silent in the name of “objectivity,” would be a moral failing.

I’m not sure it’s my place to use this space to call on MIT President Rafael Reif to resign for his own role in allowing Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to the Institute — a role Reif acknowledged this week at an MIT faculty meeting in which he said, “I understand that I have let you down and damaged your trust in me, and that our actions have injured both the Institute’s reputation and the fabric of our community.”

Maybe there are ways forward where MIT is able to heal with Reif still at the helm, though personally I have a hard time envisioning them. But at the very least, we must support students.

And by that I mean, people like me need to publicly and visibly support tech students who feel an ethical obligation to call for the resignation of their own university’s leader over his publicly acknowledged role in not only tolerating but greenwashing human trafficking and serial pedophilia. Just like the drafters and 60+ signers of this powerful letter from women on MIT’s faculty have done.

Will Reif resign? Will more information come out that makes his resignation seem even more inevitable? Or will the “independent review” he has put in place exonerate him in some way? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, as MIT sought to distance itself from Jeffrey Epstein and the broader social questions his case raises, this hard week did bring at least one piece of good news: the resignation of Richard Stallman. A MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and major figure in the history of computing, Stallman has long been a stain on the reputation of institutions with which he has affiliated, for troublingly sexist comments and stances.

The Overton Window on someone like Stallman has now shifted, however, once again thanks to outspoken students, most often young women of color. Like Selam Gano, a recent MIT graduate in robotics engineering, who “arguably set Stallman’s departure in motion,” by speaking out last week on Medium. Gano’s post, entitled “Remove Richard Stallman and Everyone Else Horrible in Tech,” followed an email Stallman had sent to a Listserv affiliated with MIT’s renowned CSAIL research laboratory.

“There is no single person that is so deserving of praise their comments deprecating others should be allowed to slide,” Gano wrote. “Particularly when those comments are excuses about rape, assault, and child sex trafficking.




Gano’s drawn-out emphasis on the nature of the crime in question is entirely appropriate. After all, “human trafficking is the single largest illegal industry in the world,” as the framers of this additional recent petition for resignations of prominent MIT officials made clear. Human trafficking, they wrote, far eclipses even the international drug trade, and continues to inflict incomprehensible suffering on women, children, and families around the world.

In calling for leaders to leave, Gano, like Mboya before her, is not harming MIT or damaging its reputation. To the contrary. Both women have expressed, publicly and privately, a great and ongoing love for the school and what it represents.

In fact, it’s not coincidental that both of these whistleblowers have even described MIT as the best place in the world for them educationally, the site of some of their happiest memories and proudest moments. It’s that kind of true pride that leads morally upstanding people to say, “enough.” Because they want and need to continue to be proud. And because they understand that true pride is the opposite of a coverup. It is the opposite of clinging to power.

As Selam Gano wrote in her Medium post, “I know, now, that if prominent technology institutions won’t start firing their problematic men left right and center, we will do nothing. Ever.” Gano, Mboya, and other students and educators I admire are unwilling to allow an extraordinary institution like MIT to do nothing, or to do so little of consequence that it would essentially be nothing.

These people are, to the extent that a large research university is like a nation-state, true patriots. It might be scary to join them and walk alongside them publicly. Taking a stand might threaten our privilege and expose us to risk. That’s what being brave is all about.

Your move, President Reif and MIT.

“Okay, this girl was asked to change her religion at gunpoint and she didn’t do it,” MIT Media Lab student Arwa Mboya told me at the end of Part One of my interview with her, about a young woman she’d read about in a book called Beneath The Tamarind Tree. The book, by former CNN anchor Isha Sesay, is a skillful account of the 276 girls abducted from Chibok in Nigeria, which launched the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign.

Mboya’s outspokenness in the face of the Jeffrey (no fucking relation, thank you!) Epstein scandal, inspired in part by her reading of Sesay, was among the bravest demonstrations I’ve seen by a student in 15 years as a university chaplain.

Previously, Mboya and I discussed her decision process for taking a leap which earned her a “Bold Prize” of, to this date, over $13,000 of crowd-funded money. But even more importantly, we discussed the life experiences which inspired Mboya’s courage in the first place — namely her love and radical hopefulness for the youth of her native Africa, and her passion to inspire those young people with the best tech has to offer.

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(Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In this second and final portion of my conversation with Mboya, we pick up where Part One left off, discussing human trafficking in Africa and in the United States, and how the two phenomena are more closely related than many might imagine. We then get into reading (or not) the comments on her now-famous op-ed calling on Joi Ito to resign; her reaction to receiving the crowd-funded “Bold Prize;” her feelings toward Joi Ito today; and how radical imagination can breakthrough systematic oppression, in Africa and beyond.

