Can a name change provide a quantum leap in diversity and inclusion?
I didn’t expect to be writing this blog post. I had hoped for an internet-free week of vacation with my family in India. I had hoped to disconnect and rejuvenate. I had hoped to write a year-end message with positive changes I saw this year (which I still plan to do). Alas! My plan to quickly browse Facebook turned into a Twitter+Reddit storm and renewed trolling that I had seen during last Christmas (more on that later). So here I am up at 5AM writing this post so that my vacation plans remain intact.
Scott Aaronson’s blog has become hugely popular over the years. I started reading them as a graduate student and quickly became a fan! When I started blogging, I aspired to mirror the clarity and accessibility that he brought to a complex scientific field. So thank you, Scott, for providing the public with this valuable resource!
The saga started a few weeks ago when I saw Scott Aaronson’s blog post on quantum supremacy. I commented on Scott’s Facebook feed, having been his Facebook friend for many years. I didn’t take any stance on renaming of quantum supremacy. Instead, I focused on my experiences with renaming of NIPS: Neural Information Processing to NeurIPS last year. I shared many resources: here and here.
I saw many parallels and hoped that the resources would guide Scott and others towards enlightenment, and that would be the end of the story. Sadly, what followed was a big “punch in the stomach”, and that too has parallels with my experiences around the NeurIPS name change movement.
But before that, some background. I learnt that the term “Quantum supremacy” was first coined by John Preskill, my wonderful colleague at Caltech. Coincidentally, even NIPS was started at Caltech by Yaser Mostafa and Ed Posner in 1987. Read about its wonderful backstory involving Richard Feynman, John Hopfield and Carver Mead. I have deep admiration for these trailblazers at Caltech, and they inspire me every day to innovate and do pathbreaking research.
When I first heard the term “quantum supremacy”, my brain quickly associated it with “white supremacy”. This is natural since this is the most common use of the term. To demonstrate that I am not alone in this, I did a quick Google news search. I went on incognito mode, so as to remove my personalized recommendations. I used VPN to connect to the California region since that would be my default location. Here’s what came up:
I got to know from Scott’s blog post that Leonie Mueck had first written about the problematic nature of the term. I had to Google to find the article. Scott didn’t bother to link to the article, a common courtesy even when you disagree with its contents, as I am doing here. (This seemingly minor slight became a consistent issue of not giving credit to women as I personally experienced. More on that later.) Updated with a better link to discussion on quantum supremacy discussion, thanks to a young researcher, which Scott failed to provide on his blog.
Following my Facebook comments, Scott wrote a weak response to the effect “NIPS became a problem only because of juvenile Tshirts and quantum field does not have this problem”. He forgot one important word though: “yet”. In any case, I did not want to get entangled (pun intended) in another name-change issue. I hoped that he would read the articles I sent and would see how name change can bring about many positive changes for women and minorities.
Instead, in the middle of my vacation, I see a guest post on Scott’s blog by the notorious Steven Pinker!!! Pinker blabbers on how NeurIPS name change was a severe misstep and blames it for the public not believing in climate change! I won’t bother to disentangle this hot mess. Feel free to read it at your own risk. This same Pinker had attempted to get me banned from Twitter at the height of NeurIPS name change, because I disagreed with him. He had directed his followers to extensively troll me. I even received gun threats and was worried for my personal safety.
Back to Scott’s blog, conspicuously missing in the post was any attribution to me for bringing up the NeurIPS name-change issue to his attention in the first place. I proceeded to comment on his Facebook post. Scott came up with: “I don’t mention people who are not public figures!” I found this terribly demeaning. My blog, my Twitter feed, extensive news articles revealed by a simple Google search would prove otherwise. But sadly Scott did not bother to do any of that or offer to update his blog after I raised this issue.
In my comments, I also brought up his amazingly accomplished wife Dana Moshkovitz. We share a bond: we were both victims of sexual harassment by Yuval Peres. (See Lior’s brave blog on this here). I have deeply admired her bravery for talking about her experiences more than a decade ago. Back then, it was a severe taboo and #meToo had not happened yet. Dana had reported Yuval to Microsoft HR and sadly saw no justice. I asked Scott to discuss the NeurIPS name change with Dana, since I was sure that she would provide a different perspective. (Dana has written a detailed gracious email to me. I will be reaching out to her and asking her on what aspects, if any, could be made public).
Following my comment, to my dismay, Scott proceeds to unfriend me on Facebook. His justification: we were never friends in the first place! He also does not approve my follow-up comments on his blog for more than a day. Instead, he comments extensively disparaging me on his own post. It does not deserve to be repeated here. I allude to some of them on my Twitter thread where there is a thriving discussion. A majority of responses on Twitter have been overwhelmingly supportive and it reinforces my belief that I am on the right side of history.
