Posted on

AI-drawn voting districts could help stamp out gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is one of the most insidious methods out there of influencing our political process. By legally changing the way votes are collected and counted, the outcomes can be influenced — even fixed in advance for years. The solution may be an AI system that draws voting districts with an impartial hand.

Ordinarily, districts that correspond to electoral votes within a state are drawn essentially by hand, and partisan operatives on both sides of the aisle have used the process to create distorted shapes that exclude hostile voters and lock in their own. It’s so effective that it’s become commonplace — so much so there’s even a font made out of gerrymandered districts shaped like letters.

What can be done? Automate it — at least partially, say Wendy Tam Cho and Bruce Cain in the latest issue of Science, which has a special section dedicated to “democracy.” Cho, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been pursuing computational redistricting for years, and just last year was an expert witness in an ACLU lawsuit that ended up overturning Ohio’s gerrymandered districts as unconstitutional.

In an essay explaining their work, they summarizes the approach thusly:

The way forward is for people to work collaboratively with machines to produce results not otherwise possible. To do this, we must capitalize on the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of both artificial intelligence (AI) and human intelligence.

Machines enhance and inform intelligent decision-making by helping us navigate the unfathomably large and complex informational landscape. Left to their own devices, humans have shown themselves to be unable to resist the temptation to chart biased paths through that terrain.

There are effectively an infinite number of ways you could divide a state into a given number of shapes, so the AI agent must be primed with criteria that limit those shapes. For instance, perhaps a state doesn’t want its districts to be any larger than 150 square miles. But then they must also account for shape — you don’t want a snakelike district slithering around the margins of others (as indeed occurs often in gerrymandered areas), or one to be enveloped by another. And then there are the innumerable historical, geographical and demographic considerations.

This illustration from Cho and Cain’s article shows a simplified version of a districting problem showing how partisan districts can be created depending on who’s drawing them. (Image credits: Cho/Cain/Science)

In other words, while the rationale for drawing must be set by people, it is machines that must perform “the meticulous exploration of the astronomical number of ways in which a state can be partitioned.”

Exactly how this would work would be up to the individual state, which will have its own rules and authorities as to how district maps are drawn. You see the problem immediately: We have entered politics, another complex landscape through which humans tend to “chart biased paths.”

Speaking to TechCrunch, Cho emphasized that although automation has potential benefits for nearly every state process, “transparency within that process is essential for developing and maintaining public trust and minimizing the possibilities and perceptions of bias.”

Some states have already adopted something like this, she pointed out: North Carolina ended up choosing randomly from 1,000 computer-drawn maps. So there is certainly a precedent. But enabling widespread use means creating widespread trust — something that’s in mighty short supply these days.

Mixing tech and politics has seldom proved easy, partly because of the invincible ignorance of our elected officials, and partly a justified distrust of systems that are difficult for the average citizen to understand and, if necessary, correct.

“The details of these models are intricate and require a fair amount of knowledge in statistics, mathematics and computer science but also an equally deep understanding of how our political institutions and the law work,” Cho said. “At the same time, while understanding all the details is daunting, I am not sure this level of understanding by the general public or politicians is necessary. The public generally believes in the science behind vaccines, DNA tests and flying aircraft without understanding the technical details.”

Indeed, few people worry whether the wings will fall off their plane, but planes have demonstrated their reliability over a century or so. And the greatest challenge for vaccines may be ahead of us.

“Society seems to have a massive trust deficit at the moment, a fact that we must work hard to reverse,” Cho admitted. “Trust should be and must be earned. We have to develop the processes that engender the trust.”

But the point stands: You don’t need to be a statistician or machine learning expert to see that the maps produced by these methods — peer reviewed and ready to put to use, it should be said — are superior and infinitely more fair than many of those whose boundaries as crooked as the politicians who manipulated them.

The best way for the public to accept something is to see that it works, and like mail-in voting, we already have some good points to show off. First, obviously, is the North Carolina system, which shows that a fair district can be drawn by a computer reliably, indeed so reliably that a thousand equally fair maps can easily be generated so there is no question of cherry-picking.

Second, the Ohio case shows that the maps can provide a fact-based contrast to gerrymandered ones, by showing that their choices can only be explained by partisan meddling, not by randomness or demographic constraints.

With AI it is usually wise to have a human in the loop, and doubly so with AI in politics. The roles of the automated system must be carefully proscribed, their limitations honestly explained, and their place within existing processes shown to be the result of careful consideration rather than expediency.