“She believed that much,” Arwa said to me about the young woman from Chibok, “that even at gunpoint, even with a risk of rape, with a risk of death, with the risk of all the other nasty things, she stood up for what she believed in.”

It’s not hard to see how that kind of perspective and wisdom might have enabled Mboya to do something exceptional.

Arwa Mboya: The activist who started the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign hounded the government down – and the Nigerian government is scary. I was like, “Okay, these people can do that. I have power to just speak out. Am I really what I think I am? Am I as strong, as brave as I [think I] am?”

Teaching ethics in computer science the right way with Georgia Tech’s Charles Isbell

The new fall semester is upon us, and at elite private colleges and universities, it’s hard to find a trendier major than Computer Science. It’s also becoming more common for such institutions to prioritize integrating ethics into their CS studies, so students don’t just learn about how to build software, but whether or not they should build it in the first place. Of course, this begs questions about how much the ethics lessons such prestigious schools are teaching are actually making a positive impression on students.

But at a time when demand for qualified computer scientists is skyrocketing around the world and far exceeds supply, another kind of question might be even more important: Can computer science be transformed from a field largely led by elites into a profession that empowers vastly more working people, and one that trains them in a way that promotes ethics and an awareness of their impact on the world around them?

Enter Charles Isbell of Georgia Tech, a humble and unassuming star of inclusive and ethical computer science. Isbell, a longtime CS professor at Georgia Tech, enters this fall as the new Dean and John P. Imlay Chair of Georgia Tech’s rapidly expanding College of Computing.

Isbell’s role is especially given Georgia Tech’s approximately 9,000 online graduate students in Computer Science. This astronomical number of students in the CS field is the result of a philosophical decision made at the university to create an online CS master’s degree treated as completely equal to on-campus training.

Another counterintuitive philosophical decision made at Georgia Tech — for which Isbell proudly evangelized while speaking at conferences like the MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Next, where I met him in June — is to admit every student who has the potential to earn a degree, rather than making any attempt at “exclusivity” by rejecting worthy candidates. In the coming years all of this may lead, Isbell projected at EmTech Next, to a situation in which up to one in eight of all people in the US who hold a graduate degree in CS will have earned it at Georgia Tech.

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Isbell speaks to Gideon Lichfield, Editor-in-chief of the MIT Technology Review, at its EmTech Next conference in June. Image via MIT Technology Review.

“What they’ve done is pretty remarkable,” said Casey Feisler, a 3x recent graduate of Georgia Tech and a founding faculty member and CS professor at the University of Colorado’s College of Media, Communication, and Information.

And it’s promising that Feisler, who has become known in the tech ethics field for her comparative study of curricula and teaching approaches, told me, “ethics can be integrated into online [CS] courses just as easily as it can be into face to face courses,”

Still, it is as daunting as it is impressive to think about how one public school like Georgia Tech might be able to successfully and ethically educate such an enormous percentage of the students in arguably the most influential academic field in the world today. So I was glad to be able to speak to Isbell, an expert on statistical machine learning and artificial intelligence, for this TechCrunch series on the ethics of technology.

Our conversation below covers the difference between equality and equity; cultural issues around women in American CS, and what it would look like for ethics to be so integrated into the discussion of computing that students and practitioners wouldn’t even think of it as ethics.

Greg Epstein: Around 1/8 of Computer Science graduate degrees will be delivered by your school in the coming years; you’re thinking inclusively about providing a relatively huge number of opportunities for people who would not otherwise get the opportunity to become computer scientists. How have you achieved that?

Charles Isbell: There’s an old joke about organizations: don’t tell me what your values are, show me your budget and then I’ll tell you what your values are. Because you spend money on the things that you care about.

Hundreds of Uber and Lyft drivers to launch a protest caravan across California

If you’re like me, chances are good you just distractedly clicked on this article while scrolling through your feed in, or while waiting for, a Lyft. Maybe, like me, you need that app to get to back-to-back meetings in different locations today, as you’re well on your way to at least a 60-hour workweek between the various things you do. Maybe you’re exhausted. Maybe the ride you just took, zoning out on your phone in an Uber on Quiet Mode, was actually a lifesaver.

And as you settle into each new driver’s backseat, en route to each new destination in your crazy busy life, maybe, like me, you find yourself somewhat unwittingly implicated in one of the most contentious ethical struggles of this generation – a struggle with profound implications for the future of work.

