What should I teach my children to prepare them to race with the robots?

I must prepare my sons to adapt to the fourth industrial revolution but that means sending them to schools that are equipped to exceed the averages

Years ago, as a reporter in Seattle, I watched Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer decry Washington states education system. He said Microsoft couldnt hire enough locals because our schools dont produce the kinds of minds he needed.

At the time, I was angry. He and his cohort, most notably Jeff Bezos of Amazon, contributed serious money to the campaign against a state income tax on the wealthy that would have funneled billions to our schools. Now I feel a pinch deep in my stomach, an emotion so primal I hesitate to name it.

As a mother, my time is come, or nearly done, and my childrens just begun.

Automation will absorb all of the jobs it can reach, whether on the factory floor or in an office. Artificial intelligence has already taken over the corporate earnings analyses I once produced as a business journalist. By the best measures Ive been able to find, machines will displace about half of American jobs by the time my toddlers look for work.

This new era has been called the second machine age, the fourth industrial revolution, the information economy.

From certain angles, Seattle residents seem well positioned to access the highly paid and creative jobs that arise from combining cutting-edge technologies with the exponential powers of computing and big data. My city is now considered a global city not because of the port, which put our state on the maps when they were still being drawn, but because of the presence of Microsoft, Amazon and numerous tech startups.

Amazon occupies one fifth of all office space in downtown Seattle, a short ride from my neighborhood on light rail. Incoming waves of well-educated tech workers have helped double the median home price during the past five years.

Many of these rich young people call themselves progressive. Are they proud to be joining the nations most regressive tax structure? In our state, poor people pay eight times as much of their family income to taxes as the wealthy 1%. Lacking a personal income tax, Washington state relies on sales tax and has long looked to levies to fund schools, parks and other social needs.

When I moved to Seattle in 2004, I marveled that the state didnt take a cut of my income from the now-defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It took me a while to contemplate what it means for an entire society to act against the interests of its children.

College-level tuitions before college

To survive the extinction of an entire class, I must prepare my two- and three-year-old sons to race with the robots, and not against them.

Our kids are going to meet an economy with far fewer entry-level positions and will have to clamber up a receding ladder. That means being in schools equipped to exceed the averages, not rising to meet them.

Washington state has underfunded our schools so long that our governments negligence was deemed unconstitutional by our state supreme court, which fined the state $100,000 a day for failing to provide a future for our children.

Years into this public shaming, the legislature came up with a multibillion-dollar package to fund basic education in our state, though they didnt manage to pass a capital budget before students went back to school after a long, dry summer.

Amazon
Amazon Go opens to Amazon employees in its Beta program in Seattle. Photograph: Paul Gordon/Zuma Press / eyevine

From my porch, I can see the chain-link fence blur into gray around the asphalt playground of our neighborhood public school. On weekday mornings, my closest friends walk to Hawthorne Elementary with their children, ducklings that cluster at crosswalks along streets known for gunfire. A new home just sold for nearly a million dollars at the end of our block, but people keep getting shot and dying at our community playfield.

Despite valiant efforts by its admirable principal, committed educators, engaged parents and resilient students, Hawthorne has been labeled failing since long before my husband and I bought a peeling house from a nice couple who raised their family here.

Less than half of the schools fourth and fifth graders meet the states standards in math, which makes me doubt that our educational system is preparing these kids to thrive in the glittering economy they were born under. Five years ago, the office of the superintendent of public instruction ranked Hawthorne among the bottom 5% of the state, according to test passage rates.

This, in a city known for minting billionaires.

In The Second Machine Age, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both MIT professors, recommend Montessori programs to prepare children for their future, with a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Thats Steam, for those not versed in educational acronyms.

Developed to help poor children realize their own innate potential, Montessori schools practice self-directed learning with tactile materials that encourage the freewheeling creativity that formed tech CEOs such as Bezos and Googles co-founders.

The private bilingual Montessori kindergarten I found 30 minutes away costs $20,000 a year.

Despite college-level tuitions, about one quarter of Seattle students opt out of the public school system to study at private or parochial schools. To send my sons to Seattles best private schools would cost more than $700,000, and thats before they get to college.

A survey of public schools in Seattle shows no Montessori options that my children can access, though a nearby program in Leschi was a success at first, drawing wealthier students into the public school system, bringing with them the engagement of their families.

The Leschi teachers were so distressed by the resulting racial, linguistic and housing disparities between the traditional and Montessori classes that they melded the programs, rather than working to recruit more students of color into the Montessori program, which they could not afford to expand. A taskforce opted against including technology in the curriculum, fearful they would attract too many white families.

I believe in diversity; my own blood is blended. A first generation Latinx, Ive invested years of effort to raise my sons to be bilingual. I also want to work toward equity in a city whose neighborhood schools reflect the segregation compelled by redlining and white flight.

Leschis students are learning hard truths about equity, but theyre improving together. Maybe thats enough. But I worry when well-intentioned people lacking the resources to serve their students equally decide against teaching technology, the lingua franca of our world. Even the state administers student tests by computer.

I sought answers from Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction. The injustice of it all is that we have never seen technology as a core learning, Reykdal said. Do we still consider technology an enrichment, or should it be a more profound part of basic education? The state hasnt made that decision yet.

Washington has hundreds of school districts overseen by elected boards that enact tangled mandates without the resources to see them through. All over the state, schools used levy monies to take care of basics and pay their teachers, rather than acquiring and teaching technology.

Deb Merle is Governor Jay Inslees K-12 education adviser. Merle said that designating technology as part of basic education, which would ensure that the dollars flowed to their purpose, is not a state priority, though she recognized that Reykdals predecessor also advocated for keeping technology funds separate.

I dont think we teach enough science, period. Thats what I spend a lot of time worrying about, not what kind of science, Merle said. Our elementary schools teach less than one hour per week of science.

Steam as a social justice issue

I kept dialing, determined to maintain the education-fueled trajectory of my family.

My kin have lived in dictatorship-induced diaspora since famine swept Spain under Franco; they later fled Batista, who ruled Cuba before Castro. I am not conditioned to expect social stability as a condition of being for any country.

The meeting I most dreaded was closest to home. On the short walk to our neighborhood school, I decided to come right out and tell its principal, Sandra Scott, that I am afraid to send my kids to Hawthorne because the schools test scores, though on the rise, are low enough to make me wince.

Luckily, Scott is a pragmatic visionary, the kind of principal who inspires parents to put down the remote and join the PTA. Since 2009, Scott has led Hawthornes revitalization, winning admiration and awards from Johns Hopkins University for her program of school, family and community partnerships.

Test scores dont define who the students are. Our kids are not a number, Scott said. There were things we needed to do differently or better like improving the academics and the school culture to bring families back into the community.

To
To face the age of automation, it is recommended children are taught a program with a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Photograph: Will Walker / NNP

Recognizing the opportunity that Seattles tech economy presents, Scott retooled Hawthorne to focus on Steam programming. Rather than cluster the high-performing test takers together which has segregated programs within diverse schools Hawthorne distributes them throughout classrooms. If a student excels in math, outstripping peers in that grades curriculum, the teacher walks that child to the next grade for math.

When it comes to fifth-grade science, those efforts more than doubled the test passage rates over three years, from 20% to 46%. I ache upon rereading that last sentence the hope and pride in the increase, the grimace I cant help but make at where they started, and what remains to be accomplished.

Scott and her staff find ways to make progress. But she doesnt have the funds for a technology teacher or trainings, so the lab will be largely unused this year. As a mother who cares about the kids who go to Hawthorne, I cant afford to wait for someone else to find those resources.

The leaders of this school are working to undo the effects of intergenerational poverty that dates back to slavery and other forced migrations. More than half of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunches. A quarter of the students are learning the language theyre taught in. Scores reflect circumstances, which is why Reykdal is refocusing the state on racial gaps, poverty gaps and English language gaps, down to the school level.

Many of the jobs first displaced by automation belong to peoples of color, women and others who depend on a combination of part-time positions. A federal council of economic advisers found an 83% likelihood that, by 2040, automation would displace jobs paying less than $20 per hour.

In Washington, Steam-related jobs pay double the median wage, for starters. The people moving here to work for Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing make much more. When we choose not to provide public schools with the resources needed to provide educational access to those opportunities, we are consigning local students to lesser-paid sectors of the economy, the very same that are vulnerable to automation. In other words, we are allowing our government to consecrate our children to poverty in real time.

Mass unemployment would make American society more violent, our law enforcement more brutal and our peoples more vulnerable to genocide. Automation is a social justice issue, and if history is any teacher, it shows us that vast swaths of disenfranchised peoples are a harbinger of war.

Problems that reflect the world

Whenever I have a problem thats too big to solve, I call my dad, and we argue about what to do. He told me the solution was simple. I should move. The only financially feasible choice would be the suburbs.

