Monday, September 3, 2018

Playboy, kittens, and deep learning

It was nearing midnight and it had been a long day, but I was excited. In the morning I had been reading about conv nets, a powerful deep learning technique that lets computers understand images; in the afternoon I had been chatting with one deep learning researcher about how to use them, in the evening I grabbed dinner with a second deep learning researcher, and now approaching bedtime I was tapping away on my laptop marveling at how, in a few lines of code, I could download a vast mathematical structure that could discriminate between a thousand image classes with near-human accuracy. I was messaging an economist friend about how my field was cooler than his because I was so damn excited.

But as I went through the code in a famous deep learning toolbox, I noticed an image file with an odd name -- lena.jpg. And with a jolt I realized who she was:

This is one of the most widely used images in computer science. If you’ve ever taken a computer science class that worked with images, there’s a good chance you’ve used it. It also has a lesser-known, controversial history. The image comes from a 1973 Playboy centerfold. It was originally used in a computer science paper because a bunch of USC scientists were writing a paper in a hurry and just needed an image to add as an example, and someone happened to walk in with a Playboy. The image has been widely used ever since then, and there have been complaints for decades that it’s sexist to use it as a standard test image: see Wikipedia's summary, and also this Washington post op-ed from a female computer science student at my high school.

While I don’t think this is the biggest deal in the world, I also think it’s pretty obvious that we should stop using this image, for a couple reasons:
  1. The image has an inappropriate origin. You shouldn’t get your test images from a magazine famous for its images of naked women.
  2. Separate from origin, the image is obviously sexual. It’s an attractive woman who’s naked from the waist up looking suggestively at the viewer. The titillating nature of the image is clearly part of its appeal: here’s the (male) editor of a computer science journal noting that “it is not surprising that the (mostly male) image processing research community gravitated toward an image that they found attractive”.
  3. Machine learning already has a problem with sexualizing women. See Kristian Lum’s piece for some examples, among many others.
  4. There are literally billions of other images you could use.
To return to the story: some version of the reasoning above flashed through my mind, and my temper flared. It had been a 15-hour day and I had been feeling good and productive and all of a sudden I was not. By midnight, I had stopped writing code and half-written an angry blog post instead. Here is a quote:

“It's a strange juxtaposition, to see this ugliness in the midst of such beautiful math; to feel walls thrown up around open-source code; to see this tired old image in the midst of such innovation; to feel sudden vulnerability when a second ago you felt invinceable [sic].”

Then I stopped and thought before posting it. The cardinal rule I adhere to when talking publicly about gender issues is don’t do things rashly. As a high schooler, I was a tournament chess player, and I like seeing the battle for gender equality as a chess game -- give long thought to every attack, try to look a few steps ahead, keep the end goal in mind. Reflecting on this potential blog post reveals two problems:
  1. The writing’s a bit sloppy. There’s a misspelling; the parallel structure is a little clumsy; the sentence is a little long. There’s nothing worse than a sentence which strives for eloquence but doesn’t quite achieve it.
  2. The tone’s a bit harsh. It makes it sound like the person who used the image is severely, perhaps deliberately, harming female computer scientists on multiple levels. To see how this tone was likely to go over, I asked a couple of male computer scientists what they thought about the image. The first man I talked to laughed and said, “people are too sensitive”. The second man also thought the image was fine. Neither had ever heard of its history, and neither was particularly bothered when they did. Now, of course, I write things that others don’t agree with all the time. But their reaction suggested to me that my tone would not persuade most male computer scientists -- which is to say, a large fraction of my audience -- and would probably actually be counterproductive.
So I went to sleep without doing anything. Over the next few days I reached out to a few people I respected to see what they thought. My anger faded, but I remained convinced the image should be taken down. One option was to open a GitHub issue -- essentially, write a public note to the author of the code explaining the history of the image and asking that he use a different one. The upside of this would be to raise awareness of the image’s history and the prevalence of subtle gender bias in computer science, and make it harder for the author to ignore me. The downsides were that it’s a bit pointed to publicly point out sexism in someone’s work; there was also the risk that the whole interaction would end up on Hacker News or Reddit and waste a lot of my time (although this could also be an upside, if it offered insight into how discussions on these issues evolved). Instead, I decided to privately email the author. If he ignored me, I could escalate by making a public comment. We had the following exchange (I blacked out his identifying details).