Yesterday, California-based advocacy organizations Gig Workers Rising and Mobile Workers Alliance announced that a caravan of Uber and Lyft drivers will drive from SoCal through San Francisco to Sacramento, next Monday, August 26 through Wednesday, August 28th. Over 200 drivers in more than 75 cars plan to drive south to north, with more drivers joining along the way, to take dramatic action in advocating for California State Legislature bill AB5, and for a drivers union. 

With AB5 almost certain to pass the CA Senate, this coming week presents a crucial moment in the history of gig work and tech more broadly: an opportunity for drivers to demonstrate the efficacy of 21st century labor modes of organizing, even as Uber and Lyft continue ramping up efforts to kill AB5, drop pay rates, and generally mistreat drivers.

For the first time, drivers will use their sole work tool, their cars, to demonstrate publicly (and likely disruptively, though I have no knowledge of the precise actions planned at this time) at key locations like outside Uber’s HQ in downtown San Francisco and the Capitol steps in Sacramento.

I recently had the chance to speak with Annette Rivero, one of the drivers and an organizer of the protest efforts. At the time we spoke, I didn’t know anything about Annette, not even whether she would allow me to use her last name. But this 37-year-old mother of five, a straight-A student and full-time-plus Lyft/Uber driver, told me the story of her life and career, without hesitation, even as it raised what I worried could be the possibility of retaliation against her and her colleagues.

As Annette opened up to me about drivers work conditions and their mental and physical health struggles, I found myself thinking that her family’s story puts human faces on and likely represents the trendline of an industry that, in only a decade, has moved a hundred billion dollars and given new meaning to the word “disrupt.”

I hope everyone with a stake in these issues – whether you work in tech or VC or just occasionally use your smartphone to summon a ride – will read her words and think about where all of us are headed, together.

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Annette Rivero. Image via Annette Rivero

Greg Epstein: Annette, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me for this TechCrunch series exploring technology and ethics, and what it might mean to use technology ethically and humanistically today. Can you share your full name or is that not something that you’re comfortable sharing? Either way is fine.

Annette Rivero: My name’s Annette Rivero.

Epstein: How old are you?

Rivero: I am 37.

Epstein: And what do you do for your work that you’re connected with what we’re speaking about?

Rivero: I drive for both Uber and Lyft .

Epstein: How long have you been doing that?

Rivero: About two years.

Epstein: Full-time, or how does your schedule work?

Rivero: Right now I’m driving full-time, so I drive about eight to nine hours and I try to drive every day.

Epstein: Seven days a week?

Rivero: Yes.

Epstein: You’ve been trying to do that for a long time?

Rivero: All summer I’ve been really trying. I mean, of course things happen and there’s always one or two days maybe where I don’t get to, but it’s definitely my goal because I only make $150 a day. So, if I miss a day, I try to work longer on the other days.

Epstein: That’s about 60 hours a week or so.

Rivero: Yeah.

Epstein: Wow. You’re a very hard worker, Annette.

Rivero: Oh, thanks.

Epstein: And you live somewhere in California?

Rivero: I live in San Jose, so South Bay area.

Epstein: So, you’re driving 60 hours a week or so, working for a tech company not far from the global epicenter of tech.

Rivero: That’s right.

Epstein: You must get a fair number of tech people in your car with you.

Rivero: Yes, I do.

Epstein: I’ll ask you more about yourself in a moment, but please tell me what you’re involved in and how we got connected for this interview.

Rivero: Around April, or May, I got involved with a group called Gig Workers Rising. I was very frustrated with some of the things going on between me and Uber. I was looking for somebody I could confide in, exchange stories, because I felt very alone, so I signed up with their Facebook group. They invited all their new members to a conference call, which I joined, and then from there they invited us to do a health survey to talk about the problems that we have with our health as far as rideshare goes. From there I’ve been at pretty much every action and meeting.

What we’re trying to do is let everyone know what’s going on. What the drivers are going through, the decreases in pay in contradiction to the increases in rates, and really let people know that they’re kind of manipulating the system to gain profits, but they’re taking those profits from people by paying extremely low rates.

Epstein: You mentioned a health survey: how are you doing health-wise?

Rivero: [When] that was all happening, I was extremely stressed; my anxiety was through the roof and I was probably pretty depressed because my situation was looking very bleak. They had already cut the surge at the end of last year, which probably cut rates about 40% at least. Then in the beginning of this year they cut the bonuses. A combination of those things cut the money I was making per week by two thirds. I was making about $1,500 working probably less than 40 hours. And now I work about 60 hours and I’m making barely a thousand dollars. I do feel better [now], but I think I feel better because I have a community of drivers that I work with and I talk to on a daily basis. And I am working on this project to bring light to the situation. I feel more empowered than I did before.

