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Twitter to Investigate Auto-Crop Algorithm After Accusations of Racial Bias

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  • Twitter users believe they discovered a racial bias in an algorithm the platform uses to automatically select which part of an image it shows in a photo preview.
  • Many argued that the auto-cropping tool showed a white bias after testing the theory with photos of Black and white people, cartoon characters, and even dogs. 
  • However, others who tested the theory generated results that did not support this idea. Regardless, most users admit that these experiments have their limitations and agree that the current results at least show that this is something worth looking into.
  • The company released a statement saying it tested its system for bias in the past but admitted it needs to conduct further analysis of it. Online, Twitter employees seemed to welcome the public discourse and the company promised to share its results as well as further actions it may take.

Potential White Bias 

Twitter responded to concerns over its automatic cropping algorithm Sunday after users believed they discovered a racial bias in the tool.

In 2018, Twitter began auto-cropping photos in its timeline previews to prevent them from taking up too much space in the main feed and to allow multiple photos to appear in the same tweet. To do this, the company uses several algorithmic tools that focus on the most important part of the picture, like faces or text. 

However, users recently began to spot issues with the algorithm. The first person credited for highlighting a potential problem was PhD student Colin Madland. He made his discovery while highlighting a different racial bias he thinks he found on the video-conference company Zoom. 

Madland tweeted that when his Black colleague uses a virtual background on Zoom, his head is erased. When he uploaded examples to show this happening to his Black colleague and not himself, he noticed that Twitter was only showing his own face in its preview. 

Soon after, others followed up with more targetted experiments. Cryptographic and infrastructure engineer Tony Arcieri, for example, tweeted out two long images with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel and Former President Barack Obama. 

The two photos have the politicians stacked on top of each other in different orders but with white space in between them. The experiment showed that Twitter would focus on McConnell, no matter what order the photos were stacked in.

Another user found that the algorithm even focused on McConnell when two photos of Obama were present in a single stack.

A similar white preference appeared in examples of Black and white men in suits, Simpsons characters Lenny and Carl, and even black and white dogs. 

Examples That Don’t Support White Bias Theory

Others looking into this theory of a white bias found results that did not support the idea. 

For example, one user found that photos of Obama were cropped for the preview over photos of Donald Trump. 

Still, some researching the trends noted that these experiments do have their limitations and are likely influenced by tons of other factors. Some believe the algorithm recognized high profile figures or considers brightness and contrast, among other photo elements.

Twitter’s Chief Design Officer (CDO), Dantley Davis, even suggested that the choice of cropping sometimes takes brightness of the background into consideration.

However, ohers found examples that rejected that idea. Regardless, all these tests did a lot to convince people that there was something worth looking at here, including Davis, who has been experimenting himself.

He’s not alone in his research. In fact, plenty of other Twitter users have been going to great lengths to track their results as they try to study what is going on.

Twitter Promises to Investigate 

On Sunday, a Twitter spokesperson eventually released a statement admitting that the company had work to do.

“Our team did test for bias before shipping the model and did not find evidence of racial or gender bias in our testing,” the company explained.

But it’s clear from these examples that we’ve got more analysis to do. We’ll continue to share what we learn, what actions we take, and will open source our analysis so others can review and replicate.” 

Davis also isn’t the only employee that has appeared to welcome all of this public discourse. The company’s Chief Technology Officer, Parag Argawal tweeted, “This is a very important question. To address it, we did analysis on our model when we shipped it, but needs continuous improvement. Love this public, open, and rigorous test — and eager to learn from this.”

See what others are saying; (The Next Web) (The Guardian) (Mashable

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Supply Chain Issues Trigger Price Hikes, School Lunch Shortages, and More

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Many news outlets have cited experts warning of supply chain issues affecting holiday spending, but the consequences of ongoing bottlenecks are already being felt across the country.