Something in me balks at leaving a city I love, and especially our neighborhood, where my children are happy. As a community, we just celebrated our 10th annual block party, a Cuban pig roast that my husband and I organize for our wedding anniversary. Our neighbors come bearing side dishes, canopies and games, and we dance until the DJs stop playing. The conversations we start on that night have lasted a decade. I want to stay.

As native Spanish speakers, my sons could option into the bilingual public schools on the other side of our gridlocked downtown, north of the covenants which kept people of color from buying homes. Those schools wait lists are legendary, but I am uncomfortable with the mostly white and relatively well-off demographics produced by saving only 15% of seats for native speakers. I want my kids to feel at home in a country that contains multitudes, which is why we moved to one of our nations most diverse zip codes.

Computers solve the problems theyre given. And so we must ask ourselves what we value, and whom.

Not every child wants to be a robotics engineer. But without the modes of thought elicited by learning computer science from an early age, many Washington state students will not be competitive for the jobs that remain. I want my own sons to be chosen and better yet, able to choose as I was, though I fell for a profession whose financial structures imploded five years after my college graduation.

I hope my privileged vulnerability encourages you to reflect on those truly trapped by our system. This essay invokes my worries as a mother, and with them, my socioeconomic position. Hawthorne is a happy place with diverse classrooms whose problems reflect the world, but I am glad of the years I have left to decide what my kids truly need to learn.

There can be no denying that I am one of the gentrifiers of this neighborhood, and with the honor of living here comes the responsibility to contribute. Looking at whats coming in the second machine age tremendous opportunities, to be sure, but also massive loss of what weve known as jobs I feel compelled to join those working toward a better future, minds whirring whenever problems arise.

Two nonprofits, FIRST Washington and XBOT Robotics, have offered support and equipment for Hawthorne to start a Lego robotics league after school. Four parents signed up to lead teams during last nights PTA meeting, my very first.

Its a start.

Get involved

To bolster Steam education for students, hybridized systems have sprung up as non-profits seek to prepare our children for the economy we will leave to them.

First Washington: This nonprofit helps start and sustain after-school Lego robotics leagues from K-12.

XBOT Robotics: Operating in one of the nations most diverse zip codes, offering robotics programming K-12.

Code.org: Free online programming for learners at all levels. Work through problems with your kids.

Technology Access Foundation: Helping people of color access Stem-related education in middle school, high school and beyond.

Washington State Opportunity Scholarship: A non-profit that funds thousands of Stem scholarships for Washingtons college-bound high school graduates. More than half of those scholarship recipients are students of color, women and/or the first in their family to access a higher education, if not all three.

Teals (Technology, Education and Literacy in Schools): Matches professionals with teachers to co-teach computer science in classrooms.

Seattle Mesa (Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement): Provides scholarships, in-class math and science projects, advanced learning opportunities, tutoring, math camp and teacher trainings.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/18/what-should-i-teach-my-children-to-prepare-them-for-jobs-in-their-era

Apple: don’t use Face ID on an iPhone X if you’re under 13 or have a twin

Facial recognition system is 20 times more secure than Touch ID, but struggles with young users and siblings

The iPhone X might be the future of Apples smartphone design, but its lauded Face ID facial recognition system has an issue with people under 13: its much more difficult to tell them apart.

In a security guide published Wednesday, Apple recommends that children under the age of 13 do not use Face ID due to the probability of a false match being significantly higher for young children. The company said this was because their distinct facial features may not have fully developed.

While few young children are likely to be given a 999 iPhone, false matches are also more likely for twins and siblings. In all those situations, the company recommends concerned users disable Face ID and use a passcode instead.

For most users those over 13 without evil twins, as Apples head of iOS Craig Federighi describes them the bigger concern is deliberate attacks. Touch ID, Apples fingerprint sensor, was famously bypassed just two days after it was launched in the iPhone 5S, using a fake fingerprint placed over a real finger.

With Face ID, Apple has implemented a secondary system that exclusively looks out for attempts to fool the technology. Both the authentication and spoofing defence are based on machine learning, but while the former is trained to identify individuals from their faces, the latter is used to look for telltale signs of cheating.

An additional neural network thats trained to spot and resist spoofing defends against attempts to unlock your phone with photos or masks, the company says. If a completely perfect mask is made, which fools the identification neural network, the defensive system will still notice just like a human.

Apple is also confident that it wont fall prey to issues of algorithmic bias that have plagued many attempts to use neural networks at scale. High-profile examples of such failures include the photo-labelling system that ltagged black people as gorillas, or the word-association model which states that men are computer programmers and women are homemakers.

Whenever its initial training exposed a demographic shortcoming, Apple says, it augmented the studies as needed to provide a high degree of accuracy for a diverse range of users. Time and millions of people around the world using the technology will tell whether the effort worked, but the company sounds confident.

One area the system will struggle with, however, is facial coverings. Apple says that Face ID is designed to work with hats, scarves, glasses, contact lenses and many sunglasses, but ultimately two things dictate whether or not it has a chance of success. The first is whether the coverings are transparent to infrared light, and the second whether the system can see the eyes, nose and mouth. While some fabrics are more transparent to infrared than they may seem, that means iPhone users who cover their faces may be forced to rely on a passcode when out and about.

Separately, Apple has also confirmed that the depth-sensing technology included in the iPhone X is not allowed to be used by developers to create their own facial biometrics, a possibility which had concerned many privacy activists.

The depth sensor data is not directly available to developers, but the camera API now allows them to receive a pixel-by-pixel measure of how far features in an image are from the lens, a system intended to be used to enable image manipulation such as Apples own portrait mode.

That could theoretically be used to build a standalone authentication feature, albeit one that is less precise than Apples own, but the company has updated its App Store policies to prevent developers from attempting to do so. You may not attempt, facilitate, or encourage others to identify anonymous users or reconstruct user profiles based on data collected from depth and/or facial mapping tools, the companys developer guidelines now state.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/27/apple-face-id-iphone-x-under-13-twin-facial-recognition-system-more-secure-touch-id

Google ‘segregates’ women into lower-paying jobs, stifling careers, lawsuit says

Exclusive: Women say Google denied them promotions, telling the Guardian they were forced into less prestigious jobs despite qualifications

Google systematically pays women less than men doing similar work, according to a class action-lawsuit accusing the technology company of denying promotions and career opportunities to qualified women who are segregated into lower-paying jobs.

The complaint, filed Thursday on behalf of all women employed by Google in California over the last four years, provided the most detailed formal accounts to date of gender discrimination and pay disparities at the company after months of criticisms and a growing chorus of women publicly speaking out.

Weve been talking about these issues for a long time, and it hasnt really changed, Kelly Ellis, a former Google employee and a lead plaintiff on the case, told the Guardian in her first interview about the suit. Theres been a lot of PR and lip service, but … this is going to be one of the only ways to get these companies to change how they hire and compensate women.

The claim that Google is violating labor laws by paying women less than men for substantially similar work comes at a time when the male-dominated tech sector is reeling from complaints about sexual harassment, discrimination and a glaring lack of diversity. The US Department of Labor (DoL) first accused the corporation of extreme pay discrimination in April as part of a lawsuit seeking to force Google to hand over salary records for a government audit.

The new lawsuit could have widespread ramifications, especially considering that Google has publicly insisted it has eliminated its gender pay gap and is a leader in the industry. Google also became ground zero for an international debate about diversity last month after it fired a male engineer who wrote a memo criticizing affirmative action and suggesting that white men have become victims of discrimination in tech.

Plaintiffs allege sexist culture at Google

The class-action complaint, filed in San Francisco, included three named plaintiffs who offered specific stories of Google assigning and keeping female employees in lower compensation levels than male employees with similar skills, experience, and duties.

Google disputed the central claims of lawsuit on Thursday, saying it had extensive systems in place to ensure that we pay fairly.

When Ellis was hired in 2010 as a software engineer for Google Photos, the company placed her into a Level 3 position typically assigned to new college graduates, according to the suit.

Several weeks later, Google hired a male software engineer, who graduated the same year as Ellis, into a Level 4 position on her team, the complaint said. Level 4 engineers receive substantially higher salary and opportunities for bonuses, raises, and equity, her lawyers wrote.

I was so excited just to be there. I really wanted to give Google the benefit of the doubt, Ellis said in an interview.

But other male software engineers who were less qualified than Ellis or at the same level were promoted into Level 4 and higher positions, according to the suit. Google initially denied Ellis a promotion, despite excellent performance reviews, claiming she hadnt been at the company long enough, the suit said. By the time she advanced, she said, she was far behind her male counterparts who had better opportunities from the start.

Echoing a broader complaint in the tech sector, Ellis said she also observed that male software engineers occupied most of the higher-paying back-end roles while female software engineers were assigned to front-end positions, which design what users see and are considered less prestigious.

Ellis, who has a degree in applied mathematics and a minor in computer science, had experience in back-end development. But Google assigned her to an occupationally-segregated frontend engineering role, the suit said. She quit in July 2014 due to the sexist culture at Google, according to the complaint. Ellis previously made headlines in 2015 when she tweeted about harassment at Google.

