Racist, sexist, casteist: Is AI bad news for India?

A police officer moves a barricade to block a road ahead of the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, September 7, 2023. (REUTERS)
A police officer moves a barricade to block a road ahead of the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, September 7, 2023. (REUTERS)
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Updated 11 September 2023
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Racist, sexist, casteist: Is AI bad news for India?

A police officer moves a barricade to block a road ahead of the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, September 7, 2023. (REUTERS)
  • In both cases, most of those charged were Muslim, leading human rights groups and tech experts to criticise India's use of the AI-based technology to target poor, minority and marginalised groups in Delhi and elsewhere in the country

NEW DELHI: After communal clashes in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri area last year, police said they used facial recognition technology to identify and arrest dozens of men, the second such instance after a more violent riot in the Indian capital in 2020.
In both cases, most of those charged were Muslim, leading human rights groups and tech experts to criticize India’s use of the AI-based technology to target poor, minority and marginalized groups in Delhi and elsewhere in the country.
As India rolls out AI tools that authorities say will increase efficiency and improve access, tech experts fear the lack of an official policy for the ethical use of AI will hurt people at the bottom, entrenching age-old bias, criminalizing minorities and channeling most benefits to the rich.




People mourn next to the body of Muddasir Khan, who was wounded on Tuesday in a clash between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law, after he succumbed to his injuries, in a riot affected area in New Delhi, India, February 27, 2020. (REUTERS)

“It is going to directly affect the people living on the fringes — the Dalits, the Muslims, the trans people. It will exacerbate bias and discrimination against them,” said Shivangi Narayan, a researcher who has studied predictive policing in Delhi.

HIGHLIGHTS

• "If you ask a chatbot the names of 20 Indian doctors and professors, the suggestions are generally Hindu dominant-caste surnames - just one example of how unequal representations in data lead to caste-biased outcomes of generative AI systems."

• India's criminal databases are particularly problematic, as Muslims, Dalits and Indigenous people are arrested, charged and incarcerated at higher rates than others, official data show.

With a population of 1.4 billion powering the world’s fifth-biggest economy, India is undergoing breakneck technological change, rolling out AI-based systems — in spheres from health to education, agriculture to criminal justice — but with scant debate on their ethical implications, experts say.
In a nation beset by old and deep divisions, be it of class, religion, gender or wealth, researchers like Narayan — a member of the Algorithmic Governance Research Network — fear that AI risks exacerbating all these schisms.
“We think technology works objectively. But the databases being used to train AI systems are biased against caste, gender, religion, even location of residence, so they will exacerbate bias and discrimination against them,” she said.




Security personnel stand guard on a road as a Hindu religious flag is seen on a minaret (C) of a burnt-out mosque following clashes between people supporting and opposing a contentious amendment to India's citizenship law in New Delhi on February 26, 2020. (AFP)

Facial recognition technology — which uses AI to match live images against a database of cached faces — is one of many AI applications that critics say risks more surveillance of Muslims, lower-caste Dalits, Indigenous Adivasis, transgender and other marginalized groups, all while ignoring their needs.
Linking databases to a national ID system and a growing use of AI for loan approvals, hiring and background checks can slam doors firmly shut on the marginalized, said Siva Mathiyazhagan, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
The growing popularity of generative AI applications such as chatbots further exacerbates these biases, he said.
“If you ask a chatbot the names of 20 Indian doctors and professors, the suggestions are generally Hindu dominant-caste surnames — just one example of how unequal representations in data lead to caste-biased outcomes of generative AI systems,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

