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Are robots sexist? UN report shows gender bias in talking digital tech

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Two schoolgirls make use of classroom computers at San Jose, a rural secondary school in La Ceja del Tambo, Antioquia, Colombia. Photo: World Bank/Charlotte Kesl

Why do most voice assistants have female names, and why do they have submissive personalities? The answer, says a new report released on Friday by UNESCO, the UN’s Education, Science and Culture agency, is that there are hardly any women working in the technical teams that develop these services and other cutting-edge digital tools.

The publication, produced in collaboration with the Germany Government and the EQUALS Skills Coalition – an alliance of public and private sector partners which encourages the involvement of women and girls in scientific and digital technology sectors – is called “I’d Blush If I Could.”

The title is a reference to the standard answer given by the default female-voice of Apple’s digital assistant, Siri, in response to insults from users. Apart from Siri, other “female” voice assistants also express submissive traits, an expression of the gender bias built in to Artificial Intelligence (AI) products as a result of what UNESCO calls the “stark gender-imbalances in skills, education and the technology sector.”

Several recommendations are made in the study, including advice to stop making digital assistants female by default; programming them to discourage gender-based insults and abusive language; and developing the advanced technical skills of women and girls so they can steer the creation of new technologies alongside men.

Given the explosive growth of voice assistants, says the report, there is an urgent necessity to help more women and girls cultivate strong digital skills.

Bridging the digital gender gap is an issue for all countries

Today, women are extremely under-represented in teams developing AI tools: women make up only 12 percent of AI researchers, six percent of software developers, and are 13 times less likely to file ICT (information and communication technology) patents.

“Obedient and obliging machines that pretend to be women are entering our homes, cars and offices,” says Saniye Gülser Corat, Director of Gender Equality at UNESCO. “Their hardwired subservience influences how people speak to female voices and models how women respond to requests and express themselves. To change course, we need to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them.”

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First Quantum Computing Guidelines Launched as Investment Booms

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National governments have invested over $25 billion into quantum computing research and over $1 billion in venture capital deals have closed in the past year – more than the past three years combined. Quantum computing promises to disrupt the future of business, science, government, and society itself, but an equitable framework is crucial to address future risks.

A new Insight Report released today at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022 provides a roadmap for these emerging opportunities across public and private sectors. The principles have been co-designed by a global multistakeholder community composed of quantum experts, emerging technology ethics and law experts, decision makers and policy makers, social scientists and academics.

“The critical opportunity at the dawn of this historic transformation is to address ethical, societal and legal concerns well before commercialization,” said Kay Firth-Butterfield, Head of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at the World Economic Forum. “This report represents an early intervention and the beginning of a multi-disciplinary, global conversation that will guide the development of quantum computing to the benefit of all society.”

“Quantum computing holds the potential to help solve some of society’s greatest challenges, and IBM has been at the forefront of bringing quantum hardware and software to communities of discovery worldwide,” said Dr. Heike Riel, IBM Fellow, Head of Science and Technology and Lead, Quantum, IBM Research Europe. “This report is a key step in initiating the discussion around how quantum computing should be shaped and governed, for the benefit of all.”

Professor Bronwyn Fox, Chief Scientist at CSIRO, Australia’s science national agency said, “the Principles reflect conversations CSIRO’s scientists have had with partners from around the world who share an ambition for a responsible quantum future. Embedding responsible innovation in quantum computing is key to its successful deployment and uptake for generations to come. CSIRO is committed to ensuring these Principles are used to support a strong quantum industry in Australia and generate significant social and public good.”

In adapting to the coming hybrid model of classical, multi-cloud, and soon quantum computing, the Forum’s framework establishes best-practice principles and core values. These guidelines set the foundation and give rise to a new information-processing paradigm while ensuring stakeholder equity, risk mitigation, and consumer benefit.

The governance principles are grouped into nine themes and underpinned by a set of seven core values. Themes and respective goals defining the principles:

1. Transformative capabilities: Harness the transformative capabilities of this technology and the applications for the good of humanity while managing the risks appropriately.