Another plaintiff, Holly Pease, was hired in 2005 and advanced to a senior manager role overseeing about 50 software engineers and product managers across multiple teams. Although she had more than 10 years of experience as a network engineer before Google, she was placed into a non-technical career track while the engineers she managed and the other senior manager in her group, a man, were all in technical roles, which come with higher compensation rates, the complaint said.

Pease later coached non-technical employees on how to pass interviews to transition to technical jobs, helping many get promotions, including a male manager a level below her who had performed poorly, according to the suit.

But Pease herself was denied a promotion to a technical position, the complaint said: Ms Peases two interviewers, both men, did not ask her any technical questions, and one interviewer did not even bother to take notes of the meeting with her.

Google claimed she lacked technical ability despite her technical background, according to the suit. She resigned in 2016 due to the lack of technical and engineering opportunities available to her and other women.

James Finberg, one of the civil rights attorneys who filed the suit, told the Guardian that more than 90 women who previously worked or currently work at Google have contacted him about the class action.

Weve heard from a lot of women about stereotypes and perceptions that women cant do coding, he said. Its frustrating and demoralizing.

Google
Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. The new lawsuit claims Google is violating labor laws by paying women less than men for substantially similar work. Photograph: JasonDoiy/Getty Images

The third plaintiff, Kelli Wisuri, joined in 2012 when Google acquired her company. Despite three years of sales experience, she was placed into a Level 2 role, considered the lowest level available to permanent, full-time employees, the suit said. Men with comparable qualifications started at Level 3 or higher, according to the complaint.

Wisuri was also placed on a lower-paying career track, in which about 50% of employees were women, according to the suit. She said nearly all the sales employees she encountered in a higher sales track were men.

Despite doing very similar work to men in the higher tier, she was not promoted and resigned in 2015 due to lack of opportunities for advancement for women, the suit said.

Fears of retribution

Google did not respond to detailed inquiries about the plaintiffs, but a spokeswoman, Gina Scigliano, contested the allegations.

Job levels and promotions are determined through rigorous hiring and promotion committees, and must pass multiple levels of review, including checks to make sure there is no gender bias in these decisions, she said in a statement to the Guardian. But on all these topics, if we ever see individual discrepancies or problems, we work to fix them, because Google has always sought to be a great employer, for every one of our employees.

Finberg said that several current Google employees considered being named plaintiffs, but backed out due to concerns that they could face retribution from the company, which has repeatedly been accused of silencing critics and whistleblowers with strict confidentiality policies.

A US labor department official involved in the audit told the Guardian in April that the governments analysis at this point indicates that discrimination against women in Google is quite extreme, even in this industry. Currently, men occupy 80% of tech jobs at the company.

This month, the New York Times obtained an internal Google spreadsheetthat showed that women on average were paid less than men within the same job levels and tended to receive lower bonuses.

Google, which faced similar allegations in 2015,claimed to the Times that the spreadsheet was not representative and did not take into account factors like job performance and whether employees were in higher-paying technical roles.

Ellis recalled how disappointing it was to see no women making presentations at the first all-hands engineering meeting she attended at Google.

There definitely was a lack of role models, she said. It made me feel like I could never get to the level where these guys are.

Ellis added that she hoped the suit would put other tech firms on notice: They have to treat everyone fairly. Otherwise, we are going to take action.

Contact the author: sam.levin@theguardian.com

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/14/google-women-promotions-lower-paying-jobs-lawsuit

Collection of letters by codebreaker Alan Turing found in filing cabinet

The correspondence, dating from 1949 to 1954, was found by an academic in a storeroom at the University of Manchester

A lost collection of nearly 150 letters from the codebreaker Alan Turing has been uncovered in an old filing cabinet at the University of Manchester.

The correspondence, which has not seen the light of day for at least 30 years, contains very little about Turings tortured personal life. It does, however, give an intriguing insight into his views on America.

In response to an invitation to speak at a conference in the US in April 1953, Turing replied that he would rather not attend: I would not like the journey, and I detest America.

The letter, sent to Donald Mackay, a physicist at Kings College London, does not give any further explanation for Turings forthright views on America, nor do these views feature in any of the other 147 letters discovered earlier this year.

The correspondence, dating from early 1949 to Turings death in 1954, was found by chance when an academic cleared out an old filing cabinet in a storeroom at the University of Manchester. Turing was deputy director of the universitys computing laboratory from 1948, after his heroic wartime codebreaking at Bletchley Park.

Turing was a visionary mathematician and is regarded today as the father of modern computing who broke the Nazis second world war Enigma code. While his later life has been overshadowed by his conviction for gross indecency and his death aged 41 from cyanide poisoning, a posthumous pardon was granted by the Queen in 2013. His life was featured in the 2014 film the Imitation Game.

Prof Jim Miles, of the universitys school of computer science, said he was amazed to stumble upon the documents, contained in an ordinary-looking red paper file with Alan Turing scrawled on it.

When I first found it I initially thought: That cant be what I think it is, but a quick inspection showed it was a file of old letters and correspondence by Alan Turing, he said.

I was astonished such a thing had remained hidden out of sight for so long. No one who now works in the school or at the university knew they even existed. It really was an exciting find and it is mystery as to why they had been filed away.

The collection focuses mainly on Turings academic research, including his work on groundbreaking areas in AI, computing and mathematics, and invitations to lecture at some of Americas best-known universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It contains a single letter from GCHQ, for whom Turing worked during the war, asking the mathematician in 1952 if he could supply a photograph of himself for an official history of Bletchley Park that was being compiled by the American cryptographer William Friedman. In his reply to Eric Jones, GCHQs then director, Turing said he would send a picture for the American rogues gallery.

The collection also contains a handwritten draft BBC radio programme on artificial intelligence, titled Can machines think? from July 1951. The documents were sorted, catalogued and stored by the University of Manchester archivist James Peters and are now available to search online.

Peters said: This is a truly unique find. Archive material relating to Turing is extremely scarce, so having some of his academic correspondence is a welcome and important addition to our collection.

There is very little in the way of personal correspondence, and no letters from Turing family members. But this still gives us an extremely interesting account and insight into his working practices and academic life whilst he was at the University of Manchester.

He added: The letters mostly confirm what is already known about Turings work at Manchester, but they do add an extra dimension to our understanding of the man himself and his research.

As there is so little actual archive on this period of his life, this is a very important find in that context. There really is nothing else like it.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/aug/27/collection-letters-codebreaker-alan-turing-found-filing-cabinet

Why are there so few women in tech? The truth behind the Google memo

An engineer at the company has suggested male domination of Silicon Valley is down to biological differences between the sexes. But the root causes are much more complicated

It is time to be open about the science of human nature. This was the assertion of software engineer James Damore to his colleagues at Google, in an internal memo that has since led to his sacking. Im simply stating, Damore wrote, that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we dont see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. He went on to imply that womens stronger interest in people and neuroticism might make them less naturally suited to being coders at Google.

The companys leadership viewed the matter differently, firing Damore and sparing his female colleagues the need to prove their biological aptitude for working with computers.

Sacking one errant employee doesnt alter an awkward fact, though. Only 20% of Google engineers are women a statistic that is matched roughly across big tech companies. So, does Damore have a point? Is there an underlying biological explanation for why so few women work at a company that prides itself on its progressive ideals and family-friendly ethos?

There are countless scientific studies that claim to identify differences between male and female cognitive aptitudes and, in the UK, far fewer girls choose to study computer science at GCSE level (20% of the total number of students), at degree level (16%) and beyond. There is something seductive about the idea that professional success springs from our innate abilities, rather than the degree to which society tips the odds in our favour.

After the contents of the memo became public, through a leak to tech site Gizmodo, the scientific argument for innate biological differences quickly found favour with some tech insiders, albeit those writing anonymously on sites such as Hacker News and the gossip app Blind.

Students
Students at the Indian Institute of Management Lucknow. Far more women study computing in India than in the UK. Photograph: Hindustan Times/Getty Images

On Blind which requires users to prove who they work for before posting one Google employee wrote: Can we go back to the time when Silicon Valley were [sic] about nerds and geeks, thats why I applied [to] Google and came to the US. I mean this industry used to be a safe place for people like us, why so fking complicated now. I used to dislike conservatives until I started working in tech, wrote another. Now I sympathise with them due to the hostility and groupthink, as well as the fact that they are the only ones standing up for classical liberal values.

While the biological hypothesis seems to appeal to some tech workers, the notion that Silicon Valleys gender gap can be explained away by such factors is questionable. Prof Dame Wendy Hall, a director of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton, points to the wide variation in gender ratios in computing internationally, which she argues would not be seen if there were a universal biological difference in ability between the sexes. While only 16% of computer science undergraduates in the UK and a similar proportion in the US are female, the balance is different in India, Malaysia and Nigeria.

I walk into a classroom in India and its more than 50% girls, the same in Malaysia, says Hall. They are so passionate about coding, Lots of women love coding. There just arent these gender differences there.