DIGITAL CASTE PANOPTICON
Caste discrimination was outlawed in India 75 years ago, yet Dalits still face widespread abuse, many of their attempts at upward mobility met with violent oppression.
Under-represented in higher education and good jobs despite affirmative action programs, Dalits, Muslims and Indigenous people lag higher-caste Indians in smartphone ownership and social media use, studies show.
About half of India’s population — primarily women, rural communities and Adivasis — lacks access to the Internet, so “entire communities may be missing or misrepresented in datasets ... leading to wrong conclusions and residual unfairness,” analysis by Google Research showed in 2021.
The ramificiations are widespread; not least, in health care.
“Rich people problems like cardiac disease and cancer, not poor people’s tuberculosis, is prioritized, exacerbating inequities among those who benefit from AI and those who do not,” researchers said in the Google analysis.
Similarly, mobile safety apps that use data mapping to flag unsafe areas are skewed by middle-class users who tend to mark Dalit, Muslim and slum areas as dodgy, potentially leading to over-policing and unwarranted mass surveillance.
“The irony is that people who are not counted in these datasets are still subject to these data-driven systems which reproduce bias and discrimination,” said Urvashi Aneja, founding director of Digital Futures Lab, a research collective.
India’s criminal databases are particularly problematic, as Muslims, Dalits and Indigenous people are arrested, charged and incarcerated at higher rates than others, official data show.
The police registers are used for potential AI-assisted predictive policing to identify who is likely to commit a crime. Generative AI may come to court, with the Punjab and Haryana high court earlier using ChatGPT to decide whether to award bail for a suspect in a murder case — a first in the country.
“Any new AI-based predictive policing system will likely only perpetuate the legacies of caste discrimination and the unjust criminalization and surveillance of marginalized communities,” said Nikita Sonavane, co-founder of the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project, a non-profit.
“Policing has always been casteist in India, and data has been used to entrench caste-based hierarchies. What we’re seeing now is the creation and rise of a digital caste panopticon.”
The ministry of information technology did not respond to a request for comment.

CALIFORNIA CASTE LAW
Governments worldwide have been slow to regulate AI. China’s draft rules for generative AI took effect last month, while the EU’s AI Act is in the final stage of negotiations, and the US AI Bill of Rights offers guidelines for responsible design and use.
India does not have an AI law, only a strategy from government thinktank NITI Aayog that states that AI systems must not discriminate on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth or residence, and that they must be audited to ensure they are impartial and free from bias.
But there is little discussion in India about bias in AI, even as there is growing awareness of caste in the tech industry in the United States, with California poised to become the first state to ban caste discrimination, after Seattle became the first US city to do so.
South Asian immigrant communities make up large numbers of tech workers in the United States, where Dalit engineers — including women — have complained of discrimination and abuse from high-caste men.
Having mostly high-caste men design AI tools can unduly benefit the privileged and altogether bypass women, lower-caste and other marginalized groups, said Aneja.
“How much agency do women or lower-caste groups have to check or contradict what’s coming out of a system? Especially generative AI, which is designed to seem human-like,” she said.
A technical fix cannot take existing bias out of the system; what’s needed is a better understanding of the biases and their impacts in different social contexts, Aneja said.
“We should shed the assumption that bias is going to go away — instead, we should accept that bias is always going to be there, and design and build systems accordingly.”

 


Britain’s ‘impossible’ refugee visa rules leave children stranded in war zones, charity says

Britain’s ‘impossible’ refugee visa rules leave children stranded in war zones, charity says
Updated 15 June 2024
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Britain’s ‘impossible’ refugee visa rules leave children stranded in war zones, charity says

Britain’s ‘impossible’ refugee visa rules leave children stranded in war zones, charity says
  • Organization points to ‘catastrophic failure’ of system 

LONDON: Children are being left stranded in war zones due to the “impossible” bureaucratic requirements for one of Britain’s few legal routes for asylum-seekers, a charity has told The Guardian.

The UK government has said that the family reunion process allows refugees to safely reunite with loved ones in the country.

However, a new report from the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London, a charity that helps vulnerable migrants, reveals that the scheme is “not fit for purpose” and has abandoned applicants, putting them at risk of trafficking, or even death.

RAMFEL reported that when the conflict in Sudan erupted in April 2023, it was assisting 14 people, all of whom were eligible to travel to the UK under the scheme.

More than a year later, eight people remain trapped there, “facing extreme risks.” Several of the children previously fled Eritrea, where men, women, and children face forced mass conscription.

In some cases, teenagers have fled Sudan via irregular routes. One boy was detained in Libya, and another unaccompanied child was trafficked to South Sudan and raped.

The UK government has closed its visa application center in Khartoum but has not waived the requirement for applicants to register their fingerprints and biometric data in person.