2. Access to hardware infrastructure: Ensure wide access to quantum computing hardware.

3. Open innovation: Encourage collaboration and a precompetitive environment, enabling faster development of the technology and the realization of its applications.

4. Creating awareness: Ensure the general population and quantum computing stakeholders are aware, engaged and sufficiently informed to enable ongoing responsible dialogue and communication; stakeholders with oversight and authority should be able to make informed decisions about quantum computing in their respective domains.

5. Workforce development and capability-building: Build and sustain a quantum-ready workforce.

6. Cybersecurity: Ensure the transition to a quantum-secure digital world.

7. Privacy: Mitigate potential data-privacy violations through theft and processing by quantum computers.

8. Standardization: Promote standards and road-mapping mechanisms to accelerate the development of the technology.

9. Sustainability: Develop a sustainable future with and for quantum computing technology

Quantum computing core values that hold across the themes and principles:

Common good: The transformative capabilities of quantum computing and its applications are harnessed to ensure they will be used to benefit humanity.

Accountability: Use of quantum computing in any context has mechanisms in place to ensure human accountability, both in its design and in its uses and outcomes. All stakeholders in the quantum computing community are responsible for ensuring that the intentional misuse of quantum computing for harmful purposes is not accepted or inadvertently positively sanctioned.

Inclusiveness: In the development of quantum computing, insofar as possible, a broad and truly diverse range of stakeholder perspectives are engaged in meaningful dialogue to avoid narrow definitions of what may be considered a harmful or beneficial use of the technology.

Equitability: Quantum computing developers and users ensure that the technology is equitable by design, and that quantum computing-based technologies are fairly and evenly distributed insofar as possible. Particular consideration is given to any specific needs of vulnerable populations to ensure equitability.

Non-maleficence: All stakeholders use quantum computing in a safe, ethical and responsible manner. Furthermore, all stakeholders ensure quantum computing does not put humans at risk of harm, either in the intended or unintended outcomes of its use, and that it is not used for nefarious purposes.

Accessibility: Quantum computing technology and knowledge are actively made widely accessible. This includes the development, deployment and use of the technology. The aim is to cultivate a general ability among the population, societal actors, corporations and governments to understand the main principles of quantum computing, the ways in which it differs from classical computing and the potential it brings.

Transparency: Users, developers and regulators are transparent about their purpose and intentions with regard to quantum computing.

“Governments and industries are accelerating their investments in quantum computing research and development worldwide,” said Derek O’Halloran, Head of Digital Economy, World Economic Forum. “This report starts the conversation that will help us understand the opportunities, set the premise for ethical guidelines, and pre-empt socioeconomic, political and legal risks well ahead of global deployment.”

The Quantum Computing Governance Principles is an initiative of the World Economic Forum’s Quantum Computing Network, a multi-stakeholder initiative focused on accelerating responsible quantum computing.

Next steps for the Quantum Computing Governance Initiative will be to work with wider stakeholder groups to adopt these principles as part of broader governance frameworks and policy approaches. With this framework, business and investment communities along with policy makers and academia will be better equipped to adopt to the coming paradigm shift. Ultimately, everyone will be better prepared to harness the transformative capabilities of quantum sciences – perhaps the most exciting emergent technologies of the 21st Century.

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Closing the Cyber Gap: Business and Security Leaders at Crossroads as Cybercrime Spikes

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The global digital economy has surged off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, but so has cybercrime – ransomware attacks rose 151% in 2021. There were on average 270 cyberattacks per organization during 2021, a 31% increase on 2020, with each successful cyber breach costing a company $3.6m. After a breach becomes public, the average share price of the hacked company underperforms the NASDAQ by -3% even six months after the event.

According to the World Economic Forum’s new annual report, The Global Cybersecurity Outlook 2022, 80% of cyber leaders now consider ransomware a “danger” and “threat” to public safety and there is a large perception gap between business executives who think their companies are secure and security leaders who disagree.