In fact, in the west, female participation in computer science has plunged since the mid-80s, while female participation in medicine and other scientific fields has increased steadily.

Over the past decade, even with a number of initiatives being set up to boost girls participation in coding and computer science, the proportion of female computer science undergraduates has continued to fall 10 years ago, the proportion was 19% of the UK total.

Hall believes that the gender gap and the male computer geek stereotype can be dated back to the advent of the home computer in the early 80s, when the machines were marketed heavily as gaming systems for men. She suspects this might be more culpable for womens low participation than men having evolved a mindset better suited to writing lines of code.

Women were turned off computing in the 80s, she says. Computers were sold as toys for the boys. Somehow that cultural stigma has stuck in the west in a way that we cant get rid of and its just getting worse. The skills gap is going to get huge.

Jane Margolis, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees. Margolis interviewed hundreds of computer science students in the 90s at Carnegie Mellon University, which had one of the top programmes in the country at the time.

Many of the women at Carnegie Mellon talked about computers being in [their brothers] bedroom and there were a lot of father-son internships around the computer that werent happening with the girls, she says. There was a cultural assumption that the norms of being in computer science were that you would do it 24/7, were obsessed with it, wanted nothing in your life but computers and that was very much associated with male adolescents, she added. It was very much based around a male norm. Females were made to think that, if they didnt dream in code and if it wasnt their full obsession, they didnt belong or were not capable of being in the field.

Former
Former Tinder vice-president Whitney Wolfe, who sued the company over atrocious misogyny in 2014. Photograph: Jeff Wilson for the Observer

Prof Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Aston University in Birmingham, has studied extensively cognitive differences between men and women. She says that, while Damore pointed to scientific evidence for men and women having different aptitudes and personality traits, he seemed to miss the point that, even if there were well-established sex differences at any level, theyre always very tiny. Certainly not enough to explain the gender ratios of Google programmers even if you didnt want to get into the nitty-gritty of arguing about the science.

Rippons work suggests that, in many cases, the differences between male and female performance, if present, are very small, can disappear with training and are not consistent across cultures.

In one study, Rippon found that British men performed significantly better on a spatial rotation task than women. However, when the experiment was repeated with Chinese participants, there was no difference between the male and female participants. Other similar studies have found that gender differences in spatial rotation tasks disappeared when the researchers controlled for video game experience. Rippon points to another study, which showed that differences in personality traits between men and women varied wildly across countries, depending on the status of women in that society.

So, Damores suggestion that women are more prone to anxiety does not imply that this difference is a function of hormones or hardwiring of the brain. Plus, there is compelling evidence that unconscious biases have a powerful effect on what people expect themselves to be good at and how they perform. For instance, girls tend to score worse on a test if they are told their maths skills are being assessed than when they are told they are taking part in a study investigating how people solve problems.

Even assuming that there are fundamental differences between male and female cognition and personality, there is no clear, logical line between such findings in a laboratory setting and performance in the workplace.

Priya Guha, the UK lead of tech incubator RocketSpace and a former UK consul general in San Francisco, argues that, even by its own arguments, Damores memo missed the point. The description of an engineer as somebody who has their head down, focused on developing the next line of code, is the sort of engineer that wont be adding value, she says. We need engineers out there who are both very strong developers, but also people who understand the world around them and are comfortable interacting with society. So, by that description, women would be better engineers even by the stereotypes he proposes.

Unfortunately, many such multiskilled people are likely to be deterred by the perception of hostility engendered by claims like Damores. We have a historical challenge to encourage girls, let alone women, into careers such as engineering, which then creates an imbalance in the people who enter tech industries overall, says Guha. Tech has a particular problem in this area. Wherever there are instances of people creating a hostile environment, companies need to stamp that out quickly. His dismissal sends a really powerful message: the environment in these companies needs to be thought about to ensure that it improves day by day.

But Eileen Burbidge, a partner at venture capital firm Passion Capital, argues that tech does not have a significantly worse gender gap than other high-pressure industries such as finance or the media. I think it comes down to cultural norms and female representation in general, Burbidge says. It is what affects the rest of the business world: its around the same time that women start thinking about having families that they think about the opportunity cost of staying in a work environment, and if its not positive or they get negative influences its going to affect their decisions.

She argues that, in many ways, tech is better placed than most large industries to tackle its gender gaps. I dont think theres anything specific that needs to be done for technology: I think the tech sector is more introspective and likes to think of itself as more progressive, so remedies that work for other sectors will help here, too, she says.

In Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] in particular, were seeing the tech industry trying to be more proactive about outreach. The industry is trying to have this discussion a lot companies dont always follow what they say, but they say it, at least.

Computer
Computing is too important to be left to men … the late computer scientist Karen Sprck Jones. Photograph: Cambridge University

Peter Daly, an associate in the employment team at the law firm Bindmans, agrees with Burbidge. The clients Ive had from the tech world are pretty evenly split by gender, he says. But, because it encourages risk-taking, tech doesnt fit well with maternity and pregnancy, so that can be a source of a lot of friction. You see people in the industry who see pregnancy as a genuine problem. That, he says, is the main cause of gender-specific issues in technology at least, those that reach the stage of requiring a legal recourse.

Internal documents such as Damores are the soft end of the sort of hostile working environment female employees can face at overwhelmingly male tech firms. At the extreme end, as companies such as Uber and Tinder have learned, this environment can result in claims of sexual harassment and illegal discrimination.

At Uber, where 85% of technical employees are male, one engineer, Susan Fowler, wrote a tell-all blogpost that revealed a workplace where managers proposition female employees for sex and human resources does little to stop the issue. Tinder faced a similar scandal when former VP Whitney Wolfe sued the company over atrocious misogyny in 2014, entering into evidence abusive texts allegedly sent by Tinders chairman, Sean Rad.

Beyond the egregious cases, the wider culture of even the most diverse Silicon Valley firms can still end up being offputting to would-be employees: the campus-style culture, which encourages workers to be on site from dawn till dusk, renders it hard for any primary caregiver to be part of the team, while in some companies an antipathy for part-time work or on-site creches can also limit flexibility.

Addressing the gender gap isnt only an issue of perception. Companies with homogenous workforces make worse products and earn less money, argues Guha. We know large numbers of women are struggling to get funding. A female founder is 86% less likely to be funded than a man, she says. Thats crazy when we know the return on investment is higher; it is about 34% higher for companies with a gender diverse leadership. Its not about corporate social responsibility: a diverse range of thinking will bring better value for the company.

As we move into a future in which algorithms have greater influence on our lives from communication to healthcare, transport to the law the gender balance in tech companies goes beyond what is fair for their employees. The result of male domination of tech has led to the development of, for example, voice recognition technologies that, trained and tested solely by men, struggle to understand female voices. It has resulted in virtual reality technologies that disproportionally impose motion sickness on women. At this early moment in its history, the tech industry is already littered with products that have gender bias effectively programmed into them.

The most objectionable point about that memo was the notion that there are biological differences that make women less capable, said Burbidge. Obviously, I have an issue with that and I think its fundamentally incorrect. The thing I cant answer is how, in 2017, do you stop people thinking that? I dont know how you change peoples minds.

As we go into the world of AI, when people are designing algorithms that help us live our lives, it will be very bad if thats all done by men, says Hall. Social care, looking after kids, so many aspects of our lives. We really need as many people as possible doing this. Its really important and its going to get more important.

Hall invokes her late mentor Karen Sprck Jones, a pioneering British computer scientist who campaigned hard to encourage more women into the field. As she used to say: Computing is too important to be left to men.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/aug/08/why-are-there-so-few-women-in-tech-the-truth-behind-the-google-memo

Tech has become another wayfor men to oppress women | Lizzie OShea

We act as if technology were neutral but its not. The challenge now is to remove the gender bias, says human rights lawyer and writer Lizzie OShea

Most women in the Bay Area are soft and weak, cosseted and naive, despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit, wrote former Facebook product manager Antonio Garca Martnez in 2016. They have their self-regarding entitlement feminism, and ceaselessly vaunt their independence. But the reality is, come the epidemic plague or foreign invasion, theyd become precisely the sort of useless baggage youd trade for a box of shotgun shells or a jerry can of diesel. This is from his insider account of Silicon Valley, Chaos Monkeys. The book was a bestseller. The New York Times called it an irresistible and indispensable 360-degree guide to the new technology establishment. Anyone who is surprised by the recent revelations of sexism spreading like wildfire through the technology industry has not been paying attention.

When Susan Fowler wrote about her experience of being sexually harassed at Uber, it prompted a chain of events that seemed unimaginable months ago, including an investigation led by former attorney general Eric Holder, and the departure of a number of key members of the companys leadership team. Venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck faced allegations of harassing behaviour, and when he offered an unimpressive denial, companies funded by his firm banded together to condemn his tepidity. He subsequently resigned, and the future of his former firm is unclear. Since then, dozens of women have come forward to reveal the sexist culture in numerous Silicon Valley technology and venture capital firms. It is increasingly clear from these accounts that the problem for women in the tech industry is not a failure to lean in, it is a cultureof harassment and discrimination that makes many of their workplaces unsafe and unpleasant.

