In their 1961 memo about the National Space Program, Webb and McNamara advised that “the orbiting of machines is not the same as the orbiting or landing of man. It is man, not merely machines, in space that captures the imagination of the world.” It’s an interesting insight about the greatest scientific achievement of the past century that the PR aspect of making space travel relatable contributed to defining what success would look like 8 years later.
Fast forward to 2023: it was recently announced that AI can now identify breast cancers that doctors miss. You would be forgiven for having missed it though, because a different type of AI has been capturing the imagination of the world lately. Generative AI has mind-boggling use cases that we are only starting to grasp, but it is the human element that makes it a mainstream media darling: will machines develop feelings, can they make art?
Word-work is sublime… because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
Toni Morrison – Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1993
Human language is a demanding interface
When we log into a computer and input a command into a digital interface, everything about the user experience tells us that the entity spitting back the answer is programmed to do so. We are speaking the machine’s language. If we don’t get the expected output then surely we have ticked the wrong box, made a mistake in our code or misplaced a coma in our query.
When language becomes the interface however, we are in quintessentially human territory. Language is subjective by nature and always evolving. Not even the best programmer in the world could anticipate all the possible prompts a chatbot could receive, to be relevant it needs to be able to continuously learn by itself how to process the subtleties of human language.
How do chatbots learn?
The field in charge of optimising the interactions between machines and human language is called Natural Language Processing (NLP). It dates back to 1950 when mathematician Alan Turing devised a test called the “imitation game” which assessed the intelligence of a machine by measuring its ability to interpret and generate natural language.
Between the 50s and the 80s, NLP mostly consisted of researchers trying to map out all the inputs for a specific use case – often translation – and to then hand-write all the corresponding instructions, with varying degrees of success.
Things changed in the 90s with the introduction of machine learning, made possible by bigger computational power and lots of data openly available on the web to learn from.
We are now in the exciting phase of Neural Network NLP. Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) are information processing architectures that mimic human brains. Although some researchers find the comparison misleading, ANNs do look very similar to neurons, connected by synapses and organised in layers.
Could they learn too fast?
The movie Arrival explores a interesting idea: that language programs us as much as we program it. Linguist Louise Banks is sent to translate what aliens are trying to tell us in their circular written language. She eventually gets to a place where she can use their language well enough to have actual conversations with them. In doing so, it changes her.
On the off chance that you have not yet seen this beautiful movie I will not reveal here the final plot twist but this idea of the power of language over human brains is important. Think about the impact of saying “died by suicide” rather than a guilty “committed suicide”, of saying “enslaved people” rather than “slaves”. To Toni Morrison’s point, language is meaning.
Left unchecked, ANN-powered Natural Language Processing could end up amplifying harmful biases. A famous example is the word2vec algorithm which assigns vectors to words to understand which words are similar and which words “go well” together. Its applications include the ability to recommend words to complete unfinished sentences. Unfortunately it completed the sentence “man is to computer programmer as woman is to x” with x=homemaker and “a father is to a doctor as a mother is to x” with x=a nurse. Even if machines learn by themselves, as long as they are learning from data sets created and curated by human beings, our biases will be embedded in them.
AI computer scientist Timnit Gebru described several of these issues in her paper Race and Gender. One striking example is that of “a Palestinian arrested for writing “good morning” in Arabic which was translated to “hurt them” in English or “attack them” in Hebrew by Facebook Translate“. The person was arrested and then let go when someone checked the original Arabic message. As Dr Gebru explains: “had the field of language translation been dominated by Palestinians as well as those from other Arabic speaking populations, it is difficult to imagine that this type of mistake in the translation system would have transpired“.
Having machines that can learn by themselves is fantastic, but giving them too much input without oversight is dangerous. It’s great to see that OpenAI took this very seriously with ‘red teams’ dedicated to testing GPT’s ability to generate harmful content. We would do well to ensure that powerful AI is matched with equally powerful AI ethics mechanisms that can audit ANNs and ensure they are helping us be better, not just smarter versions of ourselves.
Spoken language is one of the most intuitive and intimate interfaces that can be built between humans and machines, and chatbots are fast learners. Looking at the acceleration of NLP since its inception in the 50s, we can also be very excited for what comes next – after all, the field is still young and full of promising applications. In the words of voice assistant -turned-superhero Vision:
November marks the end of Black History Month in the UK. This year, inspired by an ongoing campaign to teach Black British History in schools, my company’s D&I committee investigated different periods of the curriculum to find the missing contributions of Black people.The piece I worked on and am sharing below has been adapted into an internal learning module. Doing the research was fascinating and surprisingly easy. The documents are there, the stories are there, waiting to be told and taught – which begs the question: why aren’t they?