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Image via Working Partnerships USA / Jeff Barrera

Epstein: Feeling empowered and being connected with people who are working together for the same cause is, generally speaking, a positive factor in health. I’m glad to hear that.

Rivero: Yeah.

Epstein: Can you tell me about the demonstration you’re about to participate in?

Rivero: Right now we’re preparing for an action to unite all the drivers in California from the north end to the south end and in the middle, which is something we haven’t been able to demonstrate yet. But [we are] going to show it’s not just one area.

We may have differences but we have one thing that’s the same and that is dissatisfaction with the way things are going with rideshare right now. Everything that’s going on is not okay and all drivers across the state have just had it. They’re just done with what’s going on. So, without giving too many details, we will be in pretty big cities throughout the state and we will be making sure that we’re seen.

Epstein: At this point it’s been announced you’ll be stopping in L.A., San Francisco and Sacramento.

Rivero: As far as what we will do in those cities, we want to keep that under wraps. But yes, we are caravaning from LA to Sacramento, and at each stop we will take an action, not just with the [driver] community but other important people in those cities.

Epstein: Sounds like whatever actions you and your colleagues are going to take are going to be the sorts of things that have never quite happened before. People interested in this issue are probably going to want to see what you all are going to do next week, huh?

Rivero: Yeah, definitely. And our message is definitely focused on not just legislators but the Senate and then Governor Newsom, because they’re our next targets — to get their attention, let them know what’s going on and how we feel. We know they’ve already heard some, but we’re trying to really drill it in.

Epstein: Gig Workers Rising is working specifically on this bill, California AB5, with regard to the status of employees and independent contractors and what rights and obligations companies like Uber and Lyft have towards contractors like yourself. What do you want to say about the bill in particular?

Rivero: All [AB5] is doing is defining even more what it means to be an employee and what it means to be an independent contractor. It doesn’t do anything else in my opinion. If there was something on the table about creating the appropriate protections, that applied more to gig workers for lack of a better word, I’m sure everybody would be looking at that.

But there isn’t, so this is what we have. And instead of having people working without protections and for extremely low labor costs, we have to do something. Because there’s a lot of people out there who are barely making it, barely surviving, can’t even put food on the table, can’t even afford healthcare.

And these companies should be held accountable for it. They should be held responsible for it.

It’s their responsibility as a business owner to give back to the community, not just take from the community. Redefining these two things is just going to help make that happen.

Epstein: I don’t mind saying I completely agree with you. If these companies want to exist, they don’t just have a right to exist purely to make their executives rich. We, the people, can take that right away from them by forcing them to shut down, unless they can show that their business model is actually decent for the human beings involved in it.

Rivero: Right. I wish more people felt the way you just worded that. People just don’t understand the power they have.

Epstein: Would you feel comfortable sharing a bit more about yourself, like who you are beyond working for Lyft and Uber, and how you got involved in driving for them originally?

Rivero: I basically worked in healthcare for about 14 years. I’m one of those people where I work hard and it doesn’t matter how much money I make, as long as the work makes me feel good. I work really hard. Throughout the years, I’ve learned many things about healthcare billing.

So, I got to a place where I was doing various things in one position, but didn’t feel like I was getting paid what I should have been paid, even though that’s contradictory to what I just said. I felt like I could be a manager and make more money so I can take care of my kids, send them to school.

And my parents are getting older. So I was thinking, I can also help both of my parents start to retire, because they’re not getting younger and they’re getting sicker.

So, I made a very scary decision to leave my job at Stanford where I was making about $80,000 a year. I decided to go back to school. Some people call me crazy, but I just feel like I’m worth more than that, and I think I could’ve made more than that. So I went back to school full-time to get my degree in business management.

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Annette Rivero. Image via Annette Rivero

Epstein: When was this?

Rivero: This was about two and a half years ago.

Epstein: So, you were making $80,000 a year or so working in the healthcare system at Stanford University Hospital, essentially? Before that had you gone to college or no?

Rivero: No.

Epstein: And you grew up in the San Jose area, or somewhere else?

Rivero: Half of my life, I grew up in San Jose and then the other half I grew up in a small town called Hollister, an hour South of here. I always wanted to go back to school and it was just such a big thing for me and then I just felt like it was now or never.