Schools Struggle for Food 

A host of supply chain bottlenecks are affecting products and businesses throughout the U.S., forcing prices of goods and services to rise. 

In Colorado, the ​​Denver Public Schools system said it’s struggling to make sure it has enough milk for students on a daily basis, Insider reported Sunday. In fact, the schools are so short on milk cartons they’ve now resorted to asking students to bring refillable water bottles instead.

“When the milk is available, we are prioritizing serving milk at breakfast at all schools and at our elementary schools for lunch,” Theresa Hafner, DPS executive director of Food Services, told Insider in an email.

Meanwhile, other schools are struggling to find additional lunch-related supplies including meats, orange juice, meal trays, and plastic cutlery.

According to NBC News, Shonia Hall, director of school nutrition services for Oklahoma City Public Schools, even found herself needing to make a run to a local Sam’s Club to purchase 60,000 spoons and forks each just “to get us through for a few days in hopes the truck would show up.”

“It’s an additional cost to your budget, to your program,” she added.

Zillow Pauses House Buying

The issues also extend to the housing market, as both labor and supply shortages have led to operational backlogs for renovations and closings.

Zillow cited those issues Sunday when announcing that it would stop buying homes at least through December. Instead, the company said it plans to first prioritize the selling of its current catalog of homes. 

“We’re operating within a labor- and supply-constrained economy inside a competitive real estate market, especially in the construction, renovation and closing spaces,” Jeremy Wacksman, Zillow’s chief operating officer, said in a statement cited by Yahoo! Finance.

Zillow’s share price fell as much as 11% from around $94 to around $84 early Monday as investors pulled out of the company.  

What’s Causing the Issues?

U.S. companies are having a hard time stocking their shelves with certain products and keeping prices from rising largely because of factors induced by the pandemic.

The first and most basic issue is that last year, most consumer spending halted amid COVID-19 lockdowns in March. Around that same time, many companies were forced to scale back production and lay off workers.

However, more people are now returning to the outside world, and with that comes a boost in shopping. Still, several businesses have found themselves unable to ramp up production to meet the increased and arguably unprecedented demand.

In addition to production issues, there are numerous transportation challenges. For example, a large wave of businesses have struggled for months to fill open positions. One such industry where that’s being acutely felt is trucking.

In fact, the country is so stressed for drivers to haul freight that at least one high school in California has now launched a program to train seniors to drive big rigs

Meanwhile, Walmart, UPS, and FedEx all made 24/7 transportation commitments last week. 

The supply chains problems don’t stop with ground transportation. One of the most pressing situations seen so far involves the problems at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California, where container ships are backed up. 

Pre-pandemic, it was fairly unusual for any cargo ship to be seen waiting off the coast to get into one of the two ports, which process 40% of all shipping containers entering the U.S. Now, dozens of ships have been waiting weeks to get in. 

Even once they unload, there’s another major backlog involving shipping containers at the ports. Because of those combined issues, Long Beach extended its operational hours in September.

President Joe Biden later announced on Oct. 13 that L.A.’s port will “operat[e] around the clock 24/7” as part of a “90-day sprint” to clear a path for cargo.

Supply chain issues are expected to impact holiday shoppers, but many analysts expect the problems to extend well into 2022. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg echoed that prediction on Sunday during an appearance on CNN. 

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (Insider) (Wall Street Journal)

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Facebook Is Reviewing More Than 2,200 Hours of Footage for Next-Gen AI 

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The project, which could prove to be revolutionary, is already raising some big privacy concerns. 


Facebook’s Next-Gen AI

Facebook announced Thursday that it has captured more than 2,200 hours of first-person video that it will use to train next-gen AI models.

The company said it aims to make the AI, called Ego4D, capable of understanding and identifying both real and virtual objects through a first-person perspective using smart glasses or VR headsets. In effect, that could potentially help users do everything from remembering where they placed forgotten items to recording others in secret. 