Some 92% of business executives surveyed agree that cyber resilience is integrated into enterprise risk-management strategies, only 55% of cyber leaders surveyed agree. This gap between leaders can leave firms vulnerable to attacks as a direct result of incongruous security priorities and policies.

Even after a threat is detected, our survey, written in collaboration with Accenture, found nearly two-thirds would find it challenging to respond to a cybersecurity incident due to the shortage of skills within their team. Perhaps even more troubling is the growing trend that companies need 280 days on average to identify and respond to a cyberattack. To put this into perspective, an incident which occurs on 1 January may not be fully contained until 8 October.

“Companies must now embrace cyber resilience – not only defending against cyberattacks but also preparing for swift and timely incident response and recovery when an attack does occur,” said Jeremy Jurgens, Managing Director at the World Economic Forum.

“Organizations need to work more closely with ecosystem partners and other third parties to make cybersecurity part of an organization’s ecosystem DNA, so they can be resilient and promote customer trust,” said Julie Sweet, Chair and CEO, Accenture. “This report underscores key challenges leaders face – collaborating with ecosystem partners and retaining and recruiting talent. We are proud to work with the World Economic Forum on this important topic because cybersecurity impacts every organization at all levels.”

Chief Cybersecurity Officers kept up at night by three things

Less than one-fifth of cyber leaders feel confident their organizations are cyber resilient. Three major concerns keep them awake at night:

– They don’t feel consulted on business decisions, and they struggle to gain the support of decision-makers in prioritizing cyber risks – 7 in 10 see cyber resilience featuring prominently in corporate risk management

– Recruiting and retaining the right talent is their greatest concern – 6 in 10 think it would be challenging to respond to a cybersecurity incident because they lack the skills within their team

– Nearly 9 in 10 see SMEs as the weakest link in the supply chain – 40% of respondents have been negatively affected by a supply chain cybersecurity incident

Training and closing the cyber gap are key solutions

Solutions include employee cyber training, offline backups, cyber insurance and platform-based cybersecurity solutions that stop known ransomware threats across all attack vectors.

Above all, there is an urgent need to close the gap of understanding between business and security leaders. It is impossible to attain complete cybersecurity, so the key objective must be to reinforce cyber resilience.

Including cyber leaders into the corporate governance process will help close this gap.

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Ethical aspects relating to cyberspace: Self-regulation and codes of conduct

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Virtual interaction processes must be controlled in one way or another. But how, within what limits and, above all, on the basis of what principles? The proponents of the official viewpoint – supported by the strength of state structures – argue that since the Internet has a significant and not always positive impact not only on its users, but also on society as a whole, all areas of virtual interaction need to be clearly regulated through the enactment of appropriate legislation.

In practice, however, the various attempts to legislate on virtual communication face great difficulties due to the imperfection of modern information law. Moreover, considering that the Internet community is based on an internal “anarchist” ideology, it shows significant resistance to government regulations, believing that in a cross-border environment – which is the global network – the only effective regulator can be the voluntarily and consciously accepted intranet ethics based on the awareness of the individual person’s moral responsibility for what happens in cyberspace.

At the same time, the significance of moral self-regulation lies not only in the fact that it makes it possible to control the areas that are insufficiently covered, but also in other regulatory provisions at political, legal, technical or economic levels. It is up to ethics to check the meaning, lawfulness and legitimacy of the remaining regulatory means. The legal provisions themselves, supported by the force of state influence, are developed or – at least, ideally – should be implemented on the basis of moral rules. It should be noted that, although compliance with law provisions is regarded as the minimum requirement of morality, in reality this is not always the case – at least until an “ideal” legislation is devised that does not contradict morality in any way. Therefore, an ethical justification and an equal scrutiny of legislative and disciplinary acts in relation to both IT and computer technology are necessary.

