18 percent of 50

Wikipedia has been a deeply unequal place and this wasn’t going to change anytime soon. But thanks to the efforts of academics and researchers and gender experts around the world, the gender gap on Wikimedia has narrowed. Check out the figures for every country here.

Since 2015, ‘Women in Red’ project based has been leading efforts to mitigate the biases on the internet, especially the “content gender gap” prevalent on websites like Wikipedia. On Wikipedia, women have been underrepresented and this forms the basis for the ‘Women in Red‘ project to work towards turning the non-existent red links on Wikipedia into blue ones, with women’s biographies, details on their work and career, and other gender issues. Since 2015, the entries about women on Wikimedia were just about 15% of the total entries on the site; four years later, it has touched 18%.

At Rice University, Prof Diane Straussman has been encouraging students to take up wikimedia entries as part of their student projects. An interview with her to learn more about her efforts will be on this blog soon.

While I get back here with the interview, here , here, here and here are some interesting reads on the gender gap and efforts to bridge the gap, highlighting the credit for outstanding work by women that either arrives late or almost never comes!

 

 

Should India toe the US line on Huawei?

Huawei, since the start of 2018, has emerged as the most controversial Chinese company. The telecommunications major, with $100 billion in revenue in 2018, has been facing the wrath of US President Donald J. Trump and other leaders who have accused it of aiding the Chinese government with cyber espionage, IP threat and trade violations. The struggle has gone on for too long (the entire timeline of the conflict is here), and with significant impact, potentially shaping the trajectory of the global technology landscape, especially Asia’s.

In the US-China tug-of-war over Huawei, other countries seem to also have acted against the Chinese company. Australia and New Zealand have blocked mobile providers from using the company’s 5G services, besides European telecoms companies — France’s Orange (ORAN) and BT (BT) in the United Kingdom. Germany’s Deutsche Telekom (DTEGY) and Japan’s SoftBank (SFTBF) are reviewing their use of Huawei equipment.

Yet, Huawei has reported an increase in smartphone sales and has also announced the development of its own operating system called the Harmony OS, independent of iOS and Android operating systems. Trump’s ban on the company has led to unpleasant outcomes though: Huawei has laid off hundreds of US workers; its revenues are expected to drop to $100 billion this year, down from around $104 billion last year; and its new launches are severely delayed.

India is roughly 100 days away from its 5G trials and it can’t make up its mind on whether Huawei should be invited to the trials. Reasons are obvious. Huawei operations in India are now in the 22nd year, having built the trust of Indian consumers and a strong market presence since 1998 when it first entered India with an R&D center in Bangalore. India is now a strong market for inexpensive mobile devices and Huawei is doing very well in this market. In 2015, the company also became the first large Chinese corporation ”to supply locally-made products” in the Indian market. Reaching here means huge investments by Huawei in India and this can not be ignored while making any decisions on the India operations of Chinese telecom major. Pre-empting any adverse action, China has gone ahead and warned India of reverse sanctions if it bans Huawei. 

So, should India put curbs on Huawei just like the US has? The answer lies in the policies India wants to adopt to grow its share in international trade. Any attempt to place the curbs would be short-sighted, at best. We can’t deny the presence of domestic lobbies within India who have been wanting Huawei out for the sheer expansion of the company in India’s smartphone market that has made it a market leader. This has happened in spite of the absence of any free trade agreement between India and China. Huawei, for cellular operators in India, also continues to present a more affordable choice given its utterly competitive pricepoint. Placing any curbs at this point in time would only address concerns of domestic cellphone manufacturing lobbies at work, and not really address the future needs of the telecom industry in India which is set to explode with 5G.

Concerns that Huawei may be collaborating with the Chinese government to gather and pass on sensitive information and jeopardize India’s national security, maybe valid and therefore, need to be adequately addressed. But merely banning Huawei isn’t the solution given that there are a number of foreign companies at work in the space and any of them could inflict the same damage as Huawei is feared to inflict. India may be part of US’s plans to forge an anti-China alliance, but it is in such difficult times that it becomes all the more important that India independently decides what’s good for its people. Having Huawei around means India has more choice in terms of smartphones, more competition in the market, and a chance at better telecom services, all of which augur well for the growth of telecom industry in India. With the US closing its doors, Huawei will try its best to hold on to India, and India reciprocating the same can position herself not just as a country that can hold on to its own stance independent of where the US and its geopolitical ambitions stand, but also as a country that thinks and acts to safeguard her long-term economic interests.