Because the situation I was in, we lived in an apartment that was affordable and I had money saved up. It wasn’t impossible. But once I started driving about six months in, or maybe within those first six months, I started to notice a subtle decrease in pay, and it was so subtle, you could hardly tell.

Epstein: You started driving while you were going to school full-time, to put yourself through school?

Rivero: Mm-hmm.

Epstein: Wow.

Rivero: I only had to work about six hours a day.

Epstein: Only! You were working six hours a day and then you would go to class or study?

Rivero: Yeah. And I was only working like four, maybe five days, making more money then than I’m making now. And the classes I did take, I did get straight A’s, so thank you. It was possible. It’s not like something I made up or fabricated. And a lot of people were doing it.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who drove and were going to school or went on elaborate vacations, making extra money off of Uber and Lyft. But you can’t do that now. It’s not possible.

Epstein: You were driving five, six hours a day, studying and getting straight A’s, and did you have a family?

Rivero: One of our kids is already grown, but we have four that we’re raising.

Epstein: What does your partner do during the day?

Rivero: He is a warehouse manager for a plumbing company; he works anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day.

Epstein: You are obviously both extremely hard workers, trying to better your lives. This is very impressive.

Rivero: Thank you.

Epstein: Tell me how it started to get worse.

Rivero: To break it down a little bit, when you first start on, they give you really great bonuses. Then, little by little, they make changes to your bonus amount.

They’ll either lower the amount that you receive or they’ll increase the rides. So gradually you don’t notice, but the amount extra you’re getting per ride is lowering.

After that, [rates] started to decrease, and surge rates changed. What they used to do is a multiplier So, if there is a ride I usually do that I can make $8 off of and there was a surge during that time, then it would say ‘times two.’ That means I would make $16 off of that ride.

Today, they put a dollar amount instead; let’s say they just put $2. That means that I’m only going to make an extra $2 on that eight, from making $16 during surge to $10 during surge. And a majority of rides are during those times of surge, before work and school, when everyone’s trying to get somewhere, after work and school when everyone’s trying to get home, or on weekends when everybody’s partying.

Epstein: Which means drivers like you have to work at some of the times when it would be most convenient to be with your families. I just last week did another column largely about the effects of people having to be constantly available that way.

Rivero: Right. I can’t always work those times because I need to be with my family. So, instead of making a little more money during those times when it’s busier, I have to work slow times and make less money. But the reason we’re making less money is because the system is oversaturated with drivers, and that’s been done intentionally.

They were giving out really large bonuses to get drivers on board. I recruited my dad and made $500 for recruiting him. They’re constantly having new drivers recruited and now they have so many drivers, they don’t have to pay a surge anymore.

Because there’s more than enough drivers on the road at all times. Which brings me to another point, which is they’re charging riders for high demand rates when it’s not even necessary because they have so many drivers on the road. They don’t need to charge high rates. There’s somebody around the corner.

Epstein: I stopped using Uber for ethical reasons, but I use Lyft. I live someplace where it’s really hard to get from my house to work with public transportation and I work three or more jobs while spending a lot of time with my young kid, so I’m constantly running from one place to another and I definitely don’t have time to park a car.

it’s amazing: no matter where I am, or when, there’s always a car within a few minutes. And I take all these rides and almost never get the same driver twice. And I go to other cities or states, even remote areas: there are Lyft drivers everywhere.

It’s amazing how many people, like yourself, they’ve put out onto the road. What is that like for you? What have you heard from colleagues or friends through Gig Workers Rising, about what this is like for them?

Rivero: A couple of friends can’t afford their medication. One of them has high blood pressure. I could lose a friend because he can’t afford his high blood pressure medicine, because he doesn’t make enough. But he doesn’t qualify for Medi-Cal because we have to file all that money we’re paying Uber and Lyft on our taxes.

It looks like we’re making all this money, but we’re not. I have another friend who had kidney failure last year because drivers don’t want to drink water. They don’t want to have to stop to go to the bathroom because then that stops them from making money.

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Image via Working Partnerships USA / Jeff Barrera

Epstein: What do you do about stopping to go to the bathroom, Annette?

Rivero: When I drop the kids off in the morning at 7:15, I’ll have one coffee and I’ll probably have to go to the bathroom once. So I’ll stop either at a Starbucks, a grocery store, or a Target. Then I don’t eat until I get home, which is when I pick up the kids at 3:45 and then I take them home.

Epstein: So, you’re driving around all that time on one or two coffees, no water, and no food?

Rivero: That’s right.