“Visa application centers are open and operating in neighboring countries,” a Home Office letter, seen by The Guardian, reads.

“However, travel across Sudan is conducted at your own risk, and under your own discretion, considering whether it is safe to do so,” it added.

Eritrean refugee Yusef, who is living in the UK, shared his efforts to bring his two young brothers, now aged 17 and 14, to join him. They fled to Sudan alone after their mother died and their father was seized by Eritrean authorities.

He told The Guardian: “I made the (family reunion) application but the Home Office was saying that there was not a place to test them for tuberculosis or a visa center in Sudan. They said they couldn’t take them.”

His brothers fled north to Egypt, and Yusef said: “They don’t have anyone. How will they survive? If the police find them asleep, they will take them back to Eritrea and they will be put in prison. They are still in this situation and they’re very scared.”

In October of last year, the Home Office declined to consider a request to bypass biometric enrollment for the children. RAMFEL is currently attempting to have them registered in Cairo.

RAMFEL pointed to the Sudan conflict as an example of the “catastrophic failure” of the family reunion system. The process primarily aids children and spouses of UK residents and can only extend to siblings and other close relatives under a more restrictive scheme.

The charity argues that the flawed system is pushing more refugees toward irregular routes, leading to an increase in small boat crossings over the English Channel, which have reached record levels.

Nick Beales, head of campaigning at RAMFEL, said: “The UK’s family reunion system is not fit for purpose and this report shows that it does not act as an effective safe route for refugees seeking to come to the UK.

“For people in places such as Sudan and Gaza, they are prevented from even applying for family reunion due to the government’s inflexible and unreasonable insistence on them attending non-existing visa application centers.

“This leaves those in conflict zones, including unaccompanied children, with no choice but to take dangerous journeys in search of family reunification.”

RAMFEL called on the next government to create a process that allowed those with loved ones in the UK to swiftly and safely secure visas for legal travel to Britain.
 


Ukrainian refugees sing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ near Swiss summit

Ukrainian refugees sing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ near Swiss summit
Updated 15 June 2024
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Ukrainian refugees sing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ near Swiss summit

Ukrainian refugees sing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ near Swiss summit
  • Among the singers were around 50 Ukrainian refugees, some wearing embroidered national dress and crowns of flowers
  • “It’s about freedom. I haven’t learned German but I feel a lot of power and freedom and joy,” Anna Haidash, a refugee from Odesa, said

LUCERNE: Dozens of Ukrainian refugees from choirs around Switzerland converged in the city of Lucerne on Saturday near a global summit to sing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” a choral work they say embodies their hopes for peace and freedom.
The singers gathered in a public square in Lucerne close to the mountaintop resort of Buergenstock where dozens of world leaders were meeting to try to build support for Ukraine’s peace proposals.
Among the singers were around 50 Ukrainian refugees, some wearing embroidered national dress and crowns of flowers, from five different choirs from around Switzerland. The country has accepted over 65,000 Ukrainian refugees since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.
The rousing lyrics to “Ode to Joy” are by German poet Friedrich Schiller and laud the values of unity, hope and solidarity. “Ode to Joy” is also the anthem for the European Union to which Ukraine hopes to accede.
“It’s about freedom. I haven’t learned German but I feel a lot of power and freedom and joy,” Anna Haidash, a refugee from Odesa, told Reuters. “When you see all these people you feel you are not alone in this situation and in this song too.”
The choir, accompanied by a small orchestra, was surrounded by crowds of tourists next to Lucerne’s famous wooden Chapel Bridge and pro-Ukrainian protesters, some of whom joined in as they later sang the national anthem.
“They want to appeal to the world with Beethoven’s great music and reaffirm their wish of peace and freedom for their battered country on its way to Europe,” event organizer Daniela Majer said.
The melody has been used in the past as a protest anthem to celebrate resistance to oppression, for example during the Tiananmen Square protests in China and to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.