“The public needs to have a sense of the reflection, contemplation and deliberation within the scientific community that has produced these algorithms,” said Cho.

It’s unlikely these methods will enter wide use soon, but over the next few years as maps are challenged and redrawn for other reasons, it may (and perhaps should) become a standard part of the process to have an impartial system take part in the process.

Read More

Posted on

Rivian’s Amazon electric delivery van still on track as factory reopens

Rivian, the electric vehicle company backed by Amazon, Cox Automotive and Ford, has resumed work at its factory in Normal, Ill. following a temporary shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Construction on the factory, which will eventually produce its R1T and R1S electric vehicles for consumers as well as 100,000 delivery vans for Amazon, has restarted with employees returning in phases. Despite the shutdown and gradual restart, the timeline for the Amazon delivery vans is still on track, according to a statement from Amazon released Thursday.

In September, Amazon announced it had ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from Rivian as part of its commitment to The Climate Pledge to become net zero carbon by 2040. Vans will begin delivering to customers in 2021, as previously planned. About 10,000 of electric vehicles will be on the road as early as 2022 and all 100,000 vehicles on the road by 2030, Amazon said in a statement Thursday.

Rivian has pushed the start of production on the R1T and R1S to 2021. The company had initially planned to start production and begin deliveries of the electric pickup truck and SUV in late 2020. That timeline has been adjusted. Rivian had always planned to deliver the R1T truck first, followed by the R1S.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to adjust its timeline due to supply constraints. However, Rivian is now working on bringing the production and delivery timeline of the R1T and R1S closer together.

For now, the company is focused on work inside and outside the factory. About 335 Rivian employees were on site before COVID hit. Today, about 116 are on site with plans to gradually bring back the remaining employees. Rivian did not furlough any employees and continues to pay all workers their wages.

About 109 contractors are also back at the factory working on the interior. Another 120 to 140 contractors are working outside to expand the factory from 2.6 million to 3 million square feet.

The company has implemented new safety practices under a 4-phase plan, according to Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe. Temperature checks are carried out and workers are supplied with protective clothing and equipment.

The vehicle engineering and design teams have also developed digital methods to make sure that program timing remains on track, according to Scaringe.

Read More

Posted on

GM delivers first ventilators under 30,000-unit government contract

Ventilators assembled by GM and Ventec Life Systems were delivered to hospitals Thursday night with more making their way to facilities today and through the weekend, the first in a 30,000-unit order with the U.S. government.

The deliveries, which went to hospitals in Chicago and Olympia Fields, Ill., are a milestone for the two companies that launched an effort less than a month ago to make thousands of ventilators for hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

GM and Ventec announced a partnership March 20 to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. The companies had initially focused on making Ventec’s critical care ventilators, called VOCSN, a higher-end multi-function device that includes a ventilator, oxygen concentrator, cough assist, suction and nebulizer. The device, which has more than 700 components, was cleared in 2017 by the FDA.

GM investigated the feasibility of sourcing the materials needed as well as what it would take to build a new clean room and production line within its Kokomo, Ind. factory. GM estimated it would cost about $750 million, a price that included retrofitting a portion of the engine plant, purchasing materials to make the ventilators and paying the 1,000 workers needed to scale up production, the source said. The remaining $250,000 of estimated costs came from Ventec.

The Trump Administration balked at the price tag, putting a contract with the U.S. government in limbo. GM and Ventec planned to push ahead anyway, even as President Trump used Twitter to criticize the automaker and its CEO, Mary Barra . Trump then signed a presidential directive ordering GM to produce ventilators and to prioritize federal contracts, just hours after the automaker announced plans to manufacture the devices.

In spite of the scuffle, GM did reach a $490 million contract with the federal government to produce 30,000 ventilators by the end of August. Under the contract, GM is producing a different critical care ventilator from Ventec called the VOCSN V+Pro, a simpler device that has 400 parts. The other more expensive and complex machine had a multi-function capability.

To speed its ability to build ventilators, the government contract calls for the VOCSN unit with ventilator capability only, according to GM.

Production began this week with one shift of workers and is ramping up. Eventually, GM has plans to add a second and then a third shift in the coming weeks, according to a company spokesperson. More than 1,000 workers will be needed over the three shifts.

To date, 10 ventilators have been delivered to Franciscan Health in Olympia Fields. Another 10 were expected to be delivered Friday afternoon to Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago. A third shipment of 34 ventilators will be delivered Saturday to the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the Gary/Chicago International Airport for distribution to other locations where the need is the greatest, according to GM.

