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The business side of Facebook (Meta) and A.I.: racist, scare-mongering, and something we’ve seen before

October 29, 2021, 8:20 PM UTC

I hate Halloween. Also, there’s a problem with efforts to bridge the gender wage gap, some hope for health equity in St. Louis, and do you know what your Net Purpose Score is? All that and a bonus track from Jonathan Vanian exploring how current political business rhetoric toward China recalls racist scare-mongering from history.

But first, here’s your Halloween week in review, in Haiku.

Enjoy your spooky 
season! That short, magical 
time before the War On

Christmas begins, and
your turkey day of myth-making
finds you passing the

stuffing to your aunt
in the Q-Anon t-shirt.
I remember when

candy corn was the
big fight, not critical race
theory or vaccines!

Oh, for simpler times:
Racist costumes, hangovers
and (TRASH) candy corn.

Wishing you a weekend that’s utterly free of racist nonsense and cultural appropriation. Oh, but lots of decent candy.

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

In brief

One of the most popular narratives in politics currently involves the notion that the United States is in a so-called A.I. arms race with China.

U.S. politicians and tech executives are increasingly sounding alarms over the dangers of China dominating the U.S. in A.I., with the Pentagon’s former software chief claiming that China has won the A.I. battle and there’s nothing that can be done to stop the impending technological supremacy.

Shazeda Ahmed, a visiting researcher at the AI Now Institute and a cybersecurity and Internet policy expert who specializes in China, believes this current militaristic narrative is like a mix between Red Scare communist hysteria and Yellow Peril fears of Asians posing an existential threat to the West.

In other words, there are implicit racial overtones in the way lawmakers are addressing China that are playing off of existing societal fears of the Chinese. Maybe the politicians’ concerns are centered toward the authoritarian Chinese government and not the populace, but that nuance gets lost in the combative rhetoric that implies warfare, with a winner and a loser.

“I always ask people what does it mean to be in an A.I. arms race and nobody has given a satisfactory answer to that question,” says Ahmed, who is currently based in Taiwan along with other foreign journalists and researchers who left China after the government imposed harsh press and information-gathering policies. “I don't think anybody really knows what they want.”

Ahmed doesn’t minimize the draconian rules of the Chinese government, which has implemented numerous initiatives that have alarmed human-rights activists, such as its persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Even the Chinese government plays into the A.I. arms race narrative, boasting of its own technological prowess and vowing to be the A.I. leader by 2030.

But like many hyperbolic U.S. tech companies, China often misstates its A.I. capabilities, and the country is currently experiencing “a couple of recent scandals around plagiarism of computer science papers,” she says. Indeed, China may be publishing more A.I. research papers than the U.S., but that says nothing of their quality.

Nevertheless, the prevailing U.S. rhetoric is that the nation risks losing to China in A.I. prowess, whatever that exactly means. Even Facebook (now Meta) CEO Mark Zuckerberg has warned lawmakers that China is moving more quickly in technological pursuits than the U.S., a not-so-thinly veiled comment likely intended to convince politicians that his embattled company needs not be so regulated that it can no longer move fast, without presumably breaking things this time.

It’s those subtle remarks like Zuckerberg’s comments about China that concern Ahmed.

Are tech companies using China as a scapegoat to escape tough regulations designed to curb their alleged misbehaviors? Are politicians linked to the Defense industry sounding the alarms about China to justify more spending on high-tech weaponry?

Discussing China from the prism of war has the rhetorical effect of silencing those who ask those questions about suspected motivations. All’s fair in A.I. and war.

“I'm looking at the gap between the honestly, pretty, warmongering rhetoric around we need to win the arms race—the technical war—without specifying what indicates winning and what is the goal we're working towards and what gets funded based on that premise,” Ahmed says.

Ahmed suggests that “we resist the narrative and we ask what do we collectively want to build, because as I told you, the A.I. arms race is like this really heavily funded road that just veers off a cliff—we don't actually know where it goes.”

If we as a society “uncritically accept this reheated Yellow Peril moment when it's not China in like 10 or 15 years, assuming maybe it's India or some other country, are we okay with doing this all over again?”  Ahmed says.

 

Jonathan Vanian 
@JonathanVanian
jonathan.vanian@fortune.com

On point

The annual “don’t be a jerk at Halloween” column The racist and insulting costumes are as reliable as the sunrise, and although the pandemic gave us all an unexpected break from the stupid, I expect it to be as bad as ever this year. So, here is the column that I never need to re-write because it’s always relevant and yes, I do look forward to the horror stories that you will likely share with me next week. (Shout out to the person who sent me photos of the actual brick wall one of your knucklehead colleagues built around a Hispanic colleague’s desk a couple of years ago — I’d love an update on that.) Click below for everything you need to know to get Halloween right as told through cautionary tales, outrageous behavior, and expert advice. Please share. LORDT I hate this holiday.
Fortune

Please continue to mind the (gender wage) gap Turns out celebrating the progress on the gender wage gap may be premature, particularly when it comes to women in senior roles. New research from SP Global suggests that Gender-Based Compensation Management (GBCM) schemes encourage employers to compensate women in a “compressed range” around the median for their peer group. But most men receive additional compensation outside of this range and is not considered in pay gap calculations. In addition to exacerbating the pay gap issue, GBCM is also associated with poor corporate governance, the study finds. Although the report does not examine the disparity effects by race, it’s a compelling read. (Hat tip: the amazing Kristen Bellstrom writing in Broadsheet.)
SP Global        

Charges filed in the vandalization of George Floyd memorial in NYC  A NYC resident and part-time actor has been charged with defacing a sculpture of George Floyd, after being caught on video throwing paint at it from his skateboard on Oct 3. On Monday, 37-year-old Micah Beals was charged with second-degree criminal mischief. Three sculptures are part of a traveling exhibit called SEENINJUSTICE co-hosted by art organization Confront Art and the NYC Parks. The three stacked-plate bronze portraits of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and John Lewis. "We do not consider this just an act of vandalism, but an act of hate," the organization wrote in a statement posted on Instagram
NPR

A long-overdue first for public health in St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones has named noted infectious disease and behavioral health expert Dr. Mati-Hlatshwayo Davis as director of the city’s health department, the first Black woman in the role. This interview with Davis reveals the enormity of the problems facing St. Louis, and her findings from a recent listening tour. “Unfortunately, you know, the health department [has] as other health departments across the country have suffered from a lot of turnover, burnout. We are limited in what we can do because of how overwhelming the ask of the work is as well,” she says. But the way forward is clear. “The next thing that has come out of that listening tour is how everyone agrees with me that our priority for the health department has to center equity in everything that we do.”
St. Louis Public Radio

 

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On background

What if purpose could unlock engagement? Stephanie Vozza digs into new research published by MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.  Michael Schrage, a visiting research fellow surveyed some 4,300 global leaders and supplemented those findings with executive interviews. The report— “Leadership’s Digital Transformation: Leading Purposefully in an Era of Context Collapse” — explored the expansion of digital productivity and subsequent exhaustion that defined the pandemic. “During the beginning of the pandemic, organizations saw a burst of productivity, but more than a year later, that productivity is turning into attrition,” Schrage says. “We had to think about people’s emotional, mental, and purposeful well-being.” His answer? A net purpose score, which builds on the simplicity of the net promoter score, but instead of asking if an employee would recommend their organization, it asks if they would advocate for it. “Do they feel like the organization stands for something?” says Schrage.
Fast Company

Mood board

Thriller, MJ, 1984. May you have a funky, scary Halloween, King of Pop style.
Dave Hogan—Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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