Dutch tourist missing on Greek island found dead — police

Dutch tourist missing on Greek island found dead — police
Updated 15 June 2024
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Dutch tourist missing on Greek island found dead — police

Dutch tourist missing on Greek island found dead — police
  • The man went missing after hiking alone on the southwest of the island during searing heat

ATHENS: A 74-year-old Dutch tourist who was missing for a week on the Greek island of Samos has been found dead, a police official said on Saturday.
The man went missing after hiking alone on the southwest of the island during searing heat, and his wife reported his disappearance on Sunday.
Samos is an island of 30,000 people in the eastern Aegean and is popular with tourists.
Last Sunday, British TV presenter Michael Mosley was found dead following a four-day search operation on the Greek island of Symi after taking a walk alone in high temperatures.


French protesters are standing up to the far right ahead of the country’s snap elections

French protesters are standing up to the far right ahead of the country’s snap elections
Updated 15 June 2024
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French protesters are standing up to the far right ahead of the country’s snap elections

French protesters are standing up to the far right ahead of the country’s snap elections
  • In Paris, those who fear that the elections will produce France’s first far-right government since World War II gathered at Place de la Republique before marching through eastern Paris
  • A large crowd turned out in spite of rainy and windy weather, holding placards reading “Liberty for all, Equality for all and Fraternity with all”

PARIS: Anti-racism groups joined French unions and a brand-new left-wing coalition in protests in Paris and across France on Saturday against the surging nationalist far right as frenzied campaigning is underway ahead of snap parliamentary elections.
The French Interior Ministry said 21,000 police and gendarmes would be deployed at the rallies with authorities expecting between 300,000 and 500,000 protesters nationwide.
In Paris, those who fear that the elections will produce France’s first far-right government since World War II gathered at Place de la Republique before marching through eastern Paris.
A large crowd turned out in spite of rainy and windy weather, holding placards reading “Liberty for all, Equality for all and Fraternity with all” — a reference to France’s national motto — as well as “Let’s break frontiers, documents for all, no to the immigration bill.”
Some chanted “Free Palestine, viva Palestina,” and wore keffiyeh scarves.
Among them was Nour Cekar, a 16 year-old high school student from the Paris region, who has French and Algerian parents and wears the hijab.
“To me, the extreme right is a danger because it supports an ideology based on the fear of the other, whereas we are all French citizens despite our differences,” she told The Associated Press.
Cekar said she will vote for the left-wing coalition because “it is the only political party that addresses racism and Islamophobia.”
“I fear the rise of the National Rally because I am afraid that they will ban the hijab in name of women’s liberty. I am a woman and I should be able to decide what I want to wear. I am a free woman,” she said, adding that she is insulted on social media and in the streets on a daily basis because of her headscarf.
In the French Riviera city of Nice, protesters marched down Jean Médecin Avenue, the city’s main shopping street, chanting against the National Rally, its leader Jordan Bardella as well as against President Emmanuel Macron.
Protest organizers said 3,000 took part, while the police put the number at 2,500.
Nice is traditionally a conservative stronghold, but has over the past decade turned firmly in favor of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and her far-right rival Eric Zemmour.
Crowds have been gathering daily ever since the anti-immigration National Rally made historic gains in the European Parliament elections on Sunday, crushing Macron’s pro-business moderates and prompting him to dissolve the National Assembly.
New elections for the lower house of parliament were set in two rounds, for June 30 and July 7. Macron remains president until 2027 and in charge of foreign policy and defense, but his presidency would be weakened if the National Rally wins and takes power of the government and domestic policy.
“We need a democratic and social upsurge — if not the extreme right will take power,” French unions said in a statement Friday. “Our Republic and our democracy are in danger.”
To prevent the National Rally party from winning the upcoming elections, left-wing parties finally agreed Friday to set aside differences over the wars in Gaza and Ukraine and form a coalition. They urged French citizens to defeat the far right.
French opinion polls suggest the National Rally — whose founder has been repeatedly convicted of racism and antisemitism — is expected to be ahead in the first round of the parliamentary elections. The party came out on top in the European elections, garnering more than 30 percent of the vote cast in France, almost twice as many votes as Macron’s party Renaissance.
Macron’s term is still on for three more years, and he would retain control over foreign affairs and defense regardless of the result of the French parliamentary elections.
But his presidency would be weakened if the National Rally wins, which could put its 28-year-old party leader Bardella on track to become the next prime minister, with authority over domestic and economic affairs.


