Diversity and the nuclear bomb

It’s amazing where you find stories about the power of range and diversity in creativity and problem solving. This is from Pandora’s Keepers, which is proving to be a riveting account of the creation of the first atomic bomb.

“Oppenheimer accepted the heavy security as a wartime necessity, but he adamantly refused to accept secrecy in one area: scientific discussion. Here, the normal security procedure of compartmentalization—limiting discussion to a “need to know” basis—was not followed, despite protests from Army Intelligence. Oppenheimer held weekly symposia on the pressing technical problems of the moment, inviting solutions not only from the groups working on the problems but from the important cross-fertilization of agile minds from other disciplines with novel approaches and solutions. Just as in fission itself, one small suggestion could set off a chain reaction of ideas at a rapid rate. This fostered a cooperative spirit that maintained high morale. It was also a major reason why the bomb was built in such a short time.”

Oppenheimer appears to have underestimated the breadth of the task, originally envisioning Los Alamos as a physics lab on steroids. But it eventually grew into a site housing thousands of civilians from many different fields. Specialisation be damned.

As always my emphasis.

If you’re going to change the world, you must reflect it first

I find taking public transport or hopping a plane immensely stressful. Not because of the shoddy infrastructure, waiting around, or poor service. Because I’m 6″4 with disproportionately long legs in a world built by people who aren’t.

As I continue to read Coders, I’m increasingly worried how this same phenomena will play out in a world full of algorithmic black boxes. Code so complex and systems so arcane that even their creators struggle to understand them.

Techies love to talk about scale and putting their creations in front of millions. But for this to work they themselves need to be drawn from a representative pool.

Otherwise you get self driving cars that are more likely to hit black people. Or image recognition that thinks black People are gorillas.

…then Alciné scrolled over to a picture of himself and a friend, in a selfie they’d taken at an outdoor concert: She looms close in the view, while he’s peering, smiling, over her right shoulder. Alciné is African American, and so is his friend. And the label that Google Photos had generated? “Gorillas.” It wasn’t just that single photo, either. Over fifty snapshots of the two from that day had been identified as “gorillas.”

This isn’t only a Google problem. Or even a Silicon Valley problem. There are also stories of algorithms trained in China and South Korea that have trouble recognising Caucasian faces.

As a journalist with a diverse ethnic and cultural background I had trouble understanding why my editors took so much convincing to run foreign stories. With a family spread around the globe, I could see myself in the Rohingya as much as an Australian farmer.

These issues are linked – what we value, notice and think of as “normal” are all informed by our personal stories. If you grow up or work in a monoculture, that will influence the issues you see, the solutions you propose and contingencies you plan for.

But the world isn’t a monoculture. There are 6″4 people who would like to ride the bus. There will be people who aren’t like you but need to cross the street safely, or be judged fairly.

Who will be deeply offended by racial epithets, which are themselves linked to why they aren’t represented in a database.

If you’re going to try and change the world for the better, you need to be of the world. There will always be edge cases, but without diversity they will be systemic. They will be disastrous.

…why couldn’t Google’s AI recognize an African American face? Very likely because it hadn’t been trained on enough of them. Most data sets of photos that coders in the West use for training face-recognition are heavily white, so the neural nets easily learn to make nuanced recognitions of white people—but they only develop a hazy sense of what black people look like.

As always my emphasis.

Diversity compounds

…we find that black students randomly assigned to a black teacher in grades K-3 are 5 percentage points (7%) more likely to graduate from high school and 4 percentage points (13%) more likely to enroll in college than their peers in the same school who are not assigned a black teacher.

…We envision role model effects as information provision: black teachers provide a crucial signal that leads black students to update their beliefs about the returns to effort and what educational outcomes are possible.

This is from an intriguing working paper looking at natural experiments in Louisiana and North Carolina.

It fits with similar research into the importance and lasting effects of role models. They spur our dreams, change our attitudes, and shape our beliefs and expectations.

A superstar – especially one that is like you – can completely shatter self imposed limitations. Take this from a famous recent paper:

Girls are more likely to invent in a particular class if they grow up in an area with more women (but not men) who invent in that class… These findings suggest that there are many “lost Einsteins” – individuals who would have had highly impactful inventions had they been exposed to innovation in childhood – especially among women, minorities, and children from low-income families.

In the west we tend to focus on the individual. Often in zero-sum situations.

But when you add in the context of previous and future generations, we all have a stake in a visible diversity of success.

It will spur the next generation. It compounds.

Wouldn’t we all benefit from fewer “lost Einstein’s”?

As always my emphasis.

Working with diverse teams

The notion that diverse teams come up with more creative solutions (or at least ones that better reflect a diverse audience/customer base) seems to be pretty widespread. But how does it work in practice?

Some interesting research out of America suggests that “political correctness” may be necessary to make it work:

Our research shows that men and women both experience uncertainty when asked to generate ideas as members of a mixed-sex work group: men because they may fear offending the women in the group and women because they may fear having their ideas devalued or rejected. Most group creativity research begins with the assumption that creativity is unleashed by removing normative constraints, but our results show that the PC norm promotes rather than suppresses the free expression of ideas by reducing the uncertainty experienced by both sexes in mixed-sex work groups and signaling that the group is predictable enough to risk sharing more—and more-novel—ideas.

The researchers did a couple of interesting experiments, priming students with politically correct norms. There appears to be a negative affect in homogeneous groups, but in mixed groups it produced a marked increase in “creativity”.

What I appreciate about this research is the light touch. It fits with the view of political correctness as a form of decency. Like any notion of decency (swearing for instance), there can be social sanction, but the limitations also breed their own form of freedom.

We know how to act, and, more importantly, how not to. If you care about not making others uncomfortable then the restriction can be freeing.


(My emphasis)