Very gracious; totally painless. He was as good as his word: within a day, he replaced the original image with

Thus accomplishing the true goal -- to increase the number of kitten pictures in machine learning. Look at its little ears!

As I said at the outset, this obviously isn’t a tremendously momentous interaction. I share it for two reasons. First, women who speak up about gender issues are sometimes told that we should calm down or that we’re being too sensitive, and I wanted to illustrate that we’ve often already put a lot of time into calming down and choosing our words carefully. There’s a good chance that we were actually a lot madder than we’re acting, and it’s probably unhelpful to ask us to calm down further [1].

My second reason for sharing this is that conversations about social justice issues these days feel so fraught and so frequently blow up, but this interaction gave me hope. When I talk to computer scientists about these issues, I don’t think they are usually as concerned as I am. But I also think that they are usually at least somewhat concerned and, if you reach out to them calmly and it doesn’t cost them anything, will be open to helping you out. So here’s to more kittens and fewer topless women in deep learning.


[1] Of course, this isn’t always true. Everyone sometimes lashes out without thinking, and some women do this too. But given that most are thoughtful and restrained, I think it’s risky and unfair to assume someone who’s acting angry hasn’t thought about their words.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Is Work Enough?

I wrote this piece three years ago and never published it. But I returned to it recently and it still resonates with me (though a lot has changed since then), so I’m publishing it now. 

    Recently I wrote my first piece for the Atlantic, and on the day it came out I woke up early because I was so excited. But people quickly started writing mean things about the piece, and because my skin isn’t as thick as it should be I called my mom in the hope that she would make me feel better.

    “I’m a little stressed too, actually,” she said.

    “Why?” I asked.

    “Well, your grandfather just went to the hospital,” she said. “They think he might’ve had a stroke.”

    Which reminds you that there are worse things than nasty internet comments. There are also worse things than strokes. The next week was a surreal blend of professional successes and family tragedies. A literary agent emailed an offer to represent me. My mom emailed that the true problem was not a stroke but a brain tumor. A national radio station asked for an interview. My mom said that the tumor was probably not a lymphoma but a glioblastoma, which has a median survival of 3 - 6 months.

    My focus on my work has led a collaborator to label me a “serious workaholic”, and a friend to tell me that “you can choose to not care about people”. And yet. It has been made so devastatingly clear to me that my work is not enough.

    Here is what professional successes feel like when a close family member is dying. It’s as if you’re sitting at an elegant restaurant with a spear through your chest and waiters keep bringing you beautiful courses. One asks you how your food is.

    “It’s lovely,” you say, “but I’ve got this large hole in my ribcage…”

    Work is not enough, but nor is it nothing. A few months after my grandfather died, it became clear that my relationship of four years was coming to an end. (This has not been the greatest year.) I was at a conference in Dublin, and I was supposed to give a talk, and I was a mess; I was sneaking into the bathroom between poster sessions to cry. But the talk went well, and I ended up winning my first best talk award. I accepted the certificate from the organizer, smiled at all the clapping scientists, and went straight outside to do some more crying. I was crying because I still felt terrible, but I was also crying because even in the midst of all the terrible, winning still felt good. As broken as I felt, my head was working fine, and that incongruity was surprising and reassuring: a fierce, raw triumph, this sudden awareness that, unlike the Titanic, I was mostly safely compartmentalized.

    My life feels emptier of late. But I am happy alone in my head -- I am rarely lonely or bored -- because of my work. I do not think I would find my work comforting if I were pulling 90-hour weeks at Goldman Sachs, though. I am as addicted to pageviews and likes as anyone else, but I think I would find them less meaningful if they were for, say, a cigarette ad campaign I had designed. When I am at my computer, no matter what terrible things are happening, I can still put one word in front of another and think: the world may be bad, but maybe this will make it slightly better.

    Or maybe I just find my work comforting because it is safe: it’s a world as still and beautiful as a frozen wasteland, filled with abstractions I understand, problems that demand my full attention and leave no room for sadness. Science fiction writers seem to like this sort of psychotherapy. In Ender’s Game, a 6-year-old genius finds comfort far from home by computing powers of two. I used to try this, but I mostly got irritated because, unlike the 6-year-old, I can’t get up to 67 million in my head. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, after a rather serious mishap with a computer [1] leaves a character stranded alone, he finds comfort by listening to the “abstract architecture” of Bach. There is, if not deep satisfaction, at least distraction in abstraction.
[1] Probably programmed by a Cal student.