Philippines’ ancient ‘stairway to heaven’ facing climate threat

Philippines’ ancient ‘stairway to heaven’ facing climate threat
Updated 15 June 2024
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Philippines’ ancient ‘stairway to heaven’ facing climate threat

Philippines’ ancient ‘stairway to heaven’ facing climate threat
  • 2,000-year-old terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Hand-carved steps are often called the Eighth Wonder of the World

Perched on the side of mountains in the Cordillera region, about 250 km north of Manila on Luzon island, enormous green steps rise to a height of 1,500 meters, funneling water from the mountaintop forests down to the rice terraces below.

Known in the Philippines as a “stairway to heaven,” the Ifugao rice terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a 2,000-year-old indigenous engineering feat that is increasingly under threat due to climate change.

The ancestors of the indigenous Ifugao people carved the terraces by hand to irrigate their rice crops, which even now are a staple in the province.

This masterpiece of ancient agricultural engineering entered the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995 and is often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” — and one of its most endangered. In May, one of the sites in Batad village collapsed after heavy rains, causing a landslide that damaged 12 terraces.

“At present, risks of damage to the rice terraces and to local culture are exacerbated due to increased temperatures, erratic rainfall, poverty, and demographic shifts, just to name a few examples,” Marlon Martin, a member of the Ifugao ethnic group and executive of the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement, told Arab News.

“This makes loss and disruption of life in the terraces a strong possibility. As a result, you can see the landscape rapidly changing. These same vulnerabilities may cause the loss of traditions, indigenous knowledge, and intangible identity that connects the Ifugao to their ancestral lands and forebears.”

Aside from Batad, similar steep terraces can also be found in nearby Banaue, Mayoyao, Hapao and Kiangan. Covering about 10,360 sq. km, the extensive network would be at least 20,000 km in length — half the Earth’s circumference — if laid end to end.

Ancient engineers created the highland paddies by making walls with stones and mud. The terraces are designed to retain and also channel water to the steps below, immersing the paddies all year round.

The Ifugao see the terraces as integral to their identity and culture.

“People maintain the terraces because, primarily, it is of significant value to them as a people and as a culture. The terraces link them to their ancestors. It brings them together as a community, and this is how they keep traditional knowledge alive,” Martin said.

“People need to understand that these are not built monuments like Memphis and its Necropolis or the Great Wall, and that when you do restoration, you are already done. Year in and year out, Ifugao farmers need to restore, repair, and maintain the terraces.”

Yet the costs of maintaining the terraces are increasingly high, with erratic weather and effects of the changing climate making their cultivation economically unfeasible.

“Damages to paddy walls induced by drought and torrential rains associated with climate change make maintenance not worth the economic benefit. Were it not for the other values of the terraces, this alone would discourage people,” Martin said.

As part of the Preserving Legacies project, he has conducted a year-long study assessing the terraces’ climate vulnerability, and believes it is time for the government to step in to prevent the sites from being abandoned and losing UNESCO status.

“The government needs to subsidize rice terrace farmers,” he said. “Heritage, economics, socio-cultural solidarity, and a source of indigenous knowledge are key to the preservation of the terraces.”

For Raymond Macapagal, assistant professor at the University of the Philippines’ Center for International Studies and manager of the Batad Kadangyan Ethnic Lodges Project — a community-based tourism enterprise at the UNESCO site — a key strategy is to create opportunities for young people.

Over the past two decades, the younger generation’s migration to cities in search of other work has resulted in 30 percent of the terraces being abandoned. Developing tourism was one way to provide alternative sources of income.

“They will have a deeper understanding of the challenges and solutions in the complex task of safeguarding the terraces. They will also be more motivated to protect the landscape that provides their livelihood,” Macapagal said.

The rice terraces, featured on the Philippines’ 20-peso banknotes, are also a part and witness to the region’s long human history and remnants of millennia-old indigenous heritage.

“The significance of the Ifugao rice terraces to the Ifugao people, I believe, can be rooted in how it represents indigenous cultural heritage that has resisted centuries of colonization,” Macapagal said.

“It demonstrates the harmonious interaction of humans, gods, and nature in order to come up with an outstanding cultural landscape that is admired throughout the world.”