Here are the parallels I see between name change of NIPS and quantum supremacy:
- Initially, I myself didn’t think NIPS was a big deal. I started attending when it was a small intimate affairs: we discussed posters until midnight, skied during workshops and attended the famous “Gatsby” party on the last day. People like myself who are entrenched in the field are the wrong people to make decisions on the name change. I changed my mind after I learned that young women had a problem and did not feel comfortable attending an event with this name. So it is natural that Scott does not see an issue with the term “quantum supremacy”.
- NIPS especially became a problematic word as AI expanded and saw a huge influx of “techbros” into the event. Scott’s defense is that this is not an issue with the quantum field. But this will soon change. There is now immense public interest and news articles on quantum supremacy appear almost daily, especially following the recent Google announcement. Changing the name pre-emptively before the community explodes prevents harassment of minorities, and sends a strong message of commitment on inclusion and creation of welcoming environment to everyone.
- A Google search is a good indicator for assessing our internal biases and our perception of different words. I used this technique when I started my #protestNIPS petition. It doesn’t matter what kind of linguistic expertise Pinker has (which is debatable), what matters is the common perception of the term. A screenshot of the Google image search I did for the petition. As Scott points out, his candy does show up in the search. Male nipples also show up. But what about the majority? Similarly, my search on Google news that I posted earlier on “supremacy” refers mostly to white supremacy.
- Women and minorities experience undue emotional burden in our science and tech communities, especially in computer science where the number of women is miniscule. Name change has no negative impact on the privileged class, and only positive impact on the marginalized classes. So why not just do it? Scott’s attempts to silence me and other women sends a negative message that their opinions do not matter and that they are not welcome here.
- If name change is a minor frivolous matter, why are intellectual men like Aaronson and Pinker so vehement on opposing it? Pinker’s reasoning that name change has made us a laughing stock is sheer lunacy! Who is laughing at us? The joke is on them.
Here are all the positive changes that came about following the name change.
- A code of conduct has been established for all participants, and especially, for corporate sponsors. The infamous corporate parties of 2017 and before, with misogynistic rappers, sexualized dancers with a stripper vibe, TITS parties, and Elon Musk making juvenile jokes about “nips and tits” are thankfully a thing in the past. Never again! Read about them here.
- Celeste Kidd got a standing ovation at the opening session of NeurIPS 2019. She gave an excellent talk on belief formulation and idea validation. True to her trailblazing nature, she ended the talk with a discussion on the #meToo movement and the role of men. See here. She has been a brave advocate and was amongst the Silence Breakers who were namedTime Person of the Year in 2017. Such a reception would be inconceivable a few years ago.
- Diversity and inclusion chairs are now a part of organizing committee of every major AI conference. (Proud to be D&I chair for ICLR 2020 which will be the first international AI conference to be held in the African continent in Ethiopia).
- Diversity and inclusion has expanded vastly to other groups such as Black in AI, Latinx in AI, and Queer in AI. The joint poster session for the affinity groups this year at NeurIPS was a highlight and was well attended by everyone, beyond the group members. (As an NVIDIAN, I was proud to see that NVIDIA sponsored all four groups and invited their members to our networking lunch. Slides from the lunch here).
- NeurIPS socials were organized for the first time by volunteers. In contrast to toxic corporate events I mentioned earlier, this was a sea of positivity. I attended “BUDS” where I helped mentor budding researchers. Being among young people with so much passion continues to inspire me. They also gave me a nice personalized gift.
I am the first to concede that it is hard to establish a causal link since controlled experiments were not carried out (wink). But based on thousands of responses I have received (both written and oral), #protestNIPS name change has been a major catalyst in improving the climate to women and minorities in AI. This is beyond dispute.
Last year, a similar attempt to ruin my holidays was carried out by another famous bully, when I asked him to be a better leader and moderate his feed that included the n-word and jokes on making sex tapes. You can read about this on blog post by the brave Layla El Asri here. I have a theory on the neuro-sis (!) of these powerful men of science spreading toxicity during the holiday season. “An empty mind is a devil’s workshop” and free time during holidays brings out the worst in them. These men have a constant need for attention and deep insecurities. I hope they focus on their own wellness and explore yoga/meditation and other mechanisms to connect with their inner selves. This will make world a far better place.
Scott’s role as an unofficial spokesperson for an entire scientific discipline comes with great responsibility. I am sad to say that he has failed miserably at this with the recent events. I hope he learns from this and becomes an ally. His daughter would greatly benefit (I know this since he brought her up in his blog post as a defensive shield).
Finally, I want to comment on the previous title I chose for the post. I used the term “neo Nazis” since that is closely associated white supremacy. But by no means am I equating the violence perpetrated by neo Nazis with the debate around quantum supremacy. But I want to be inclusive and I am open to feedback. When a group of people felt uncomfortable with it, I decided to discard it. Unlike Pinker and Aaronson, I am open to changing names and titles if that helps create a better environment ! Let us hope we can all find common ground.
Happy holidays everyone! Here’s hoping to a better 2020.