What Machine Learning has to do with Global Trade

Machine Learning (ML) is commonly seen as the scientific study of algorithms and statistical models used by computers to perform specific tasks. Considered a subset of artificial intelligence, ML could have game-changing implications for people of the world struggling with language barriers. As we know, Chinese, Spanish and English are the most spoken languages of the world. What ML can potentially do is to help people translate native languages into other different languages they may need to speak in with the help of artificial intelligence, and when this happens, this could seamlessly unite the world in more ways than one. Just sample Google Translate and you’ll know what I am talking about.

How does this help global trade? If economists are to be believed, language barriers have hurt trade substantially, and precisely why, with ML demolishing the language barriers, world trade could change. According to the “gravity model”, a common language between trading partners could raise trade by almost 50 percent. If trading nations, involving millions of people and corporations, begin dealing in a common language (thanks to ML), imagine the gains from the trade! This could mean people being able to work in countries where they couldn’t earlier as they didn’t know the native language, or communicate easily for work, leisure or fun.

With machine translation becoming more efficient and widely used, speakers of languages other than English, Chinese or Spanish will compete with them and the global market will be full of such people wanting a share of the employment pie. Job markets will no longer discriminate on grounds of language. Machine learning may just be paving the path to the possibilities of great human cooperation by bringing down the language barriers.

Yet, ML’s direct benefits for trade remain a matter of discussion for many scholars. They argue that the progress in ML may be limited to indirect communication and as far as trade ties involving direct communication are concerned, factors such as a preference for local products, trust between trading partners and familiarity with business may undermine the role of a common language. Then, there are linguistic, religious, and legal influences that could play a significant role.

Sources here and here.

 

 

The Week That Was: Favorite Reads

I am always intrigued by developments in China, but this piece felt like the disturbing facts have moved closer home in India, especially in the context of what has happened in Jammu and Kashmir in the last few days (I blogged about this here).  Imagine being tracked down by the government down to every step you take or intercepted at every corner of the world you drive to? The court-approved Deadbeat Map does worse to Chinese people, and in that country, such things apparently have stopped bothering people.  The Deadbeat app tracks people blacklisted by the Chinese government for creditworthiness or payment of fines and also allows the dissemination of this utterly private information on social media by complete strangers, to alert authorities! I haven’t heard of a more bizarre government-public partnership at work, enabled by technology! But, imagine this being very, very popular with people in China, and it is.

Adam Minter, in the Bloomberg piece, writes:

Depicted outside of China as a creepy digital panopticon, this network of so-called social-credit systems is seen within China as a means to generate something the country sorely lacks: trust. For that, perpetual surveillance and the loss of privacy are a small price to pay.

….

Rather than generating outrage, these digital debtor prisons have proven extremely popular. A 2018 survey of more than 2,200 Chinese citizens found that 80 percent had joined a commercial social-credit system (Sesame Credit, which requires users to opt-in, was the most popular service), although only 7 percent were aware of that they’d been included within a government system. More surprisingly, 80 percent of respondents either somewhat or strongly approved of social-credit systems, with the strongest support coming from older, educated and more affluent urbanites — a demographic generally associated with more “liberal” values such as the sanctity of privacy.

On social media, at least, China revels in seeing individuals land on social credit-related blacklists. In 2016, when the National Tourism Administration published the names of people banned from plane travel, the news generated thousands of “likes” and repostings on the Sina Weibo social media site.

Hmmm. Read more here.

This Cambridge University Press research also illustrates how, compared to other countries, average public concern in China, especially about issues such as climate change, is relatively low, and concern varies greatly among Chinese citizens, across different provinces and between coastal and inland areas.

Another super interesting piece in The Economist tracked the shift of global banking and finance to India in spite of the constraints it poses to business, thanks to the large churn out of engineers graduating from the country’s university system. Interestingly, unlike manufacturing, global finance firms in India are managing to overcome the typical challenges: a labyrinthine maze of permissions, taxes and red tape, business-unfriendly labour laws, and struggling transport and communications networks.

India has long received other countries’ outsourced jobs. Some of those are unsophisticated, such as answering phones or processing forms. Many, however, rely on Indian universities’ remarkable ability to turn out engineers in great numbers, and computing firms’ ability to use them to solve complex problems. Such tasks may be dismissed as “back-office”. But they are at the heart of modern finance.

In recent years banks have become global networks that link apps on smartphones, workstations used for sales, and sophisticated programs used to manage compliance and allocate capital. Systems that once merely updated balances now determine financial-product marketing—whom to send offers to, when to increase credit limits and when to adjust charges. For banks all over the world, many such tasks are now done in India.
…. bankers say they have been startled by how fast India, notwithstanding its local challenges, has become an intellectual force that is now shaping their global futures.