At least this issue is being discussed in ways that open up the possibility that it will be addressed. But the problem of sexism in the tech industry goes much deeper and wider. Technological development is undermining the cause of womens equality in other ways.

American academic Melvin Kranzbergs first law of technology tells us that technology is neither inherently good nor bad, nor is it neutral. As a black mirror it reflects the problems that exist in society including the oppression of women. Millions of people bark orders at Alexa, every day, but rarely are we encouraged to wonder why the domestic organiser is voiced by a woman. The entry system for a womens locker room in a gym recently refused entry to a female member because her title was Dr, and it categorised her as male.

But the issue is not only that technology products reflect a backward view of the role of women. They often also appear ignorant or indifferent to womens lived experience. As the internet of things expands, more devices in our homes and on our bodies are collecting data about us and sending it to networks, a process over which we often have little control. This presents profound problems for vulnerable members of society, including survivors of domestic violence. Wearable technology can be hacked, cars and phones can be tracked, and data from a thermostat can reveal whether someone is at home. This potential is frightening for people who have experienced rape, violence or stalking.

Unsurprisingly, technology is used by abusers: in a survey of domestic violence services organisations, 97% reported that the survivors who use them have experienced harassment, monitoring, and threats by abusers through the misuse of technology. This often happens on phones, but 60% of those surveyed also reported that abusers have spied or eavesdropped on the survivor or children using other forms of technology, including toys and other gifts. Many shelters have resorted to banning the use of Facebook because of fears about revealing information about their location to stalkers. There are ways to make devices give control to users and limit the capacity for abuse. But there is little evidence that this has been a priority for the technology industry.

Products that are more responsive to the needs of women would be a great start. But we should also be thinking bigger: we must avoid reproducing sexism in system design. The word-embedding models used in things like conversation bots and word searches provide an instructive example. These models operate by feeding huge amounts of text into a computer so it learns how words relate to each other in space. It is based on the premise that words which appear near each other in texts share meaning. These spatial relationships are used in natural language-processing so that computers can engage with us conversationally. By reading a lot of text, a computer can learn that Paris is to France as Tokyo is to Japan. It develops a dictionary by association.

But this can create problems when the world is not exactly as it ought to be. For instance, researchers have experimented with one of these word-embedding models, Word2vec, a popular and freely available model trained on three million words from Google News. They found that it produces highly gendered analogies. For instance, when asked Man is to woman as computer programmer is to ?, the model will answer homemaker. Or for father is to mother as doctor is to ?, the answer is nurse. Of course the model reflects a certain reality: it is true that there are more male computer programmers, and nurses are more often women. But this bias, reflecting social discrimination, will now be reproduced and reinforced when we engage with computers using natural language that relies on Word2vec. It is not hard to imagine how this model could also be racially biased, or biased against other groups.

These biases can be amplified duringthe process of language learning. As the MIT Technology Review points out: If the phrase computer programmer is more closely associated with men than women, then a search for theterm computer programmer CVs might rank men more highly than women. When this kind of language learning has applications across fields including medicine, education, employment, policymaking and criminal justice, it is not hard to see how much damage such biases can cause.

Removing such gender bias is a challenge, in part because the problem is inherently political: Word2vec entrenches the world as it is, rather thanwhat it could or should be. But if we are to alter the models to reflect aspirations, how do we decide what kind of world we want to see?

Digital technology offers myriad waysto put these understandings to work. It is not bad, but we have to challenge the presumption that it is neutral. Its potential is being explored in ways that are sometimes promising, often frightening and amazing. To make the most of this moment, we need to imagine a future without the oppressions of the past. We need to allow women to reach their potential in workplaces where they feel safe and respected. But we also need to look into the black mirror of technology and find the cracks of light shining through.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/07/technology-sexist-society-even-worse-women-potential

Googles Tensor2Tensor makes it easier to conduct deep learning experiments

Googles brain team is open sourcing Tensor2Tensor, a new deep learning library designed to help researchers replicate results from recent papers in the field and push the boundaries of whats possible by trying new combinations of models, datasets and other parameters. The sheer number of variables in AI research combined with the fast pace of new developments makes it difficult for experiments run in two distinct settings to match. This is a pain for researchers and a drag on research progress.

The Tensor2Tensor library makes it easier to maintain best practices while conducting AI research. It comes equipped with key ingredients including hyperparameters, data-sets, model architectures and learning rate decay schemes.

The best part is that any of these components can be swapped in and out in a modular fashion without completely destroying everything. From a training perspective, this means that with Tensor2Tensor you can bring in new models and data sets at any time a much simpler process than would ordinarily be possible.

Google isnt alone in its pursuits to help make research more reproducible outside the lab. Facebook recently open sourced ParlAI, its tool to facilitate dialog research that comes prepackaged with commonly used datasets.

Similarly, Googles Tensor2Tensor comes with models from recent Google research projects like Attention Is All You Need and One Model to Learn Them All. Everything is available now on Github so you can start training your own deep learning-powered tools.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2017/06/19/tensor2tensor/

Meet the millennials making big money riding China’s bitcoin wave

The cryptocurrency may have no physical form but the returns from trading it can be very real and for some theyre worth giving up your job for

On a sunny afternoon in west Beijing, on the auspicious eighth floor of a nondescript concrete high-rise, Huai Yang sits with the curtains drawn in his apartment, making his own luck.

For the past six months, 27-year-old Yang has worked mainly from home, mainly from his sofa, tracking and trading bitcoin, and watching the money roll in. The flat itself is modestly sized; Yang moved in in his pre-bitcoin days when he worked variously for a crowdfunder start-up, a branding consultancy and dabbled in hedge-fund management, all of which he describes as creative financial work. Now, though, his main focus is bitcoin, which is much younger, more fun, and much more money. Yang claims to make up to 1m yuan (116,000) a month, under the radar of the taxman, purely from trading the online cryptocurrency.

Bitcoin has no physical form but the rewards are very tangible; Yangs home is packed full of expensive gadgetry, most prominently a mega-sized flat screen smart board, over a metre wide, which Yang uses to chart bitcoins rise and fall in HD.

Normally, the graphs on Yangs screen show bitcoins and his own fortunes going up and up. At the time of writing, one bitcoin is worth 6,600 yuan (768) recent months have seen the value hover well above 8,000 yuan. The global worth of bitcoin is over $14bn USD (11.3bn), of which over 90% is in yuan, and Yang and his peers are cashing in. I want a more splendid life, he says.

Huai
Huai Yang, who trades bitcoin from his sofa Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

Theres certainly big money to be made in bitcoin, but it comes at a high risk. Bitcoin was designed to be a peer-to-peer currency, free from interference from government and central banks. Since the currency was launched in 2009, however, the Chinese market, where government interventions are common, has come to dwarf all others.

One such intervention took place in February this year, when the government warned that there would be serious violations for trading platforms that failed to abide by strict money-laundering regulations. In line with this, OKCoin and Huobi.com, the two biggest exchanges in China, announced that they would be suspending bitcoin withdrawals for one month.

Incidents like these, which Yang sees as not convenient, but not [a] problem, give Chenxing (who asked that I only use his first name) pause for thought. Chenxing, a boyish, skittish 35, has been trading bitcoin for the past four months, after giving up his too comfortable job as a geo-information engineer for the government. The governments pressure on bitcoin platforms is not so easy to understand, he tells me. Im not sure its really about money laundering they try to control [bitcoin], but they cannot.

For Chenxing, its the system itself that is vulnerable: Technology changes every day, he explains. Maybe tomorrow a hacker can find a way to crack bitcoin the security is from mathematics. If you can crack the mathematics, bitcoin is nothing. Thats why, even though Chenxing describes himself as a believer in bitcoin, he doesnt plan to stay involved for the long term.

Its really not a stable thing, he says, both in terms of fluctuating prices and the uncertain technological future of the cryptocurrency. That said, hes still making more money than in his previous government job. In a good month, Chenxing will pocket the cash value of around five bitcoin, which is close to 40,000 yuan, and which Chenxing prefers to have in cold, hard cash.

Chenxing is something of an anomaly in Chinese bitcoin circles, where the general mood is one of evangelical faith in the currencys potential, especially in an economy where the government often devalues the national currency.

Brendan Gibson, 32, is a United States national who has been in China for six years, trading bitcoin for three. Weve barely sat down to talk when Gibson takes my phone and downloads the BTC Wallet app onto it, before transferring me the seeds of my cryptocurrency fortune: 0.0027 bitcoin, worth 2.50, which is the amount that everyone in the world would have if the 21m bitcoin in existence were equally divided up between all 7.8 billion of us. He believes that everybodys aunt or grandma should be using bitcoin.