BLACK INVENTORS’ CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
Innovation is an important concept for humanity. Homo Sapiens climbed to the top of the food chain not because it was stronger than other animal species, but because it invented sophisticated tools and technology. From Thomas Edison to Elon Musk, innovators have a special status in modern societies because they further an idea that started when humans mastered the use of fire: that among other animal species, humans are special – we can elevate ourselves.
The Industrial Revolution was a turning point in our history. Machines and processes were invented that improved manufacturing and made Great Britain the world’s leading commercial power. Inventors like James Hargreaves and Richard Arkwright are celebrated. Their contributions are taught as part of the school curriculum and have inspired generations of innovators, all the way up to today’s Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.
If you type “Industrial Revolution inventors” in a search engine, you may notice a pattern: all the inventors are male, and all are white. An Internet user could see this and think that this demographic was the sole contributor to the Industrial Revolution. More subtly, they could see all these white men and think – perhaps unconsciously – “this is what an innovator looks like”.
Actually, the search engine obeys the same bias than the school curriculum: we look at patented innovations and connect them with economic developments to rate their historical significance.
Here is the problem though. The Industrial Revolution happened between the mid-18th century and the end of the 19th century, when the Atlantic slave trade was in full force. In fact, the development of our textile industry is directly correlated with the expansion of labour camps in plantations in America, to produce cheap cotton. Black people were enslaved to work in these camps. Because they were enslaved, they were not allowed to own any property, including intellectual property.
There are documented accounts for example of a blacksmith called Ned who lived in Mississippi and in the 1850s invented a cotton scraper for ploughing cotton fields. But he was enslaved by Oscar Stewart who tried to claim the patent for this invention, on the grounds that “the master has the same right to the fruits of the labor of the intilect [sic] of his slave”.
It is enraging to think of all the brilliant minds who should have been supported and were instead forced into gruesome, unpaid labour. This is something we unfortunately cannot change now. But here is what we can change: we can rehabilitate their legacies.
We should do this because it is the fair thing to do, but also because of the positive impact it would have on society today. In the words of Lavinya Stennett who set up The Black Curriculum, a campaign for black British history to be embedded into the UK curriculum: “The school curriculum is very whitewashed, and black history is usually either omitted entirely, or taught only in terms of colonialism and slavery, rather than black people’s achievements.”
Imagine the difference it would make if next time you typed “Industrial Revolution inventors” in your search engine you saw not only the well-known faces of James Watt and Samuel Morse but also the full diversity of men and women whose innovations ushered us into the modern age. Imagine the impact on Black pupils, and the careers they may choose to pursue.
Here is a list of 10 Industrial Revolution Black innovators and how their contributions changed lives:
1. Benjamin Banneker
We owe him: The first striking clock to be made in America, progress on astronomical observations and calculations.
Short bio: Benjamin Banneker was born in 1731 in Maryland. He was a gentleman farmer and self-taught mathematician and astronomer who at 21 invented a clock out of wood that struck a gong on the hour and kept time to the second. He created the first of 6 Banneker’s Almanac in 1792, which were used by farmers and other residents to see when the sun would come up and set, tide tables, lunar and solar eclipses and phases of the moon. He offered a handwritten manuscript of his almanac to Thomas Jefferson, along with a letter asking for justice for Black men and women “under groaning captivity and cruel oppression”. On the day of his funeral, a mysterious fire destroyed his farmhouse and laboratory, including his clock and every record of his achievements except for his published almanacs and his journal.
We owe him: Two models of seed planters which boosted agricultural productivity.
Short bio: Henry Blair was born in 1807 in Maryland. We know little about his early life other than he became a successful, independent farmer. He worked on ways to increase the efficiency of his farming and was awarded a patent in 1834 for a corn planter which combined ploughing, placing the seeds, and covering the seeds with soil. In doing so he became only the second African American inventor to receive a U.S. patent. Two years later he obtained a second patent, this time for a cotton planter.
We owe him: The Boyd Bedstead, a sturdier bed construction still commonly used today.
Short bio: Henry Boyd was born into slavery in 1802 in Kentucky. He became an inventor, carpenter, and a master mechanic. He proved early on to have an impressive talent for carpentry, which he used to buy his and his siblings’ freedom, then to open his own woodwork workshop where he invented the Boyd Bedstead. Because he was Black, he was not allowed to obtain a patent for this, which was later claimed by George Porter, a white cabinet maker. His business prospered nonetheless and in 1843 he was one of the most successful furniture makers in Cincinnati, Ohio. His factory was unfortunately burnt by arsonists several times. He rebuilt it twice, but the third time insurance companies refused to cover him, and he closed it for good in 1862.
We owe him: He installed the wires of Samuel Morse’s first telegraph and was the first African American to be hired by the Smithsonian Institute.