In EPW, a smart curation of articles to understand inequality in India is enlightening and keeps you updated on the latest in this area. Mainly, the themes here focus on the question of inequality and whether economic growth alone can mitigate it, how inequality is measured and if at all it’s being correctly measured in India, the areas of concentration of wealth, rise in inequality in the post-reform period and long term trends in inequality in India. Another EPW curation of important reads on the growth of Hindu nationalism might be useful too.

A critical McKinsey report released earlier this month on the future of Asia and ways in which the continent will lead the world economy offers an overview of Asia’s role in international trade, corporations in Asia, technology, and the Asian consumer, drawing a comprehensive picture of how the continent is growing and what this could mean for the world.

One of the most dramatic developments of the past 30 years has been emerging Asia’s soaring consumption and its integration into global flows of trade, capital, talent, and innovation. In the decades ahead, Asia’s economies will go from participating in these flows to determining their shape and direction. Indeed, in many areas—from the internet to trade and luxury goods—they already are. The question is no longer how quickly Asia will rise; it is how Asia will lead.

The McKinsey report on International Trade:

Because of its diversity and geographic sweep, Asia is not and likely will never be the same kind of tightly integrated trade entity as the European Union or NAFTA. Although it is a looser constellation of countries, trade ties and cooperation are deepening across the region. Today 52 percent of Asian trade is intra-regional, compared to just 41 percent in North America. This points toward a new trend of firms building self-contained regional supply chains to serve Asian markets. It also indicates deepening trade ties among Asian countries themselves—with much more room to grow. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a new free trade agreement that includes 16 countries across the region, including China, Japan, India, and Vietnam.

While trade in goods has flattened, service flows have become the real connective tissue of the global economy. In fact, services trade is growing 60 percent faster than trade in goods—and Asia’s services trade is growing 1.7 times faster than the rest of the world’s. While India and the Philippines are among the biggest exporters of back-office business services, trade in knowledge-intensive services is still in its infancy across most Asian countries and represents an important gap to be filled.

On Corporations:

Asian firms have become global market leaders not only in industrial and automotive sectors but in areas like technology, finance, and logistics. Over the past 20 years, as these economies have evolved, the industry mix of the region’s largest firms has shifted. Manufacturing of capital goods is now a smaller share of the region’s economy, while infrastructure and financial services have grown significantly.

The ownership structures, growth strategies, and operating styles of Asian corporate giants differ from those of publicly owned Western multinationals. About two-thirds of the 110 Chinese companies in the Fortune 500 are state owned. The region also has a number of large conglomerates. South Korea’s top five family-controlled chaebols together account for roughly half of the value in the country’s stock market. Japan’s “big six” keiretsu similarly have outsize weight in the country’s equity market; each one owns dozens of companies spanning several industries. All major Japanese car manufacturers, for example, can be tied back to a keiretsu. India’s top six conglomerates alone employ more than two million people.

 

On Technology:

Whether they are digital leaders or laggards, the next stage of the journey for countries across the region is to go beyond consumer use and encourage wider adoption of digital tools in traditional sectors, from agriculture to retail and logistics. Similarly, the public and social sectors can continue deploying digital systems to make government services and healthcare more efficient. The ultimate goal is harnessing the latest technology tools to boost productivity in a meaningful way.

Innovation hubs are starting to take root. As of April 2019, Asia was home to more than one-third of the world’s “unicorns” (start-ups valued at more than $1 billion). Ninety-one of these companies are in China, followed by India with 13, South Korea with six, and Indonesia at four.

On Asian consumer:

The growing Asian middle class will soon be three billion strong. Southeast Asia alone had some 80 million households in the consuming class just a few years ago. Now that number is on track to double to 163 million households by 2030, with Indonesia, in particular, generating tens of millions of newly prosperous consumers.

Do read the full report here.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have raged on for more than two months now. This Economist piece succinctly sums up China’s continued interest in this Asian commerce hub and how it has a lot to do with China’s closed economy.

Key points below:

The paradox is that the more autocratic the mainland gets the more it needs Hong Kong commercially. Had China reformed its financial and legal system, the territory would be irrelevant to its global business. Instead the opposite has happened: China has grown fast and globalised, but not opened up.