In accordance with the deontological approach to justifying web ethics, the ethical foundation of information law is based on the human rights of information. Although these rights are enshrined in various national and international legal instruments, in practice their protection is often not guaranteed by anyone. This enables several state structures to introduce various restrictions on information, justifying them with noble aims such as the need to implement the concept of national security.

It should be stressed that information legislation (like any other in general) is of a conventional nature, i.e. it is a sort of temporary compromise reached by the representatives of the various social groups. Therefore, there are no unshakable principles in this sphere: legality and illegality are defined by a dynamic balance between the desire for freedom of information, on the one hand, and the attempts at restricting this freedom in one way or another.

Therefore, several subjects have extremely contradictory requirements with regard to modern information law, which are not so easy to reconcile. Information law should simultaneously protect the right to free reception of information and the right to information security, as well as ensure privacy and prevent cybercrime. It should also promote again the public accessibility of the information created, and protect copyright – even if this impinges on the universal principle of knowledge sharing.

The principle of a reasonable balance of these often diametrically opposed aspirations, with unconditional respect for fundamental human rights, should be the basis of the international information law system.

Various national and international public organisations, professionals and voluntary users’ associations define their own operation principles in a virtual environment. These principles are very often formalised in codes of conduct, aimed at minimising the potentially dangerous moral and social consequences of the use of information technologies and thus at achieving a certain degree of web community’s autonomy, at least when it comes to purely internal problematic issues. The names of these codes do not always hint at ethics, but this does not change their essence. After all, they have not the status of law provisions, which means that they cannot serve as a basis for imposing disciplinary, administrative or any other liability measures on offenders. They are therefore enforced by the community members who have adopted them solely with goodwill, as a result of free expression based on recognition and sharing of the values and rules enshrined in them. These codes therefore act as one of the moral self-regulating mechanisms of the web community.

The cyberspace codes of ethics provide the basic moral guidelines that should guide information activities. They specify the principles of general theoretical ethics and are reflected in a virtual environment. They contain criteria enabling to recognise a given act as ethical or unethical. They finally provide specific recommendations on how to behave in certain situations. The rules enshrined in the codes of ethics under the form of provisions, authorisations, bans, etc., represent in many respects the formalisation and systematisation of unwritten rules and requirements that have developed spontaneously in the process of virtual interaction over the last thirty years of the Internet.

Conversely, the provisions of codes of ethics must be thoroughly considered and judged – by their very nature, code of ethics are conventional and hence they are always the result of a mutual agreement of the relevant members of a given social group – as otherwise they are simply reduced to a formal and sectorial statement, divorced from life and not rule-bound.

Despite their multidirectionality due to the variety of net functional abilities and the heterogeneity of its audience, a comparison of the most significant codes of ethics on the Internet shows a number of common principles. Apparently, these principles are in one way or another shared by all the Internet community members. This means that they underpin the ethos of cyberspace. They include the principle of accessibility, confidentiality and quality of information; the principle of inviolability of intellectual property; the principle of no harm, and the principle of limiting the excessive use of net resources. As can be seen, this list echoes the four deontological principles of information ethics (“PAPA: Privacy, Accuracy, Property and Accessibility”) formulated by Richard Mason in his article Four Ethical Issues of the Information Age. (“MIS Quarterly”, March 1986).

The presence of a very well-written code of ethics cannot obviously ensure that all group members will act in accordance with it, because – for a person – the most reliable guarantees against unethical behaviour are his/her conscience and duties, which are not always respected. The importance of codes should therefore not be overestimated: the principles and actual morals proclaimed by codes may diverge decisively from one another. The codes of ethics, however, perform a number of extremely important functions on the Internet: firstly, they can induce Internet users to moral reflection by instilling the idea of the need to evaluate their actions accordingly (in this case, it is not so much a ready-made code that is useful, but the very experience of its development and discussion). Secondly, they can form a healthy public in a virtual environment, and also provide it with uniform and reasonable criteria for moral evaluation. Thirdly they can  become the basis for the future creation of international information law, adapted to the realities of the electronic age.

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