Epstein: First of all, I’m concerned for you. It’s not particularly healthy to sit in a car for eight or nine hours a day. Do you stretch much?

Rivero: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll get out of the car. When people need help, I’ll get out and help them. If I’m-

Epstein: I’m always telling my drivers to get up and stretch because it’s really bad for a person to sit without even stretching their legs for eight, nine hours a day. But then… I say this with a smile and I actually really trust you, you seem like an amazing person. But, are you being safe out there? I mean, all those hours without eating or hydrating, that doesn’t seem like the best mindset to be driving in.

Rivero: I have a goal, every day, to make $150. [Recently,] at the end of [the night] I needed 30 more dollars, and I was like, “Okay, I’m tired and I want to stop.” But I wasn’t at the point where I was dangerously tired. When I say dangerously tired, I mean I have a migraine, my eyes are getting blurry, or I’m so tired I’ve made a mistake, like I was at the light and I could have turned right but I just wasn’t paying attention.

Something small like that. I’ve never caused an accident. I’m not irresponsible in that way, but I notice the subtle things about myself when I know it’s time to go home.

But yeah, without a doubt there are drivers out there who are driving beyond that moment when they realize they shouldn’t be driving. They’re driving anywhere from 10, maybe 14, maybe even 16 hours a day.

And the ones sleeping in their car don’t really sleep. How do you sleep in your car?

Epstein: Are a lot of drivers sleeping in their cars, in your experience?

Rivero: I know a lot of drivers sleep in their car.

Epstein: How do you know that?

Rivero: Well, friends. My dad sleeps in his car. My dad’s too proud to come sleep at my house, but he’ll stay in his car. And he’s not sleeping.

Epstein: Why? Because he doesn’t have someplace to go?

Rivero: He lives in Los Banos, about an hour and a half away. Not only that, he can’t really afford the gas to keep going back and forth every night.

Epstein: Right — if you’re driving Lyft or Uber, almost by definition you can’t afford to live in a high rent area, but of course most rides are in high rent areas. So almost by design, most of the drivers are living far away from where they’re working, and when you get them so exhausted that they can’t drive home, it sounds like they’re essentially living out of their cars for how many days a week.

Rivero: Exactly. I also know another person who, from the loneliness of sleeping in their car and just the loneliness of not talking to anybody, because drivers don’t talk to each other really. He became-

Epstein: Yeah. And there’s even this new… What is the mode again for Uber?

Rivero: Oh, the quiet mode?

Epstein: Can I just say that I find that disgusting? You’re going to make me work for how much? And then you’re going to act like you have the right to just tell me I’m a nuisance to you and don’t talk to you?

Rivero: I understand sometimes people want to just not say anything, but it’s the way that it’s been done that’s terrible. It’s really about why can’t people communicate and just say, “You know what? I’m so sorry but I’m exhausted today. I had a really long day,” or whatever.

You don’t even have to explain. You just have to say, “Do you mind if we just not conversate right now? Just not up for it.”

Epstein: Yes. Suck it up and use your words to say that you don’t want to use your words, bro.

Rivero: Exactly. And that’s how we’re treated on a daily basis from, not all riders, but there are riders that treat us that way.

Epstein: Anyway, I interrupted you earlier. We were talking about you and other drivers risking their health, some people risking the health of others on the road. People certainly putting their mental health at risk is something that I hear here: there’s a lot of loneliness, isolation.

Rivero: The person I was talking about that was lonely actually had a drug addiction: coke. And the coke was initially to stay awake, then became a bad habit because they were lonely and depressed and then they couldn’t stop.

Epstein: And that person’s still out there driving?

Rivero: Not at the moment. Money all went to the coke and they couldn’t pay the bills. Got a ticket, lost a license.

Epstein: Still, what I’m hearing is that these kinds of situations that people are being put into make that kind of story, and its dangers, more likely.

Rivero: Yes. Yes.

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Image via Working Partnerships USA / Jeff Barrera

Epstein: So, now you’re part of a group taking action to try to bring about some change. What do you most want people to think about and feel when they see you and your fellow drivers, your fellow gig workers, your fellow human beings driving across the state of California and demonstrating next week?

Rivero: I want everybody to think about where they work and to imagine that one day they walk in and their boss tells them, “We’re going to make you an independent contractor today. Congratulations. You get to set your own schedule. You get to have the flexibility you want, but we’re no longer going to pay you your benefits, your retirement plan, or anything else we gave you as an employee.”