As a result, Hong Kong’s economy is disproportionately useful to China. It has a status within a body of international law and rules that gives it seamless access to Western markets. The status is multifaceted. It includes: a higher credit rating; lower risk-weights for bank and counterparty exposures; the ability to clear dollars easily; independent membership of the wto; “equivalence” status for its stock exchange with those in America, Europe and Japan; recognition as a “developed” stockmarket by index firms and co-operation agreements with other securities regulators.

Cross-border bank lending booked in Hong Kong has roughly doubled in the past decade, much of it Chinese companies borrowing dollars intermediated through the territory. Hong Kong’s stock market is now the world’s fourth-largest, behind Tokyo’s but ahead of London’s. About 70% of the capital raised on it is for Chinese firms, but strikingly the mix has shifted from state enterprises to tech firms such as Tencent, Meituan and Xiaomi. These firms have specifically chosen not to do mainland listings because the markets there are too immature and closed off from Western investors. Alibaba, an e-commerce conglomerate, is also in the process of doing a Hong Kong listing (at present it is only listed in New York). Most Chinese foreign direct investment flows through Hong Kong. The stock domiciled in the territory has roughly doubled in the last decade, to $2trn. Hong Kong’s share of total fdi flowing into mainland China has remained fairly constant, at 60%. Although the amount of multinational money flowing into and out of China has soared, most firms still prefer to have Hong Kong’s legal stamp.

Meanwhile, the number of multinationals with their regional headquarters in the territory has increased by two-thirds since 1997, to around 1,500. Hong Kong hosts the most valuable life insurer in the world, excluding mainland China, aia, while a global firm with a big Asian arm, Prudential, is about to shift its regulatory domicile to Hong Kong.

This all means that how turmoil in Hong Kong is resolved matters to more than just to its own people. Already boards of multinationals are debating over whether to move their regional domicile to Singapore. Indeed, one existing weak spot for Hong Kong is that major American tech firms, such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, have set up their regional headquarters in Singapore, perhaps because of cyber-worries. An executive with a biotech startup says the company is moving money out of the territory and considering an American listing instead.

China will not take action in Hong Kong lightly: it knows how much is at stake economically and how much its biggest firms depend on the territory, quite apart from the reputational risk. Yet it also sees the situation spiraling into a threat to the Communist Party itself—one that America, it believes, is trying to exploit.

My favorite BJP leader Sushma Swaraj passed away last week. Here is Jaya Jaitley’s beautiful tribute to her.

On Indian economy’s current slowdown, a Business Standard op-ed that debunks the argument that the slowdown is cyclical, and another that takes a hard look at the growth figures, yet again.

Another brilliant piece by my former Mint colleague Remya Nair on how the Modi government has used the Food Corporation of India to keep fiscal deficit artificially low – by transferring its liabilities to the FCI via NSSF loans and keeping the actual food subsidy in the budget low.

I conclude this post two beautiful pieces of writing. First is this post by Adam O’Fallon Price in The Paris Review on his obsessive-compulsive disorder and writing:

Controlling a sentence—controlling this sentence, as I type—is for me the best, most pleasurable work there is. I build the paragraph, tagged by its thematic first word: control. In crafting this sentence, this paragraph, this essay, I get to be both architect and construction worker, and both jobs offer equally pleasing aspects of control. The former involves creative design and abstract thought; the latter brings the visceral, simultaneously logical and intuitive pleasure of finding the right word, moving it around, putting it in just the right place. Having written that sentence, I know I must reverse myself and concede that the idea of there being “just the right place” is illusory—that even this work is, in its essence, as arbitrary as anything else. This is true, but nonetheless as I write, I shut out the world, other responsibilities, Twitter, the news, everything.

Second and last is this touching, forever relevant The Newyorker piece by Toni Morrison who also passed away last week. The sentences that resonated with me:

I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home.

Don’t Let TikTok Play You!

I couldn’t resist my curiosity to find out more about TikTok, the social media app that’s bringing the mass following for scores of people from India’s hinterland. Watching all those TikTok people for a couple of days, I am left with an overpowering sense of fatigue. I know I qualify to be judgemental, elitist and parochial purely because I am saying that I am tired of TikTok. But if this is the new form of a culture shaped by an app that makes you while away your time creating nothing but millions of crassly funny videos, I say, God save us.

It’s not a question of moral trepidation, though: In an economy where jobs have been shrinking and an education system that doesn’t focus on skills but mere degrees, I couldn’t blame these teenagers out to have some fun on TikTok. Perhaps, they don’t have anything better to do. Many users are from small towns of India with luxury to bunk colleges where nothing much happens except irregular classes and absentee teachers. However, must these people still not show some enterprise and find out ways to find meaning in their lives instead of acting like small children obsessed with dumb toys?

