Empowering Everyone With Technology

Microsoft is now trying on the role as moral leader in a tech world now facing increasing public criticism. I think you all know who they are, so let’s just say that Facebook is leading the pack. Microsoft is the only one to avoid sustained public criticism about contributing to the social ills of the last couple of years..

At the same time, Microsoft has emerged as one of the most outspoken advocates in the industry for protecting user privacy and establishing ethical guidelines for new technology like artificial intelligence (A.I.). They have launched a new program. A.I. for Accessibility that will award $25 million over five years to researchers, nonprofits and developers who use artificial intelligence to help people with disabilities.

Echoing a theme he talked about at Microsoft’s conference last year, Satya Nadella, its chief, said that the industry has a responsibility to build technology that empowered everyone.

Ray Myers

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Digital Revolution Is Leaving Black Americans Behind

Black Americans are frequent users of technology, and have helped build social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram into the giants they are today. But they aren’t reaping the same economic benefits of the tech boom as white Americans, and low rates of black employment in the tech industry are a large part of the reason why.

A new study released on Friday sheds light on this issue. The State of Black America 2018, a report published annually by the National Urban League, compares how black and white people fare in a number of areas, including housing, economics, education, social justice, and civic engagement.

This year’s report pays particular attention to black Americans’ access Digital Revolution is Leaving Black People Behind to jobs in the tech industry and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. The study reveals that while black people are one of the racial groups most likely to use smartphones and have created thriving communities on platforms like Twitter, those high rates of usage haven’t translated into employment.

“And this is largely because the tech industry has failed to hire black STEM grads and transition them into careers in Silicon Valley, where many of these jobs are basedIn the vast majority of [social media and tech] companies, fewer than five percent of the workforce is African American,” the authors of the report note. “By contrast, at least half of the workforce in these companies is white.Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League, notes that this isn’t new — black Americans have repeatedly been left behind when America’s technology makes a leap forward, be it when slavery and Reconstruction blocked black people from the benefits of farming technology, or when technological revolutions in the North were less accessible to poor black people fleeing the South. Over generations, the effect of this lack of inclusion has compounded, leading us to the disparities that exist today.

And, as the report indicates, none of this happens in a vacuum. When black workers are shut out of higher-income jobs, like in tech, it adds to the already significant income gap — the median income for white households is $63,155, while it’s only $38,555 for black households. There’s a persistent wealth gap as well, which hasn’t improved much since the 1960s.

“We’re trying to shine a spotlight on the fact that this is an area where the country has to improve,” Morial says.

Silicon Valley has faced mounting criticism for its lack of diversity

Unfortunately, the tech world’s lack of diversity is a stubborn problem that doesn’t seem to be going away. Despite media attention and criticism, top companies continue to hire small numbers of black employees. At companies like Uber, Twitter, Google, and Facebook, fewer than 3 percent of tech workers identify as black.

In 2015, the Congressional Black Caucus launched an extended effort to press Silicon Valley to boost its black employment numbers, with several members of Congress traveling to meet with various tech industry leaders. The efforts have led to some change — the 3 percent figure above actually reflects slight growth at places like Facebook.

The caucus has continued to pressure tech companies to improve further. When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill last month about Facebook’s ability to protect users’ privacy, black lawmakers took him to task for his company’s persistent lack of diversity, saying that Facebook “does not reflect America.”

And on April 30, lawmakers traveled to Silicon Valley for a third time to engage in a series of discussions with tech companies. Some members, including Rep. Maxine Waters, have threatened that lawmakers could introduce stricter measures to regulate the industry if companies can’t improve on their own.

The CBC members argue that efforts to increase black employment are not simply due to the economic opportunities presented by a high-paying tech job but are also about increasing protections for minority users. Black people are often targeted on social media and other internet-based platforms, facing racism on Twitter, discrimination from Airbnb hosts, or exploitation from fake Facebook pages.

Morial argues that while the tech industry has said promising things about improving diversity, it needs to do more — in hiring as well as in increasing training and investment in black students and improving educational pipelines.

Perhaps another “Inconvenient Truth” as Al Gore would say!

Ray Myers

Some Springtime Tech Facts and Saudis Go to Silicon Valley

The recent rankings of Educational Technology firms’ market performance are surprising and curious to me. I had always assumed that Apple had the lead in America’s classrooms, but not so. Here is the latest as reported in this week’s NY Times. “In a bid to take back some of the education market from Google, Apple on Tuesday plans to introduce new hardware and software for schools and students. But Apple has fallen to third place, behind Google and Microsoft, in the battle to own America’s classroom. So the new items may not move the needle much.”