Because I have security guards in my building at home, who are independent contractors, who I thought were employees collecting benefits. Companies like Bench, who provide accounting and bookkeeping services, [have] admitted they want to provide the cheapest and fastest service possible.

What that’s going to do is put businesses out of business in [those industries], and they’re not going to be the last. So, I want people to think about their jobs; they could be next if we don’t put a stop to [the current practices of] Uber and Lyft, because they’re the example of where we’re going.

Epstein: There are certainly many billions of dollars involved in Uber and Lyft and a lot of relatively wealthy people feel that they have something riding on the success of those companies.

Is there anything else that you want to share in gearing up for these actions next week?

Rivero: Just that AB5 doesn’t take away anybody’s flexibility, it’s the companies that take away the flexibility. Because I know that that’s something that everyone’s stuck on right now, and it’s a lie. There’s no truth to it.

Epstein: The last question I ask at the end of all of my TechCrunch interviews about technology and ethics is, how optimistic are you about our shared human future? About the future that we all share together, as human beings?

Rivero: That’s a day by day question because I feel like things change so much. Some days it just feels like we go five steps back. Right now, in my world, we’ve gone way back. It’s just evolving. So I really can’t give a defined answer.

Epstein: That’s a good answer, regardless. Thank you very much.

Unraveling immigration politics and Silicon Valley ethics with Jaclyn Friedman

Immigration may not seem to be a tech issue. But for Americans with some personal or family experience with the idea of separated families and/or concentration camps, it can be hard to see what is currently going on in our names thanks to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (better known as “ICE”) as anything less than the single most urgent moral or ethical issue in this country today.

This begs a disclaimer: I have Eastern European Jewish family roots in what became the Holocaust. I have a Cuban Jewish mother who came to this country by herself as a young girl refugee and was separated from her family for multiple years due to U.S. immigration policy.

I am a father myself. This piece is personal for me, in other words. If you want to know whether I can be objective here, I would have to admit that seeing repeated images of thousands of children, as young as 4 months old, facing inhumane and abusive conditions in my government’s name and supported by my tax dollars, has been quite possibly the most morally disturbing experience of my life.

Still, given that I write specifically about the ethics of technology here at TechCrunch, is this topic “a fit” for this column? Well, “fortunately,” if not for me or any of us personally, then at least regarding my desire to write up ICE for this column: the Silicon Valley tech industry has a long and deep history of entanglement with undocumented immigrants to this country. And in fact, “thanks” to tech companies such as Palantir, Wayfair, and Amazon Web Services and their present-day collaboration with ICE and its concentration camps, tech and immigration ethics is very much a live topic for today.

It’s also a disturbing and depressing topic. Which is why I’m hoping to offer some hope, by concentrating not only on camps and detentions, but more on a series of innovative and impactful recent protests, in which tech companies played leading roles — both as objects of criticism in some cases and as helpful resources for the critics in others.

First, let’s focus on Palantir. As Manish Singh wrote in TechCrunch in May, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement documents, obtained by advocacy organization Mijente through Freedom of Information Act litigation, note that agents of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations used Palantir’s software to build profiles of immigrant children and their family members for the prosecution and arrest of any undocumented person they encountered in their investigation.”

In other words, along with beds from multibillion-dollar furniture unicorn Wayfair, and web hosting from Amazon, the Peter Theil-funded Palo Alto software power is making this country’s showdown over immigration actively about the tech world, and this Monday, July 8, hundreds of protestors went to Palantir’s offices as part of a week of coordinated activities nationwide.

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As Mijente campaigns director Priscilla Gonzalez told me, “We noticed the escalation of ICE operations, their invasions of homes, workplaces, and communities, and we began investigating just how people were being monitored and tracked like never before.”

Gonzalez continued, “We found that Palantir’s software allows ICE agents to build profiles of undocumented immigrants filled with personal information like their home address, work address, financial information, social media profile, and more. Palantir is the reason ICE has been able to accelerate its operations, conduct mass raids and rip families and communities apart.”

While it remains to be seen whether such protests will persuade Palantir to drop their contracts with ICE, what is clear is that the trend of staging significant protests against such institutions is only going to grow, as more and more grassroots groups, students, tech workers, faith leaders, elected officials, and others unite to hold them accountable.

Which brings me to my interview for this week.

A few days before the Palantir protest, and less than a week after an employee walkout from the Boston headquarters of Wayfair also drew hundreds of employees and supporters, another major ICE protest took place in Boston. This time, on July 2nd, it was a group of Jewish activists collaborating with Movimiento Cosecha, an organization representing undocumented immigrants.