Brendan
Brendan Gibson: Im just kind of fed up with the system. Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

For Gibson, bitcoin is a way of life. He hopes to be completely bank free in the near future. Hailing from the shady mortgage industry of corporate America, Gibson shares Chenxings distrustful attitude, but is more concerned about private banks than bitcoins technological vulnerability. Im just kind of fed up with the system, he tells me over coffee in a slick caf and co-working space from where Gibson does most of his work remotely.

I dont think economies should be built on inflated numbers, and I think its kind of ridiculous that everybody relies on this inflated number in their bank account when its definitely not there bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are making it so that we are our own banks, and thats one less things we have to worry about. Gibson owns two companies in China, and as far as possible uses bitcoin for all his daily expenses, converting the personal profits he makes into bitcoin to avoid using banks.

One of the commonly cited weaknesses in the bitcoin system is that if you lose your private key to access your bitcoin wallet, the bitcoin within are lost forever. In 2015, it was estimated that up to 30% of all mined bitcoins had been lost, with a value of 625m. Unsurprisingly, plenty of people see this as an opportunity to make some money.

Sun Zeyu, 27, works at a tech start-up based near Beijings university district that specialises in bitcoin. His latest project is Coldlar, an offline, physical wallet that stores users bitcoin and can be accessed by scanning a QR code. Bitcoin security is a tough question, Sun tells me, which is why he and his colleagues designed a product that allows people to circumvent bitcoin platforms and have even greater control over their bitcoin. Now that the value [of bitcoin] is going up, he explains, people really realise the importance of security.

Before, when we just traded one or two coins, people didnt mind, [but] now the value of bitcoin is much bigger. Sun got involved with bitcoin while at university after attending a seminar run by Huobi, one of the biggest trading platforms in China. Like his flashier friend Yang, Sun wanted money, and lots of it. He wont tell me exactly how much he earns, but assures me that its hundreds or thousands times more than the 10,000 yuan per month he was earning when he first dabbled in bitcoin three years ago.

His money comes from both his trading activity and his company salary. With the growth of bitcoin and related products like his Coldlar wallet, Sun believes that in 10 years time, the value of the cryptocurrency will be one bitcoin, one house in Beijing. Minor shocks to the system, like the recent suspension of bitcoin withdrawals in China, are just like breathing, he insists, and the inhalations of profit dwarf any other bumps in the road.

Sun
Sun Zeyu at work. Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

Despite the solitary nature of their work, Yang, Sun, Gibson and Chenxing are all sociable creatures. Gibson is connected to hundreds of bitcoin aficionados in China, and has introduced close to 1,000 new people to the technology (although how many are like me, with 2.50 lying dormant in an unused wallet, is unknown), such is his enthusiasm for the cryptocurrency. Chenxing cites the social side of the bitcoin scene in Beijing as one of the main attractions of staying in the industry and the city.

I can meet some fun people who really love bitcoin I think most of the people who like bitcoin are people who like freedom he says. Yang, however, takes a slightly harder-edged approach. He has little patience for sceptics: Yes, bitcoin is a risk. Why should I have to discuss these things with [people concerned about the security]? I earn my money, thats enough. I dont waste my time explaining bitcoin [if] youre not my client. In some ways, Yang concedes, the less people understand bitcoin, the better it is for him. At the moment, the industry is like an ATM for him and his peers, and hes perfectly happy for things to stay that way.

In the fast-changing world of the crypto-currency, nothing seems to stay the same for long. Whether its unpredictable government interventions, or debates within the community about how the industry can and should be scaled, general growth in value thus fair doesnt necessarily suggest anything about the future of bitcoin, despite the faith of its adherents. Gibson makes the point that bitcoin has only been around for nine years; it took PayPal at least 10 to properly catch on.

In Japan it has recently been recognised as legal tender. Its unlikely that the same could ever happen in China, no matter how much its popularity continues to balloon. Chenxing, who has years of insider experience, is sure that [the government] will never accept a thing thats not built by themselves. Many bitcoin traders in China are in it for the long haul, confident that they can ride out any governmental interferences, as long as they have access to the internet. Chenxing, however, is more paranoid. His final thoughts on bitcoin are: I never feel secure.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr/11/meet-the-millennials-making-big-money-riding-chinas-bitcoin-wave

Meet the millennials making big money riding China’s bitcoin wave

The cryptocurrency may have no physical form but the returns from trading it can be very real and for some theyre worth giving up your job for

On a sunny afternoon in west Beijing, on the auspicious eighth floor of a nondescript concrete high-rise, Huai Yang sits with the curtains drawn in his apartment, making his own luck.

For the past six months, 27-year-old Yang has worked mainly from home, mainly from his sofa, tracking and trading bitcoin, and watching the money roll in. The flat itself is modestly sized; Yang moved in in his pre-bitcoin days when he worked variously for a crowdfunder start-up, a branding consultancy and dabbled in hedge-fund management, all of which he describes as creative financial work. Now, though, his main focus is bitcoin, which is much younger, more fun, and much more money. Yang claims to make up to 1m yuan (116,000) a month, under the radar of the taxman, purely from trading the online cryptocurrency.

Bitcoin has no physical form but the rewards are very tangible; Yangs home is packed full of expensive gadgetry, most prominently a mega-sized flat screen smart board, over a metre wide, which Yang uses to chart bitcoins rise and fall in HD.

Normally, the graphs on Yangs screen show bitcoins and his own fortunes going up and up. At the time of writing, one bitcoin is worth 6,600 yuan (768) recent months have seen the value hover well above 8,000 yuan. The global worth of bitcoin is over $14bn USD (11.3bn), of which over 90% is in yuan, and Yang and his peers are cashing in. I want a more splendid life, he says.

Huai
Huai Yang, who trades bitcoin from his sofa Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

Theres certainly big money to be made in bitcoin, but it comes at a high risk. Bitcoin was designed to be a peer-to-peer currency, free from interference from government and central banks. Since the currency was launched in 2009, however, the Chinese market, where government interventions are common, has come to dwarf all others.

One such intervention took place in February this year, when the government warned that there would be serious violations for trading platforms that failed to abide by strict money-laundering regulations. In line with this, OKCoin and Huobi.com, the two biggest exchanges in China, announced that they would be suspending bitcoin withdrawals for one month.

Incidents like these, which Yang sees as not convenient, but not [a] problem, give Chenxing (who asked that I only use his first name) pause for thought. Chenxing, a boyish, skittish 35, has been trading bitcoin for the past four months, after giving up his too comfortable job as a geo-information engineer for the government. The governments pressure on bitcoin platforms is not so easy to understand, he tells me. Im not sure its really about money laundering they try to control [bitcoin], but they cannot.

For Chenxing, its the system itself that is vulnerable: Technology changes every day, he explains. Maybe tomorrow a hacker can find a way to crack bitcoin the security is from mathematics. If you can crack the mathematics, bitcoin is nothing. Thats why, even though Chenxing describes himself as a believer in bitcoin, he doesnt plan to stay involved for the long term.

Its really not a stable thing, he says, both in terms of fluctuating prices and the uncertain technological future of the cryptocurrency. That said, hes still making more money than in his previous government job. In a good month, Chenxing will pocket the cash value of around five bitcoin, which is close to 40,000 yuan, and which Chenxing prefers to have in cold, hard cash.

Chenxing is something of an anomaly in Chinese bitcoin circles, where the general mood is one of evangelical faith in the currencys potential, especially in an economy where the government often devalues the national currency.

Brendan Gibson, 32, is a United States national who has been in China for six years, trading bitcoin for three. Weve barely sat down to talk when Gibson takes my phone and downloads the BTC Wallet app onto it, before transferring me the seeds of my cryptocurrency fortune: 0.0027 bitcoin, worth 2.50, which is the amount that everyone in the world would have if the 21m bitcoin in existence were equally divided up between all 7.8 billion of us. He believes that everybodys aunt or grandma should be using bitcoin.

Brendan
Brendan Gibson: Im just kind of fed up with the system. Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

For Gibson, bitcoin is a way of life. He hopes to be completely bank free in the near future. Hailing from the shady mortgage industry of corporate America, Gibson shares Chenxings distrustful attitude, but is more concerned about private banks than bitcoins technological vulnerability. Im just kind of fed up with the system, he tells me over coffee in a slick caf and co-working space from where Gibson does most of his work remotely.

I dont think economies should be built on inflated numbers, and I think its kind of ridiculous that everybody relies on this inflated number in their bank account when its definitely not there bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are making it so that we are our own banks, and thats one less things we have to worry about. Gibson owns two companies in China, and as far as possible uses bitcoin for all his daily expenses, converting the personal profits he makes into bitcoin to avoid using banks.

One of the commonly cited weaknesses in the bitcoin system is that if you lose your private key to access your bitcoin wallet, the bitcoin within are lost forever. In 2015, it was estimated that up to 30% of all mined bitcoins had been lost, with a value of 625m. Unsurprisingly, plenty of people see this as an opportunity to make some money.

