When Sahil Singla joined the social impact startup Farmguide, he was shocked to discover that thousands of rural farmers in India commit suicide every year. When harvests go awry, desperate farmers are forced to borrow from microfinance loan sharks at crippling rates. Unable to pay back these predatory loans, victims kill themselves – often by grisly methods like swallowing pesticides – to escape the threats and violence of their ruthless debt collectors.
As we've reported, NYU Tandon is making a bid for New York City to become the capital city of artificial intelligence. One graduate of its Future Labs incubator, Geometric Intelligence, has already made a big splash in the field: last year, it was acquired by Uber, where its founder, Gary Marcus, launched the ride-hailing company's R&D lab for artificial intelligence.
This past week, the novelist Cormac McCarthy published the first nonfiction piece of his career, a three-thousand-word essay titled "The Kekulé Problem," in the popular science magazine Nautilus. It is studded with suggestive details about the anatomy of the human larynx, what happens to dolphins under anesthesia, and the origins of the click sounds in Khoisan languages, all marshalled to illuminate aspects of a profound pair of questions: Why did human language originate, and how is it related to the unconscious mind?
Can machines think – and, if so, can they think critically about race and gender? Recent reports have shown that machine-learning systems are picking up racist and sexist ideas embedded in the language patterns they are fed by human engineers. The idea that machines can be as bigoted as people is an uncomfortable one for anyone who still believes in the moral purity of the digital future, but there's nothing new or complicated about it. "Machine learning" is a fancy way of saying "finding patterns in data". Of course, as Lydia Nicholas, senior researcher at the innovation thinktank Nesta, explains, all this data "has to have been collected in the past, and since society changes, you can end up with patterns that reflect the past. If those patterns are used to make decisions that affect people's lives you end up with unacceptable discrimination."