Lots of people advocate for an open internet, but Katharina Borchert is in a unique position to help make it a reality. As the leader of the company’s open AI projects, she oversaw the release last February of a data set of voice recordings from more than 42,000 contributors in 18 languages. (It’s since more than doubled.) Known as Common Voice, it allows developers to create voice–recognition tools from a variety of speakers, training AI not to get tripped up by women or non-native speakers (a common problem).
How has Common Voice influenced your views about accessibility?
It drove us to think not just about the diversity that we want represented in our innovation but how we can preserve the cultural diversity that this world holds. In a [time] when everything has become centralized and we all use the same platforms, English has become the lingua franca of the internet. I’m often concerned that cultural richness and diversity might get lost. It’s great if you bring connectivity to rural villages in India or Uganda, but in regions where the literacy rate isn’t high, and people speak one or two minority tribal languages, what do people do [once they’re] online? Is there content that is accessible and useful to them in their language?
Has this led to any specific projects at Mozilla? We kicked off a test drive in Rwanda last year to build super-specific use cases [that would help other organisations develop language–specific content]. We’re looking for startups in healthcare and agriculture to partner with. We have interest from the governments in Uganda and India.
What impact has COVID-19 had on how you see your work? Nobody thinks of building anything proprietary right now. Everyone just wants to do the right thing: share designs, share learnings, so somebody somewhere else can run with [it].
I really hope that when all of this is over, we can keep some of this spirit, and this shared experience, going.
Director, Technology for Liberty Program, American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
According to activist Kade Crockford, widespread use of face surveillance—in which algorithms match real-time and historical video data to people’s identities—would “obliterate privacy and anonymity in public as we know it.” That’s why they have organised local support and worked with seven Massachusetts cities over the past year and a half to enact preemptive bans against the technology. As big tech companies continued to pitch their facial recognition algorithms to police departments, Crockford convinced local police chiefs of the need to prevent face surveillance from being used in their communities, and in June, succeeded in banning the tech in Boston. Crockford is eyeing statewide policy, and people have been reaching out about emulating these efforts elsewhere. “This is not a controversial issue for voters,” says Crockford, who has been focused on surveillance issues for a decade. “People don’t want the government to be tracking them by their face every time they leave their house.”
Founder and CEO, LunaDNA
Bob Kain did pioneering work for biotech giant Illumina that paved the way for a $250,000 DNA–sequencing platform. When he left, in 2014, he wondered, once genomic mapping became affordable, how would doctors and scientists make good use of that info? Kain developed a novel health-data platform, called Luna-DNA, which allows patients to upload their anonymised genetic details to help researchers address some of the most pernicious human diseases. Unlike with Ancestry and 23andMe, people who upload genetic information (or their electronic health records) to LunaDNA can earn dividends from any commercial entity that uses their information for approved research. They can also elect to participate in individual studies. “Money is a short-term motivator,” says Kain. “What we can do is allow them not to feel like they’re being treated unfairly.” Since the SEC ruled in 2018 that health data can be used like currency, Kain has been able to grow LunaDNA’s audience. Last year, he signed a deal to merge his platform with the Genetic Alliance’s Platform for Engaging Everyone Responsibly, thereby accessing data from 45 organisations representing some 50,000 people
suffering from specific diseases.
Well before tech giants instituted moratoriums on selling facial recognition technology to police in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Microsoft president Brad Smith argued in his 2019 book, Tools and Weapons, that legislation was required to ensure ethical use of the tech. A 23-year Microsoft veteran, Smith also wrote that companies should protect mobile-device privacy, limit government access to customers’ data, and consider the ramifications of AI replacing people’s jobs. As the COVID-19 crisis presented unprecedented challenges to work and business, he has continued to lead by example.
What originally led Microsoft to opt out of competing for some facial recognition contracts?
To me, the test of whether a company is principled is whether it has some deals it’s prepared to turn down. That’s how you know it has some principles other than its willingness to sell every product to everybody who’s prepared to pay for it.
Do you think taking public stances on ethics gives the company a competitive advantage?
I believe that all ethical [stances] create the most benefit when the industry can come together. There are lots of things that are good to compete on, but I don’t regard the protection of human rights as an element where you want to see some companies lean in and others be laggards.
Microsoft was one of the first major companies to close when the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic became evident. Was it a difficult decision to keep paying hourly workers when your campuses closed?
We didn’t need a spreadsheet to know that we could afford it. One of our specific goals was to generate momentum and create air cover for other companies that might be considering the same thing, so that advocates [at other companies] could say, “Well, you know, Microsoft’s done it.”
Cofounder and CEO, Yubico
YubiKey, a piece of hardware designed by Yubico CEO Stina Ehrensvärd that uses cryptography to verify your identity when you plug it into a device, has won adherents in 160 countries and at Google, Facebook, Dropbox, and Salesforce. But Ehrensvärd sought a solution that protected everyone—even if they didn’t use her key. In March 2019, she succeeded: The World Wide Web Consortium, the internet standards body, adopted WebAuthn, a heightened set of security protocols that Yubico built in collaboration with Google and Microsoft. Major browsers including Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome now support it. (In December, Apple extended the support to Safari on iOS.)
Ehrensvärd looks forward to seeing applications built on top of WebAuthn, including physical authenticators (like YubiKey) and biometric solutions.
“In this new, secure, password-less world,” she says, “you won’t need to worry about being hacked.”
Founder and CEO, Streamlytics
Governments are finally beginning to let consumers control how their personal information is used by companies. Angela Benton is going further: Streamlytics, which she founded in 2018, not only helps individuals learn what major companies know about them and demand its deletion and portability—via its GetMyData.io service—but it also lets them get paid for their info. In April, Benton launched another project (with the help of investor Issa Rae) called Clture. It transforms the video and audio people stream on such platforms as Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, and Spotify into a license proving that they own that data. Then Clture pays the user an up-front fee for it. The data is made anonymous and goes into Streamlytics’s API, where clients, many of them streaming companies, pay an annual sum to access it. “The consumer was just a cog in a wheel,” she says, “even though they are literally the backbone of many of these companies.” Originally pitched to Black consumers (because “they are the culture,” Benton says), the product is designed for everyone. In its first week, it processed more than 4 million data points—such as a user’s activity broken down by artist, genre, etc.—and customers earned up to $100.
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