Sun Zeyu, 27, works at a tech start-up based near Beijings university district that specialises in bitcoin. His latest project is Coldlar, an offline, physical wallet that stores users bitcoin and can be accessed by scanning a QR code. Bitcoin security is a tough question, Sun tells me, which is why he and his colleagues designed a product that allows people to circumvent bitcoin platforms and have even greater control over their bitcoin. Now that the value [of bitcoin] is going up, he explains, people really realise the importance of security.

Before, when we just traded one or two coins, people didnt mind, [but] now the value of bitcoin is much bigger. Sun got involved with bitcoin while at university after attending a seminar run by Huobi, one of the biggest trading platforms in China. Like his flashier friend Yang, Sun wanted money, and lots of it. He wont tell me exactly how much he earns, but assures me that its hundreds or thousands times more than the 10,000 yuan per month he was earning when he first dabbled in bitcoin three years ago.

His money comes from both his trading activity and his company salary. With the growth of bitcoin and related products like his Coldlar wallet, Sun believes that in 10 years time, the value of the cryptocurrency will be one bitcoin, one house in Beijing. Minor shocks to the system, like the recent suspension of bitcoin withdrawals in China, are just like breathing, he insists, and the inhalations of profit dwarf any other bumps in the road.

Sun
Sun Zeyu at work. Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

Despite the solitary nature of their work, Yang, Sun, Gibson and Chenxing are all sociable creatures. Gibson is connected to hundreds of bitcoin aficionados in China, and has introduced close to 1,000 new people to the technology (although how many are like me, with 2.50 lying dormant in an unused wallet, is unknown), such is his enthusiasm for the cryptocurrency. Chenxing cites the social side of the bitcoin scene in Beijing as one of the main attractions of staying in the industry and the city.

I can meet some fun people who really love bitcoin I think most of the people who like bitcoin are people who like freedom he says. Yang, however, takes a slightly harder-edged approach. He has little patience for sceptics: Yes, bitcoin is a risk. Why should I have to discuss these things with [people concerned about the security]? I earn my money, thats enough. I dont waste my time explaining bitcoin [if] youre not my client. In some ways, Yang concedes, the less people understand bitcoin, the better it is for him. At the moment, the industry is like an ATM for him and his peers, and hes perfectly happy for things to stay that way.

In the fast-changing world of the crypto-currency, nothing seems to stay the same for long. Whether its unpredictable government interventions, or debates within the community about how the industry can and should be scaled, general growth in value thus fair doesnt necessarily suggest anything about the future of bitcoin, despite the faith of its adherents. Gibson makes the point that bitcoin has only been around for nine years; it took PayPal at least 10 to properly catch on.

In Japan it has recently been recognised as legal tender. Its unlikely that the same could ever happen in China, no matter how much its popularity continues to balloon. Chenxing, who has years of insider experience, is sure that [the government] will never accept a thing thats not built by themselves. Many bitcoin traders in China are in it for the long haul, confident that they can ride out any governmental interferences, as long as they have access to the internet. Chenxing, however, is more paranoid. His final thoughts on bitcoin are: I never feel secure.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr/11/meet-the-millennials-making-big-money-riding-chinas-bitcoin-wave

Your animal life is over. Machine life has begun. The road to immortality

In California, radical scientists and billionaire backers think the technology to extend life by uploading minds to exist separately from the body is only a few years away

Heres what happens. You are lying on an operating table, fully conscious, but rendered otherwise insensible, otherwise incapable of movement. A humanoid machine appears at your side, bowing to its task with ceremonial formality. With a brisk sequence of motions, the machine removes a large panel of bone from the rear of your cranium, before carefully laying its fingers, fine and delicate as a spiders legs, on the viscid surface of your brain. You may be experiencing some misgivings about the procedure at this point. Put them aside, if you can.

Youre in pretty deep with this thing; theres no backing out now. With their high-resolution microscopic receptors, the machine fingers scan the chemical structure of your brain, transferring the data to a powerful computer on the other side of the operating table. They are sinking further into your cerebral matter now, these fingers, scanning deeper and deeper layers of neurons, building a three-dimensional map of their endlessly complex interrelations, all the while creating code to model this activity in the computers hardware. As thework proceeds, another mechanical appendage less delicate, less careful removes the scanned material to a biological waste container for later disposal. This is material you will no longer be needing.

At some point, you become aware that you are no longer present in your body. You observe with sadness, or horror, or detached curiosity the diminishing spasms of that body on the operating table, the last useless convulsions of a discontinued meat.

The animal life is over now. The machine life has begun.

This, more or less, is the scenario outlined by Hans Moravec, a professor of cognitive robotics at Carnegie Mellon, in his 1988 book Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. It is Moravecs conviction that the future of the human species will involve a mass-scale desertion of our biological bodies, effected by procedures of this kind. Its a belief shared by many transhumanists, a movement whose aim is to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other and better than the animals we are. Ray Kurzweil, for one, is a prominent advocate of the idea of mind-uploading. An emulation of the human brain running on an electronic system, he writes in The Singularity Is Near, would run much faster than our biological brains. Although human brains benefit from massive parallelism (on the order of 100 trillion interneuronal connections, all potentially operating simultaneously), the rest time of the connections is extremely slow compared to contemporary electronics. The technologies required for such an emulation sufficiently powerful and capacious computers and sufficiently advanced brainscanning techniques will be available, he announces, by the early 2030s.

And this, obviously, is no small claim. We are talking about not just radically extended life spans, but also radically expanded cognitive abilities. We are talking about endless copies and iterations of the self. Having undergone a procedure like this, you would exist to the extent you could meaningfully be said to exist at all as an entity of unbounded possibilities.

I was introduced to Randal Koene at a Bay Area transhumanist conference. He wasnt speaking at the conference, but had come along out of personal interest. A cheerfully reserved man in his early 40s, he spoke in the punctilious staccato of a non-native English speaker who had long mastered the language. As we parted, he handed me his business card and much later that evening Iremoved it from my wallet and had a proper look at it. The card was illustrated with a picture of a laptop, on whose screen was displayed a stylised image of a brain. Underneath was printed what seemed to me an attractively mysterious message: Carboncopies: Realistic Routes to Substrate Independent Minds. Randal A Koene, founder.

I took out my laptop and went to the website of Carboncopies, which I learned was a nonprofit organisation with a goal of advancing the reverse engineering of neural tissue and complete brains, Whole Brain Emulation and development of neuroprostheses that reproduce functions of mind, creating what we call Substrate Independent Minds. This latter term, I read, was the objective to be able to sustain person-specific functions of mind and experience in many different operational substrates besides the biological brain. And this, I further learned, was a process analogous to that by which platform independent code can be compiled and run on many different computing platforms.

It seemed that I had met, without realising it, a person who was actively working toward the kind of brain-uploading scenario that Kurzweil had outlined in The Singularity Is Near. And this was a person I needed to get to know.

Randal
Randal Koene: It wasnt like I was walking into labs, telling people I wanted to upload human minds to computers.

Koene was an affable and precisely eloquent man and his conversation was unusually engaging for someone so forbiddingly intelligent and who worked in so rarefied a field as computational neuroscience; so, in his company, I often found myself momentarily forgetting about the nearly unthinkable implications of the work he was doing, the profound metaphysical weirdness of the things he was explaining to me. Hed be talking about some tangential topic his happily cordial relationship with his ex-wife, say, or the cultural differences between European and American scientific communities and Id remember with a slow, uncanny suffusion of unease that his work, were it to yield the kind of results he is aiming for, would amount to the most significant event since the evolution of Homo sapiens. The odds seemed pretty long from where I was standing, but then again, I reminded myself, the history of science was in many ways an almanac of highly unlikely victories.

One evening in early spring, Koene drove down to San Francisco from the North Bay, where he lived and worked in a rented ranch house surrounded by rabbits, to meet me for dinner in a small Argentinian restaurant on Columbus Avenue. The faint trace of an accent turned out to be Dutch. Koene was born in Groningen and had spent most of his early childhood in Haarlem. His father was a particle physicist and there were frequent moves, including a two-year stint in Winnipeg, as he followed his work from one experimental nuclear facility to the next.

Now a boyish 43, he had lived in California only for the past five years, but had come to think of it as home, or the closest thing to home hed encountered in the course of a nomadic life. And much of this had to do with the culture of techno-progressivism that had spread outward from its concentrated origins in Silicon Valley and come to encompass the entire Bay Area, with its historically high turnover of radical ideas. It had been a while now, he said, since hed described his work to someone, only for them to react as though he were making a misjudged joke or simply to walk off mid-conversation.

In his early teens, Koene began to conceive of the major problem with the human brain in computational terms: it was not, like a computer, readable and rewritable. You couldnt get in there and enhance it, make it run more efficiently, like you could with lines of code. You couldnt just speed up a neuron like you could with a computer processor.

Around this time, he read Arthur C Clarkes The City and the Stars, a novel set a billion years from now, in which the enclosed city of Diaspar is ruled by a superintelligent Central Computer, which creates bodies for the citys posthuman citizens and stores their minds in its memory banks at the end of their lives, for purposes of reincarnation. Koene saw nothing in this idea of reducing human beings to data that seemed to him implausible and felt nothing in himself that prevented him from working to bring it about. His parents encouraged him in this peculiar interest and the scientific prospect of preserving human minds in hardware became a regular topic of dinnertime conversation.

