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03/01/2022, por Angel
Computer engineer and artificial intelligence expert
We talk to Liliana Carrillo Flórez, a computer engineer born in Colombia to a family of educators and engineers. These two influences have led her to focus her career on the search of shared knowledge to enhance the world around us. Liliana is passionate about technology, engineering and Artificial Intelligence, as well as the applications that these disciplines can have to improve our society.
Well, I was working on algorithmic research inspired by the behaviour of ant colonies and I observed their collective intelligence. This helped me realise the impressive significance and added value of each individual ant, because ants are really strong while working together. A single ant may not do that much, but as a group they are amazing and perform very complex tasks.
For the European Digital Development Alliance what we did was bringing several of us together. I am working with a fantastic group.
There are several reasons for us joining together. I was primarily motivated by my previous work in the technological field; I have seen a lot of opportunities for progress, but also a lot of inequalities, which is why we focus on digital development. Specifically, there are two types of ‘digital’ inequalities I have seen very clearly which motivate me to carry out the work I do: one is related to inequalities between regions, and the other one is related to gender inequalities.
When it comes to the first reason, it is important to note there are some very advanced countries that have a lot of resources to work on the digital sector, while others do not. As a result, this generates an issue that can lead to inequalities of power that put our democracies at risk at a global level.
All the inequalities that we create at any level lead to this risk. There are not only disparities between countries; we also see them at a local level. In Madrid, for example, the digital sector is much more developed than in a village or on a farm, meaning there are gaps between urban and rural populations in the same country. One of the reasons for this gap is the economic difference between regions.
The second reason is the gender issue: in the digital sector, women are not well represented. Drawing from personal experience, when I was doing my PhD there were 8 people working on algorithms inspired by the collective intelligence of ants and I was the only woman.
I think it is important to say that I often find myself in this situation where I am the only woman or one of the few women working on a certain technological subject. There is no doubt that in the digital sector we need more diversity.
These two reasons are what led me to try to create solutions for digital development. I am glad that there are more and more of us working in this area, because by having more diversity and being more aware about our difficulties, we can create more meaningful solutions to help people.
To illustrate this, a friend of mine has created a company that works with artificial intelligence to help stutterers. They created a therapy game that uses machine learning with an algorithmic approach to process the language and find patterns that can help people to train themselves to improve their speech. They created an eye-catching game interface, so it is easy to be used by kids who have stuttering problems.
I think we will need to work much more on personal development and the evolution of our societies, because at a technological level we already can create very effective solutions.
All that we work with in computing is represented in data and databases. Some of that data can be very ordinary information that we collect as texts or excel tables, to give an example. When we are talking about artificial intelligence the data can be, on one side, aggregated information like the one I mentioned. However, it can also come from data generated by the interaction of the platform with the user. This includes, for example, the number of ‘likes’ we give to a specific ‘hashtag’. In summary, the information that is handled in AI can come from various sources. This information is then organised, processed, analysed and self-analysed in order to create some kind of Artificial Intelligence. But all this information that we use comes from the real world. What AI algorithms do is to analyse and process that data, which in the end generates a digital representation or some prediction based on something that already exists.
Therefore, because we are relying on existing data that comes from the real world, we could be replicating existing problems and automating them in an unaware but very effective way. If in the real world we have under-representation of women in ICT, the data will easily follow this trend. This will make the algorithms created for automated recruitment of ICT staff somehow favour men, as this is already the case in the real world. The same would be true for automated recruitment algorithms for education staff where the majority of workers are women. This would mean men would then be less likely to have access to these kinds of jobs. In summary, artificial intelligence algorithms will accentuate these differences if we don’t consciously work on having more diversity in real life. We need more gender-diverse teachers and more gender-diverse ICT professionals. Now I wonder, if we have violence in real life, are we automating violence? We definitely need to work on our personal development and the improvement of our societies to ensure an inclusive and participative society.
Yes, of course. Trust is key to any project. We have been losing confidence in our governments for some time now. In some countries this is more accentuated than in others. For example, in my country of origin, people no longer trust politicians or governmental structures because of so much corruption. There are other countries here in Europe where citizens have also begun to lose this trust. This is an evident problem, which again is reflected in data, as data is a reflection of the reality of our society. For example, in Italy research has detected that on the Twitter platform there is a problem of hate speech against politicians. This is a general trend concerning hatred against political ideas as well as the people in charge of creating laws, which signifies a problem for our democracies and freedom of expression.
But the main question is: why is this happening? Well, because the population is not happy. This leads to a loss of trust in politicians due to corruption, people getting rich illegally, inequalities, favoritism and so on. So in order to regain trust we have to work on two levels: on the human level with ethics, with more politicians who base their work on high ethical standards rather than focusing on their professional development. In addition, we can use technologies that help us to manage money, laws and every other issue with transparency while making people accountable for their actions. Furthermore, we need to ensure more citizen participation as a way of reducing polarisation.
There are already very good digital and social practices that can help us organise ourselves in more sustainable and participatory ways to ensure better democracies. The Estonian example is amazing, and yes, open source is necessary, not only for democracy but also to know what is that algorithms are optimizing. We all have biases and if we work with open source there are possibilities for other people to detect potential design flaws in the systems we create. With closed source, it’s more difficult.