Facebook listed five key scenarios the project aims to tackle and gave real-world examples of how each may look for people who will eventually use the AI.

  • “What happened when?” With that scenario, Facebook gave the example, “Where did I leave my keys?”
  • “What am I likely to do next?” There, Facebook gave the example, “Wait, you’ve already added salt to this recipe.”
  • “What am I doing?” For example, “What was the main topic during class?”
  • “Who said what when?” For example, “What was the main topic during class?”
  • “Who is interacting with whom?” For example, “Help me better hear the person talking to me at this noisy restaurant.”

Facebook said the amount of footage it has collected is 20 times greater than any other data set used by the company.

Privacy Concerns

In the wake of recent controversy surrounding Facebook, it’s important to note that the footage wasn’t reaped from users. Instead, the company said it, and 13 university partners, compiled the footage from more than 700 participants around the world.

Still, that hasn’t alleviated all privacy concerns. 

In an article titled, “Facebook is researching AI systems that see, hear, and remember everything you do,” The Verge writer James Vincent said that although the project’s guidelines seem practical, “the company’s interest in this area will worry many.”

In addition to the recent testimony and data leaks from whistleblower Frances Haugen, Facebook has also faced other privacy issues, as well as billions in fines

Vincent pointe out that the AI announcement doesn’t mention anything in the way of privacy or removing data for people who may not want to be recorded.

A Facebook spokesperson later assured Vincent that privacy safeguards will be introduced to the public in the future.

“For example, before AR glasses can enhance someone’s voice, there could be a protocol in place that they follow to ask someone else’s glasses for permission, or they could limit the range of the device so it can only pick up sounds from the people with whom I am already having a conversation or who are in my immediate vicinity,” the spokesperson said.

Among positive reception, some believe the tech could be revolutionary for helping people around the house, as well as for teaching robots to more rapidly learn about their surroundings.

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (CNBC) (Axios)

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FDA Issues Its First E-Cigarette Authorization Ever

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The authorization only applies to tobacco-flavored products, as the FDA simultaneously rejected several sweet and fruit-flavored e-cigarette cartridges. 


FDA Approves E-Cigarette

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an e-cigarette pen sold under the brand name Vuse on Tuesday, as well as two tobacco-flavored cartridges that can be used with the pen.

This marks the first time the FDA has ever authorized the use of vaping products. In a news release, the agency said it made the decision because “the authorized products’ aerosols are significantly less toxic than combusted cigarettes based on available data.”

“The manufacturer’s data demonstrates its tobacco-flavored products could benefit addicted adult smokers who switch to these products — either completely or with a significant reduction in cigarette consumption — by reducing their exposure to harmful chemicals,” the agency added. 

The company that owns Vuse, R.J. Reynolds Vapor Company, also submitted several sweet and fruit-flavored pods for review; however, those were all rejected. While the FDA did not specify which flavors it rejected, it did note that it has yet to make a decision on whether to allow menthol-flavored e-cigarettes, including ones sold under Vuse.

FDA Is Reviewing All Vape Products Still on the Market

In January 2020, the FDA banned pre-filled pods with sweet and fruity flavors from being sold. While other e-cigarette related products, including some forms of flavored vapes, were allowed to stay on the market for the time being, they were only able to do so if they were submitted for FDA review.

The FDA’s primary issue with fruity cartridges stems from statistics showing that those pods more easily hook new smokers, particularly underage smokers.

In fact, in its approval of the Vuse products, the FDA said it only authorized them because it “determined that the potential benefit to smokers who switch completely or significantly reduce their cigarette use, would outweigh the risk to youth, provided the applicant follows post-marketing requirements aimed at reducing youth exposure and access to the products.”

While some have cheered the FDA’s decision, not everyone was enthusiastic. Many critics cited a joint FDA-CDC study in which nearly 11% of teens who said they vape also indicated regularly using Vuse products. 

See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (Wall Street Journal) (The Washington Post)

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