Computational neuroscience, which drew its practitioners not from biology but from the fields of mathematics and physics, seemed to offer the most promising approach to the problem of mapping and uploading the mind. It wasnt until he began using the internet in the mid-1990s, though, that he discovered a loose community of people with an interest in the same area.

As a PhD student in computational neuroscience at Montreals McGill University, Koene was initially cautious about revealing the underlying motivation for his studies, for fear of being taken for a fantasist or an eccentric.

I didnt hide it, as such, he said, but it wasnt like I was walking into labs, telling people I wanted to upload human minds to computers either. Id work with people on some related area, like the encoding of memory, with a view to figuring out how that might fit into an overall road map for whole brain emulation.

Having worked for a while at Halcyon Molecular, a Silicon Valley gene-sequencing and nanotechnology startup funded by Peter Thiel, he decided to stay in the Bay Area and start his own nonprofit company aimed at advancing the cause to which hed long been dedicated: carboncopies

Koenes decision was rooted in the very reason he began pursuing that work in the first place: an anxious awareness of the small and diminishing store of days that remained to him. If hed gone the university route, hed have had to devote most of his time, at least until securing tenure, to projects that were at best tangentially relevant to his central enterprise. The path he had chosen was a difficult one for a scientist and he lived and worked from one small infusion of private funding to the next.

But Silicon Valleys culture of radical techno-optimism had been its own sustaining force for him, and a source of financial backing for a project that took its place within the wildly aspirational ethic of that cultural context. There were people there or thereabouts, wealthy and influential, for whom a future in which human minds might be uploaded to computers was one to be actively sought, a problem to be solved, disruptively innovated, by the application of money.

Transcendence
Brainchild of the movies: in Transcendence (2014), scientist Will Caster, played by Johnny Depp, uploads his mind to a computer program with dangerous results.

One such person was Dmitry Itskov, a 36-year-old Russian tech multimillionaire and founder of the 2045 Initiative, an organisationwhose stated aim was to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individuals personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality. One of Itskovs projects was the creation of avatars artificial humanoid bodies that would be controlled through brain-computer interface, technologies that would be complementary with uploaded minds. He had funded Koenes work with Carboncopies and in 2013 they organised a conference in New York called Global Futures 2045, aimed, according to its promotional blurb, at the discussion of a new evolutionary strategy for humanity.

When we spoke, Koene was working with another tech entrepreneur named Bryan Johnson, who had sold his automated payment company to PayPal a couple of years back for $800m and who now controlled a venture capital concern called the OS Fund, which, I learned from its website, invests in entrepreneurs working towards quantum leap discoveries that promise to rewrite the operating systems of life. This language struck me as strange and unsettling in a way that revealed something crucial about the attitude toward human experience that was spreading outward from its Bay Area centre a cluster of software metaphors that had metastasised into a way of thinking about what it meant to be a human being.

And it was the sameessential metaphor that lay at the heart of Koenes project: the mind as a piece of software, an application running on the platform of flesh. When he used the term emulation, he was using it explicitly to evoke the sense in which a PCs operating system could be emulated on a Mac, as what he called platform independent code.

The relevant science for whole brain emulation is, as youd expect, hideously complicated, and its interpretation deeply ambiguous, but if I can risk a gross oversimplification here, I will say that it is possible to conceive of the idea as something like this: first, you scan the pertinent information in a persons brain the neurons, the endlessly ramifying connections between them, the information-processing activity of which consciousness is seen as a byproduct through whatever technology, or combination of technologies, becomes feasible first (nanobots, electron microscopy, etc). That scan then becomes a blueprint for the reconstruction of the subject brains neural networks, which is then converted into a computational model. Finally, you emulate all of this on a third-party non-flesh-based substrate: some kind of supercomputer or a humanoid machine designed to reproduce and extend the experience of embodiment something, perhaps, like Natasha Vita-Mores Primo Posthuman.

The whole point of substrate independence, as Koene pointed out to me whenever I asked him what it would be like to exist outside of a human body, and I asked him many times, in various ways was that it would be like no one thing, because there would be no one substrate, no one medium of being. This was the concept transhumanists referred to as morphological freedom the liberty to take any bodily form technology permits.

You can be anything you like, as an article about uploading in Extropy magazine put it in the mid-90s. You can be big or small; you can be lighter than air and fly; you can teleport and walk through walls. You can be a lion or an antelope, a frog or a fly, a tree, a pool, the coat of paint on a ceiling.

What really interested me about this idea was not how strange and far-fetched it seemed (though it ticked those boxes resolutely enough), but rather how fundamentally identifiable it was, how universal. When talking to Koene, I was mostly trying to get to grips with the feasibility of the project and with what it was he envisioned as a desirable outcome. But then we would part company I would hang up the call, or I would take my leave and start walking toward the nearest station and I would find myself feeling strangely affected by the whole project, strangely moved.

Because there was something, in the end, paradoxically and definitively human in this desire for liberation from human form. I found myself thinking often of WB Yeatss Sailing to Byzantium, in which the ageing poet writes of his burning to be free of the weakening body, the sickening heart to abandon the dying animal for the manmade and immortal form of a mechanical bird. Once out of nature, he writes, I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing/ But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make.

One evening, we were sitting outside a combination bar/laundromat/standup comedy venue in Folsom Street a place with the fortuitous name of BrainWash when I confessed that the idea of having my mind uploaded to some technological substrate was deeply unappealing to me, horrifying even. The effects of technology on my life, even now, were something about which I was profoundly ambivalent; for all I had gained in convenience and connectedness, I was increasingly aware of the extent to which my movements in the world were mediated and circumscribed by corporations whose only real interest was in reducing the lives of human beings to data, as a means to further reducing us to profit.

The content we consumed, the people with whom we had romantic encounters, the news we read about the outside world: all these movements were coming increasingly under the influence of unseen algorithms, the creations of these corporations, whose complicity with government, moreover, had come to seem like the great submerged narrative of our time. Given the world we were living in, where the fragile liberal ideal of the autonomous self was already receding like a half-remembered dream into the doubtful haze of history, wouldnt a radical fusion of ourselves with technology amount, in the end, to a final capitulation of the very idea of personhood?

Koene nodded again and took a sip of his beer.

Hearing you say that, he said, makes it clear that theres a major hurdle there for people. Im more comfortable than you are with the idea, but thats because Ive been exposed to it for so long that Ive just got used to it.

Dmitry
Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov wants to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individuals personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

In the weeks and months after I returned from San Francisco, I thought obsessively about the idea of whole brain emulation. One morning, I was at home in Dublin, suffering from both a head cold and a hangover. I lay there, idly considering hauling myself out of bed to join my wife and my son, who were in his bedroom next door enjoying a raucous game of Buckaroo. I realised that these conditions (head cold, hangover) had imposed upon me a regime of mild bodily estrangement. As often happens when Im feeling under the weather, I had a sense of myself as an irreducibly biological thing, an assemblage of flesh and blood and gristle. I felt myself to be an organism with blocked nasal passages, a bacteria-ravaged throat, a sorrowful ache deep within its skull, its cephalon. I was aware of my substrate, in short, because my substrate felt like shit.

And I was gripped by a sudden curiosity as to what, precisely, that substrate consisted of, as to what I myself happened, technically speaking, to be. I reached across for the phone on my nightstand and entered into Google the words What is the human… The first three autocomplete suggestions offered What is The Human Centipede about, and then: What is the human body made of, and then: What is the human condition.

It was the second question I wanted answered at this particular time, as perhaps a back door into the third. It turned out that I was 65% oxygen, which is to say that I was mostly air, mostly nothing. After that, I was composed of diminishing quantities of carbon and hydrogen, of calcium and sulphur and chlorine, and so on down the elemental table. I was also mildly surprised to learn that, like the iPhone I was extracting this information from, I also contained trace elements of copper and iron and silicon.

What a piece of work is a man, I thought, what a quintessence of dust.

Some minutes later, my wife entered the bedroom on her hands and knees, our son on her back, gripping the collar of her shirt tight in his little fists. She was making clip-clop noises as she crawled forward, he was laughing giddily and shouting: Dont buck! Dont buck!

With a loud neighing sound, she arched her back and sent him tumbling gently into a row of shoes by the wall and he screamed in delighted outrage, before climbing up again. None of this, I felt, could be rendered in code. None of this, I felt, could be run on any other substrate. Their beauty was bodily, in the most profound sense, in the saddest and most wonderful sense.

I never loved my wife and our little boy more, I realised, than when I thought of them as mammals. I dragged myself, my animal body, out of bed to join them.

To Be a Machine by Mark OConnell is published by Granta (12.99). To order a copy for 11.04 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/mar/25/animal-life-is-over-machine-life-has-begun-road-to-immortality