Speaking of Microsoft, a delegation of Saudi Arabian officials including the country’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, will be meeting with Bill Gates some time this week. I guess they are still looking for that “secret sauce” that will revolutionize Saudi education through a critical combination of hardware and software that will make them the envy of school systems around the world. But I am still wondering what they will do to involve their classroom teachers as part of this revolutionary mission? Maybe I should just stop worrying so much. Trump will obviously do whatever he can do to help them, for whatever reasons?

Educational Technology is certainly changing our world in how we educate our younger generations, but all these new tools are only as effective as the teachers who use them, and have some part in choosing them.

Ray Myers

P.S. A short spring time break for me this weekend. Enjoy your holidays. I will return on Monday, April 2.

Sex-Trafficking on the Internet

“Pressure has been mounting for social media companies and other internet giants to be better stewards of their powerful platforms (NY Times, 2/28/18).” A bill to force these companies to better monitor their online content passed the House earlier this week.” A similar bill in the Senate is expected to pass soon.

Facebook, in particular, has come under pressure over the spread of misinformation and the exertion of foreign interference during the 2016 presidential election. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have called for regulations, including disclosures on political advertising, but those efforts have been slow to gain wide support. Some experts have concluded that there is clearly not a willingness for the government to pursue fundamental business model changes.

Sex, politics, and profits, in any order you choose.

Ray Myers

Silicon Valley – Land of the “Bros”

Sex and Tech. A curious story you might say, but one that has seemed to evolve over the past fifty years when someone decided (researched?) that good programmers were antisocial. Was this because most of the good programmers were men, or was it that men just wanted to keep it that way? Or is it that this is simply self-perpetuating stereotype that no one has challenged over the years?

There is no evidence to suggest that antisocial men are better at computers than women. But the stereotype has been accepted to this day. Emily Chang has recently written a book entitled Brotopia. “It is systemic. Bad behavior has been tolerated and normalized for far too long. And people simply have a narrow idea of who can do these jobs. If you’re a woman in the tech industry, you’re the only woman in the room over and over again . . . These stories a have to be told; otherwise it perpetuates a culture of keeping women down.”

“This is not just tech’ problem. This is society’s problem. And the industry that changed the world can change this.”

Ray Myers

(Early edition for Friday, 2/16/18)

Hate on the Internet

Talk about your unintended consequences!  At least I don’t think “social networking” on the Internet was envisioned as creating a platform for hate groups and terrorists in the U.S.  Unfortunately this has come to pass before our very eyes in the deadly confrontations in Charlottesville last weekend.   Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that such groups are also able to raise funds for their reprehensible intentions to spread hatred for blacks, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, feminist activists, etc., thanks, in some measure to “funding” sites that solicit contributions online.  The sites themselves are not the culprits, but the hate groups that use them for such purposes must be stopped.  PayPal, for example, has already agreed to remove at least 34 organizations that include companies that are selling gun accessories explicitly explicitly for killing Muslims!

Silicon Valley firms may be ill-prepared to manage such a large societal role.  These companies have limited experience handling these issues.  They must answer to share-holders and demonstrate growth in users and profits – weighing in on free speech matters risks alienating large groups of customers across the political spectrum.  These platforms are so massive – Facebook, for example, counts a third of the world’s population in its monthly user base:  GoDaddy hosts and registers 71 million websites – it may actually be impossible for them to enforce their policies consistently.  But tech companies are reportedly forging ahead.  At this point it appears to be an industry-lead initiative that has been decried by some “alt-right” leaders as intrusive censorship that could lead to increased government “”meddling.”

Spewing hatred on the Internet, to my mind, is not exercising free speech.  We are constantly being reminded that “words have consequences” in our daily political discourse.  Freedom of speech demands that we use words to ensure a freedom of expression that does not foment hatred.

Ray Myers



Baby, You Can Drive My Car. Or Not.

Remember the old “Yellow Pages” ad when you were encouraged to let your fingers do the walking.  Now it seems that you may be letting your fingers do the driving.  Autonomous driving, electric cars and ride-hailing apps from Silicon Valley, like Uber, are reshaping transportation.  Young people no longer feel as compelled as previous generations to own cars.  Experts in the transportation sector are changing rapidly.  The whole “mobility market” – transportation as a service – is just at the beginning.

In Germany, under an initiative called Industry 4.0, they are striving to help the country thrive in a smartphone world. The future of Germany as an industrial nation depends on how companies succeed in bringing the manufacturing and digital worlds together.  Industry executives there often cite how Apple’s iPhone quickly erased Nokia’s once-dominant position in the mobile handset market, and they are determined not to let something similar to happen to them.  Google is also entering the driverless car market.  Their market value is more than double that of BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen combined.   So instead of owning and driving your own car, you may soon find that your smartphone could be the best means of “ride-hailing” you have.   It will enable you to chose the most convenient means of vehicular travel available to you at any given place and time.

