Coping with COVID

These are unprecedented times. So far, I have managed to avoid watching movies that involved pandemics or germs; paranoia and panic was not a source of entertainment for me. But now we see one play out in real life at a global scale. This affects us all. There is no escape. Maya Angelou said it best:

“Love Is like A Virus. It Can Happen To Anybody At Any Time.” Maya Angelou.

I have been in self isolation for more than a week, here in California. But I haven’t really been alone. My days have been busy with many meetings with collaborators and students. We are all worried, especially about our families. But we also want to focus on how we can help  fight this. We are working on a number of projects that will help build better foundations for AI and lead to better accountability and rigor.

It has not been easy over the last few years. While deep learning has shown good promise, the amount of hype around it has been staggering. It has been hard to push back against this, but I have no regrets that I spoke up. Most recently, I spoke out on how half-baked AI apps are being used in sensitive contexts such as law enforcement with no oversight or accountability.

So how is this related to Covid? I read an excellent article titled “You cannot gaslight a virus.”  Gaslighting is a gendered term, used to describe toxic and abusive behavior directed against women that leads her to question her own sanity. Every woman I know has experienced it to some degree. The last few years have seen an unprecedented rise in populism, misinformation, and pushback against rigor and expertise. We see it in politics, and I have lived it in the AI field. This will now all have to change. I read a honest article by the founder of Starsky robotics on why we won’t be having self-driving trucks on road anytime soon “..supervised machine learning doesn’t live up to the hype. It isn’t actual artificial intelligence..” I agree with this. No longer can we rely on empty promises and hype. We have to deliver, we have to demonstrate, we have to carefully experiment, we have to test and repeat. This is a good thing.

The last few years have been challenging for women and minorities. I have faced struggles when I spoke up against sexual harassment and #meToo in AI. I have publicly named some of my harassers and fought to ensure that they cannot claim more victims. This has taken a huge toll. I have made enemies, some who are senior and powerful. I have had anonymous threats made against me. Many men (they are almost always men) have brushed aside our concerns, our pains, our struggles.

There is a severe lack of empathy. I see this now play out now amidst the Covid pandemic. At a time, when there is a need for unity and for scientifically grounded planning, our so-called President #notmypresident talks about the “Chinese virus” that puts my Asian friends and students at the risk of racist attacks. I see trolls attack the brave woman who shared her experiences in the ICU. It is well documented that trolls disproportionately target women but this is a new low to target someone who is fighting in the ICU and urging others to be careful.

It was no surprise to me to see the infamous Steven Pinker propagate misinformation and downplay dangers of Covid. This was my response on Twitter:

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My previous online interactions with Pinker have been documented here. I lamented the severe lack of empathy and the tone-deaf nature of his views on rape and sexual harassment. I see the same lack of empathy when it comes to putting people at risk by spreading misinformation about Covid. For too long, we have celebrated narcissists in this culture without asking for any accountability and blindly following the path they prescribe. Not any more!

Let us hope that we usher in a new era as we unite together to fight this virus. We need new leaders with empathy and emotional intelligence. We need to spread love and hope. Stay safe, stay healthy and practice social distancing. I wish you all the best!