TikTok, after all, is no YouTube. There is no window of originality here – you aren’t a hero here because you are a great singer or a dancer or actor. But even popular artists today are on TikTok – from singers to actors to dancers. TikTok has amassed great audiences and everyone seems to want a pie of this. Its appeal lies in the ease with which it allows users to film and edit musical videos or to lip-sync to popular film dialogues which can be picked from its database of songs, visual effects, or sound bites. Everyone else with originality is here because they want the audience, but the popularity of second-rate content creators far exceeds the original folks here. This is what TikTok does – a user may be from any place on earth but if one can appeal to the taste of audiences on TikTok, that’s what matters. And I am all for little known talent to splash all over us, but there is a problem of quality with popular taste and TikTok exhibits it only too well.

Some of the videos are so tasteless, yet shockingly popular, that it makes you wonder if we are hurtling towards an apocalypse where it would no longer matter if any good art exists as long as it has a million views.

TIkTok world is a strange world – strange and sometimes pretty faces keep staring at the screen lip-syncing to a song or some humor and millions watch it and want more. It’s all aimless because it’s not going anywhere. These 15-second videos are hurting eyes, attention spans, our idea of time and our sense of propriety. In any other universe, this would be abnormal. But what TikTok has done is create its own alternate universe where no one has to face the real world anymore. The real world where stalking girls isn’t funny and sexist jokes can’t pass as internet-breaking humor! Of course, there is hardly any political correctness in TikTok stars, most of them teenagers, which is even more worrying given these folks will eventually someday walk into the real world far different from the virtual reality they create and inhabit. The sheer scale of TikTok is terrifying: it is not just the most popular social app on the planet but also a fast-growing one, promising to distort reality as it exists.

To start with, there are tools to distort, conflate or deflate you physically; then there are tools to always beautify your world no matter where you are dancing before your camera in dingy surroundings or next to a nullah. And there are always Bollywood songs to sing, no matter whether you understand music or not.

This is not the real world but is TikTok better than the grim facts of life? Maybe not, as its users have complained of abuse and harassment on the platform with the app management doing nothing at all. But when TikTok meets the real world, it can get fatal. A boy died while making a video for TikTok, a man killed his wife for being active on the app, and another woman committed suicide after her husband reprimanded her for being on TikTok; TikTok stardom sometimes leads to grim murders, and we don’t like these at all.

Hey Alexa! Say Hello To Q!

Chances are, you have an Alexa at home. So do I. So, this post is for you.

A UN study has found that voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri have been designed excessively servile that perpetuate gender stereotypes about women. The report recommended that companies stop making digital voice assistants female by default, and explore gender-neutral options.

They are programmed to be submissive and servile – including politely responding to insults – meaning they reinforce gender bias and normalise sexist harassment, said researchers from the U.N. scientific and cultural body UNESCO.

The study highlighted that Siri was previously programmed to respond to users calling her a “bitch” by saying “I’d blush if I could” as an example of the issue.

“Siri’s submissiveness in the face of gender abuse – and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women – provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products,” it said.

Earlier this year, Q was developed as a gender-neutral voice assistant developed by a team of technologists at EqualAI to promote gender equality in technology and to address concerns of sexism. A Quartz article explained why genderless technology such as Q matters:

Adding a voice like Q’s to a menu of audio options would address more than one ethical dilemma. As Q articulates in its introductory recording, it would make tech more inclusive by recognizing people who identify as non-binary, a population that’s becoming increasingly visible as social norms change. “It’s because Q is likely to play with our minds that it is important,” Kristina Hultgren, a linguist who was not part of the project, told Wired. “It plays with our urge to put people into boxes and therefore has the potential to push people’s boundaries and broaden their horizons.”

Wide adoption of a genderless voice would also pave the way for some much needed women’s liberation among AI assistants, which are infiltrating our lives at a rate that has even surprised industry analysts. Currently, all of the major digital voices who answer our questions about the weather, or provide the exchange rate between the peso and a dollar, or remind us to make a phone call, are undeniably feminine, even though their makers claim the bots are genderless.

 

Yet, however big a deal Q might be, gender bias in technology can’t be fully removed unless diversity and inclusion in technology (AI et al), creative and leadership roles happen. Until then, robots and digital assistants will continue to reflect what they learn from human behavior. 

Wanna hear what Q sounds like? Go here, and use headphones!