Short bio: Solomon Brown was born in 1829 in Washington. At just 15 he started working at the Washington D.C. Post Office as a postmaster assistant where he assisted Samuel Morse and Joseph Henry with the installation of the first Morse telegraph. He followed Morse when he founded the Morse Telegraph Company, where he worked for seven years. In 1852, Joseph Henry hired him to join the Smithsonian Institute, where he worked for 54 years and held many positions. He was very involved in civic and educational programs to support the African American community and served three terms as a Republican member of the House of Delegates for Washington D.C. from 1871-1874. He also published poetry and gave lectures on entomology and geology for which he used his own drawings.
We owe him: 300 products derived from peanuts – including peanut butter, soaps, flour and insulation – and innovative agricultural methods.
Short bio: George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Diamond, Missouri, in 1864 or 1865. He studied Botany at Iowa State Agricultural College and would go on to be the first Black faculty member to teach there. He developed an agricultural extension program that taught farmers to restore nitrogen to soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton, by alternating with plantings of different crops such as sweet potatoes or peanuts. He also founded an industrial research laboratory to find and promote applications for these alternative crops. He received many honours and became one of the very few Americans to be made a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England in 1916.
We owe him: the invention of dry scouring, the ancestor of dry-cleaning.
Short bio: Thomas Jennings was born in 1791 in New York City. He trained as a tailor and quickly became a successful businessman. He was not satisfied with conventional methods of cleaning that harmed clothes and started experimenting himself. This is how he invented dry scouring, for which he obtained a patent in 1821 – the first one awarded to an African American. He used the profits from his invention to buy the freedom of his family and supported the abolitionist cause. In 1831 he became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour in Philadelphia. In 1854 his daughter Elizabeth was forcefully removed from a streetcar and filed a lawsuit against the Third Avenue Railroad Company. She won the lawsuit the next year and the railroad company ordered its cars desegregated.
We owe him: a long-lasting and cheap filament to use in light bulbs, and six other patented inventions
Short bio: Lewis Latimer was born in 1848 in Massachusetts. He joined the Navy at 15 and served for 3 years before joining a patent law firm where he learned how to sketch patent drawings. At just 26, Latimer co-patented an improved toilet system for railroad cars. Two years later, Alexander Graham Bell hired him to draft the drawings for the patent of his telephone. In 1879 Latimer joined the U.S. Electric Lighting Company owned by Thomas Edison’s rival. He received a patent himself for an improved method of production of carbon filaments for lightbulbs in 1882. Two years after that he joined Thomas Edison’s research team and became the head draftsman for General Electric. There, he wrote the first book on electric lightning and supervised the installation of public electric lights in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal and London. He lived in New York with his family until his death in 1928.
We owe him: Affordable shoes, thanks to a machine he invented that could make 14 times more shoes in a day than the manual process, thus slashing their price for consumers and doubling wages for millions of people in the shoe industry.
Short bio: Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born in 1852 in Dutch Guyana (now Suriname). His father was a Dutch engineer and his mother was an enslaved Black Surinamese. He moved to Massachusetts in 1877, where he worked for the Harney Brothers Shoes factory. He obtained a patent for his machine in 1883 and continued to work on automating the shoe production process. He contracted tuberculosis and died at 36. He was honoured by a U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp as part of the Black Heritage Stamp Series in 1991, described as “a Black American who revolutionized America’s shoe-making industry in the late 19th century”.
We owe him: the multiple-effect vacuum evaporator which produced a whiter, more refined sugar with less labour.
Short bio: Norbert Rillieux was born in 1806 into a prominent Creole family in New Orleans. In the 1820s he travelled to Paris to study at Ecole Centrale – one of the best engineering school in France – where at 24 he became the youngest teacher. He published several papers about the use of steam to work devices, which was the premise for his invention. Until then the process to refine sugar was very manual, often burning the workers and wasting sugar in the process. Rillieux travelled back to Louisiana in 1833 and worked on his machine, which he patented in 1843. His invention revolutionised the industry. He came back to France just before the Civil War, frustrated by race relations in the US which made patenting invention difficult for Black people. The method he invented went on to be used for all evaporation processes, including condensed milk, gelatin, soap, glue, and whiskey.
We owe her: She revolutionized the African American cosmetics industry with her invention of the hot comb and a pomade to make hair soft and shiny.
Short bio: Madam C. J. Walker – born Sarah Breedlove – was born in 1867 in Louisiana and was orphaned very young. She married at 14 to escape abuse and had a daughter three years later. In 1904 she became a commissioned agent for the Poro Company, an African American haircare brand. A year later Walker moved to Denver with her daughter and started developing her own hair-care business. She then travelled to expand her business with her new husband Charles Walker, and relocated to Pennsylvania, where she started the “Walker System”, a program to train her sales agents and encourage Black women’s economic independence. In 1910 she relocated to Indianapolis where she established her headquarters and built a factory employing 3,000 people, a hair salon, a laboratory and a beauty school. She was a philanthropist, an activist, and is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America.