But I wouldn’t get rid of your new BMW, Mercedes, or Volkswagen quite yet.  Maybe you can become a ride service  provider yourself.  You can let your passengers work/play on their iPhones while you enjoy the ride.  That may even be more fun.

Ray Myers

Doing It All Virtually

Now we all know that Siri is a very smart piece of artificial intelligence (AI), but have you heard about Viv?  She (I think that’s the voice gender, or maybe you can choose) is even smarter.  Her creators like to call her a virtual assistant more than simple piece of AI.  For the past four years the same people who brought you Siri have been working on creating Viv.  She who will do more than just give you requested information.  Using simple voice commands, she will actually do things for you, like ordering a pizza delivered to your doorstep.  Please don’t ask me why ordering a pizza is the most critical task in assessing the performance of a virtual assistant.  I guess you just get hungry putting all those pieces of code together?

In all fairness, Viv has moved on from ordering pizza.  She can order a car, flowers, turn lights off and on in your home, and is talking with other potential partners to unite many businesses into a single, unbroken conversation: television companies, car companies, media companies, and makers of smart refrigerators, etc.  Forget all those apps, unless you really like living in an earlier technological era.

It’s the latest and easily the biggest time-saver in our busy and more connected world.  So what are you going to do with all that free time?  Looks like you will have more time to do things in the real world.

Ray Myers

E-Commerce and Cardboard

An alternative title for this post could be “Instant Gratification.”  So what does all this have to do with technology?  Well it’s all about shopping online, and receiving lots of purchases at your front door courtesy of UPS, FedEx etc.  Therefore, you will have lots of cardboard boxes and assorted packaging materials to dispose of after opening your conveniently delivered purchases.  And waiting times seem to be shortening as a simple click on the desired item on your computer screen or smartphone will result in almost instant delivery (gratification!)

Remember the days of conspicuous consumption?  Now it seems that the most conspicuous aspect of our online consumption is the amount of cardboard that is accumulating in people’s trash.  How about 100 tons a day in San Francisco alone where this E-Commerce boom was generated by the rise of technology entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley, creating a business model that was soon replicated around the world.  This is the “cyber retail business” world we now live in, and it looks like there is no turning back.

Ironically, some leaders in the cardboard recycling business are having a hard time keeping up and offer this advice: “Slow down consumption, slow down.”

Ray Myers


Making Artificial Intelligence Harmless?

How little we really know or maybe it’s just me.  Last week I blogged about the wonders of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it could have done miraculous things for characters like the Strawman in the Wizard of Oz.  Little did I know that prominent leaders in the scientific community are concerned that this technological power could also be used in ways that can potentially do more harm than good. 

To combat the imminent abuse of this powerful scientific resource for destructive purposes such as killer robots (e.g., terminators), leading tech entrepreneurs and companies have joined forces.  A new non-profit group has been formed called Open AI with a mega-fund of one billion dollars dedicated to finding and funding positive uses for AI.  Their intended mission is to do everything they can to ensure that the same tech that could support “killing machines” gets used for good instead.

Some say one billion dollars will not be enough.  A future where terminators could exist is basically inevitable.   Bill Gates has also expressed the urgency of this issue, stating that he does not “understand why some people are not concerned” about the possibility of a rogue, self-aware robot.  Artificial intelligence may help us address an array of human challenges but it is still man who decides how to use it best.

Ray Myers

Heads-up in Your Car

Keep your eyes on the road and keep your heads up.  In a very short time it looks like you will still have to keep your eyes on the road and on your Heads-up at the same time.  You will soon feel like a jet pilot except you will be driving your car on terra firma.  And instead of seeing puffy white clouds as you glide through the open skies, you will be looking at cars and trucks competing with you for open space on busy highways. 

Now will this all help us improve our driving skills?  I guess the answer is that it should, but I remember failing my first driver’s license test because I could not parallel park.  My excuse at that time was that I was driving a stick shift in the family Ford.  Well I still can’t parallel park very well (maybe not at all when my wife is in the car), but I am sure that my next car will probably help me do that thanks to improved spatial technologies.

I better start learning to use all these improved driving technologies soon before I become a relic of the automotive past.  Just another “heads up” for everyone: Jaguar is working on a “360 Virtual Urban Windscreen.”  While you are driving it will highlight pedestrians, show points of interest and display a “ghost car” that drivers could follow for directions.  I only hope I can keep my eyes on the road, and still sing along with the radio at the same time.  Whew!

Ray Myers