I have been promoting for some time already different ways of organising ourselves that could favour our democracy. I am passionate about the idea of creating agile cities and governments with more citizen participation. There are two specific ideas I’d like to highlight. One can be seen in the TEDx talk I gave a few years ago, in which I promote the idea of organising ourselves with a system of liquid democracy, more fluid, instead of working so much on representative democracy. There is also technology that can help us organise a more flexible, liquid democracy. Or even help us create more transparent monetary records where we can track government spending and know where and how the money has been spent.
On the other hand, I have been working for some years with collaborative and agile methodologies in education, as I believe that this will facilitate systemic change, because from a young age we learn to use our voice and our vote, and to be aware of the sense of community and the value of each individual, all through play and joy.
So I think there are already ideas and efforts in place that can lead to restoring lost trust and building a more participative and trust-based society. The more we adopt them, the faster we will have a positive systemic change.
Yes, there are outstanding projects and they should be more widely known. For example, I am involved in the ‘Policy Cloud’ project, funded by the European Community as a member of the Assembly for Creating Impact. I would love more cities to be aware of this work, so I take this opportunity to invite them to do their research. Several organizations, universities and cities have partnered to investigate the use of cloud data and how to analyze it to solve specific problems in cities. For example, I had the pleasure of taking part in a webinar where I heard how the city of Sofia (Bulgaria) is working on a specific case in which they are analysing data that the city gets from two sources. One is data that already exists in the cloud and the other is data that comes from citizens who report incidents related to something that has happened in the city, such as a gap in a road. All that data is combined and analysed, and this is for me a good example of collective intelligence and collaboration between people and machines. It was really inspiring. Personally, iit was a pleasure to have the opportunity to present in that same webinar several European and global perspectives that were also inspiring for the audience and for the organizations that are part of the Policy Cloud project tp show how we can scale these solutions to create collective development policies like the ‘Digital Twins’ initiatives.
However, we have to be careful that this does not lead to the development of surveillance technologies that infringe on our human rights. So this is why I am so interested in the issue of the decentralisation and autonomy of our data and it is good that we have data privacy laws to ”protect” us.
As I was telling you, for the European project Policy Cloud, I gave a talk about the advantages of how we can treat data, and one of those advantages are what we call the twins, the ‘digital twins’ that we have. For example, on Facebook we enter an interface, we click on the things we like, we have friends on the network, etc., and with all this data Facebook has an idea of who I am. So Facebook knows quite a lot about us and has digital representations of us. These are our digital ‘twins’, who represent the digital twin of who we are. Nevertheless, it is not a complete representation. For example, they don’t know if I have been to the doctor or things like that, but there are other organisations that do and they might have other digital twins of me that are related to other topics like health or finance.
If we take this to cities and try to understand all the city data we have, for example geographic systems with the division of our land and houses, roads, sewage, schools, and so many other things, we can generate a digital twin for a city. And this is where I would like to give a little bit of exposure to the European Urban Digital Twins project with which I have no connection but I would like many more people to know about. And if we go even further, I suggest you take a look at the European Commission’s initiative called Destination Earth. I am a fan of it and I see a lot of possibilities for progress for our regions through this initiative.
The problem is, as things are going, we are prioritising people who already have digital skills, so we are unconsciously creating more inequalities. And when we talk about vulnerable groups we have to consider the individual needs of each group. For example, how are we going to ensure that people who cannot see or hear can use these technologies to access their bank account or pay their taxes? But even going further, if we look at the context of each house, in Europe not everyone has a computer at home, not even everyone has access to the Internet, so how are we going to guarantee, at a structural and infrastructure level, that this is possible? And yet we haven’t even touched on the issue of digital skills and the huge digital skills gap around which we have to work. The good news is that the European community is thinking about this and has launched many support programs to ensure technological access for all, for example the new ‘Digital Europe’ program.
For my part, in addition to having founded EDDA as a collaborative network, I have founded CollectiveUP (https://fosteringai.github.io/partners/collectiveup/) to do my bit, to make a positive change. To at least use my voice to contribute to this change so that we do not leave anyone behind and make sure we help each other as a community, as this is essential to having a good collaborative democracy.
Regarding the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) there are now studies showing that inequality is growing and COVID has, in fact, accelerated rich-poor disparity. If we focus on the Gini coefficient, which is used to check the differences between rich and poor in each country, this index reveals that we are not on the right direction. Gender-based or racial violence, and discrimination in general, has also become more visible. I contribute to the SDGs with CollectiveUP and the EDDA Alliance. And in addition to that, I strongly believe that we are all becoming more active in saying the things that are not going well. This is becoming clear in many sectors and especially when it comes to younger people. Some are activists for climate change, others for gender issues, others for freedom of expression,etc. This is positive because the more active and aware we are, the more opportunities for positive change there will be. We are more and more actors for positive change and this makes me happy. And although the inequalities between rich and poor have become bigger in this period of COVID, there are also studies that show that throughout our existence as humanity, people living in poverty have been improving their quality of life. This means that a person living in poverty today probably lives a better life than a person living in poverty 200 years ago. As such, we are making progress. But… we can’t be satisfied and just stop there. We have to work together and continue to create progress for everyone. Life has many ups and downs; tomorrow you may develop a physical disability that prevents you from working and it will be at that moment when you will see how important it is to work on inclusion and guarantee a good life for everyone. Let’s keep working like little ants, doing our bit, so that we can create mountains of change! All our actions generate this positive change.
EDDA official website – https://europeandigital.org/
Liliana’s Twitter – https://twitter.com/lilicarrillof