Echoing yet another protest just a day earlier in which 36 Jewish activists were arrested while protesting an ICE facility in New Jersey, while carrying banners imploring “Never Again Para Nadie” (for no one), in Boston 18 protestors were arrested in similar fashion (multiples of 18 are culturally and religiously significant in Jewish tradition). While the Boston protest was not specifically tied to the tech industry, it was a moving — and telling — example of what tech companies might begin to expect if they continue involvement with ICE.

One of the arrestees in the Boston protest, moreover, was someone I had already been hoping to interview for this column — the nationally renowned sexual ethicist, author, and activist Jaclyn Friedman. As you will see below, Friedman has a lot to say about the intersection of sex, ethics, and tech. She insisted, however, that this interview focus almost exclusively on the ICE protest and the ethical issues behind it. I think the resulting conversation was powerful and educational.

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Greg Epstein: I know you through your work as an expert in sexual ethics, and I’ve been wanting to interview you about work you’ve done on the intersection of sex, ethics, and tech. But then I saw you’d participated in this — what I think may have been a landmark protest — and I had to talk with you about it. Given your background, what led you to participating in this protest?

Jaclyn Friedman: I certainly can and will make connections between what we just did with the Jews Against Ice action [and] sexual ethics, but I honestly just came to it as a human person, and as a Jew who’s just panicked and outraged, and felt a strong need to do something more. This action appealed to me as a Jew, because my activism stems from my Judaism.

That’s where I learned about social justice, where I get the fire in my belly, both in terms of Jewish teachings about tikkun olam, as well as, it just happened the Temple I grew up in was led by the first woman ordained in the modern era, Sally Priesand. [She] was, before I even knew the word feminism, my first feminist role model.

But also obviously the US is running concentration camps, and it’s impossible for me to not take that personally as a Jew. It certainly has everything to do with my work on sexual ethics which is functionally work about bodily autonomy.

If you’re talking about mass incarceration, that’s an issue about bodily autonomy. If you’re talking about concentration camps, it’s certainly an issue about bodily autonomy, and that’s even before we start talking about the amount of sexual assault and molestation that has been allowed to be perpetrated by the folks who are running these detention camps.

Climate justice and environmental ethics in tech, with Amazon engineer Rajit Iftikhar

Nearly 8,000 Amazon employees, many in prestigious engineering and design roles, have recently signed a petition calling on Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors to dramatically shift the giant company’s approach to climate change.

By deploying a kind of corporate social disobedience such as speaking out dramatically at shareholders meetings, and by engaging in a variety of community organizing tactics, the “Amazon Employees for Climate Justice” group has quickly become a leading example of a growing trend in the tech world: tech employees banding together to take strong ethical stances in defiance of their powerful employers.

The public actions taken by these employees and groups have been covered widely by the news media. For my TechCrunch series on the ethics of technology, however, I wanted to better understand what participating actively in this campaign has been like some of the individuals involved.

How are employees in high-pressure jobs balancing their professional roles and responsibilities with being actively, publicly in defiance of their employers on a high-profile issue? How do leaders in these efforts explain the philosophy underlying their ethical stance? And how likely are their ideas to spread throughout Amazon and beyond – perhaps particularly among younger tech workers?

I recently spoke with a handful of the Amazon employees most actively involved in the Employees for Climate Justice campaign, all of whom inspired me– in similar and different ways. Below is the first of two interviews I’ll publish here. This one is with Rajit Iftikhar, a young software engineer from New York who moved to Seattle to work for Amazon after earning his Bachelor’s of Engineering in Computer Science from Cornell in 2016.

Rajit Iftikhar

Rajit struck me as a humble and precociously wise young man who could be a role model — though he seems to have little interest in singling himself out that way — for thousands of other software engineers and technologists at Amazon and beyond.

Greg Epstein: Your personal story has been key to your organizing with Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. Can you start by saying a bit about why?

Rajit Iftikhar: A lot of why I care about climate justice is informed by me having parents from another country that is going to be very adversely affected by [climate change]. Countries like Bangladesh are going to suffer some of the worst consequences from climate change, because of where the country’s located, and the fact that it doesn’t have the resources to adapt.

Bangladesh is already feeling the effects of climate crisis; it is much harder for people to live in the rural areas, [people are] being forced into the cities. Then you have the cyclones that the climate crisis is going to bring, and rising sea levels and flooding.

So, my background [emphasizes, for me] how unjust our emissions are in causing all these problems for people in other countries. And even for communities of color within our country who are going to be disproportionately impacted by the emissions that largely richer people [cause].