The need for ventilators is urgent as cases of COVID-19 pop up with increasing frequency as widespread testing begins. While some people with COVID-19 reported more mild symptoms, others have experienced severe respiratory problems and need to be hospitalized. The shortage has prompted automakers, including Ford and Volkswagen, to investigate ways of ramping up ventilator production. Ford and GE Healthcare have licensed a ventilator design from Airon Corp and plan to produce as many as 50,000 of them at a Michigan factory by July.

Automakers are also making face masks, face shields and Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) for healthcare workers.

Read More

Posted on

With the real estate industry facing headwinds, SoftBank-backed Compass lays off 15% of staff

Compass, the real estate brokerage startup backed by roughly $1.6 billion in venture funding, has laid off 15% of its staff as a result of the shifting economic fortunes created by the global response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to an internal email seen by TechCrunch.
Citing economic fallout that has …

Read More

Posted on

Postmates reveals plans to cover medical costs for couriers as part of COVID-19 response

Postmates said that it will be creating a fund to cover the costs for doctor appointments and medical expenses related to the COVID-19 outbreak for its delivery fleet and for merchants, Postmates will waive commission fees for stores in impacted markets.
The goal, the company said, is to give small …

Read More

Posted on

Class action suit against Clearview AI cites Illinois law that cost Facebook $550M

Just two weeks ago Facebook settled a lawsuit alleging violations of privacy laws in Illinois (for the considerable sum of $550 million). Now controversial startup Clearview AI, which has gleefully admitted to scraping and analyzing the data of millions, is the target of a new lawsuit citing similar violations.

Clearview made waves earlier this year with a business model seemingly predicated on wholesale abuse of public-facing data on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on. If your face is visible to a web scraper or public API, Clearview either has it or wants it and will be submitting it for analysis by facial recognition systems.

Just one problem: That’s illegal in Illinois, and you ignore this to your peril, as Facebook found.

The lawsuit, filed yesterday on behalf of several Illinois citizens and first reported by Buzzfeed News, alleges that Clearview “actively collected, stored and used Plaintiffs’ biometrics — and the biometrics of most of the residents of Illinois — without providing notice, obtaining informed written consent or publishing data retention policies.”

Not only that, but this biometric data has been licensed to many law enforcement agencies, including within Illinois itself.

All this is allegedly in violation of the Biometric Information Privacy Act, a 2008 law that has proven to be remarkably long-sighted and resistant to attempts by industry (including, apparently, by Facebook while it fought its own court battle) to water it down.

The lawsuit (filed in New York, where Clearview is based) is at its very earliest stages and has only been assigned a judge, and summonses sent to Clearview and CDW Government, the intermediary for selling its services to law enforcement. It’s impossible to say how it will play out at this point, but the success of the Facebook suit and the similarity of the two cases (essentially the automatic and undisclosed ingestion of photos by a facial recognition engine) suggest that this one has legs.

The scale is difficult to predict, and likely would depend largely on disclosure by Clearview as to the number and nature of its analysis of photos of those protected by BIPA.

Even if Clearview were to immediately delete all the information it has on citizens of Illinois, it would still likely be liable for its previous acts. A federal judge in Facebook’s case wrote: “the development of face template using facial-recognition technology without consent (as alleged here) invades an individual’s private affairs and concrete interests,” and is therefore actionable. That’s a strong precedent and the similarities are undeniable — not that they won’t be denied.

You can read the text of the complaint here.

Source: TechCrunch

Posted on

Los Angeles-based SureSale is developing an independent certification service for used cars

Donny Hall, the chief executive and co-founder of the used car certification service, SureSale, knows used cars. The serial entrepreneur built and sold a previous business, CarSure, which was an insurance plan for vehicle repairs.

After selling that business in 2017 to Innovative Aftermarket Systems, Hall decided that his next venture would be to take on the used car industry’s dominant source for historical information about a vehicle — Carfax .

His Santa Monica, Calif.-based SureSale has raised $7 million in financing from the LA-based investment firm Upfront Ventures to create a national used car certification service that dealers and car shoppers around the country can turn to for an unbiased assessment of a vehicle and its problems, according to Hall.

“66 percent of consumer want to buy cars that are certified and only 7 percent do,” says Hall. “Independents don’t have any national [certification] program and dealers don’t have national programs.”

The company integrates background checks, insurance, and provides a limited warranty and five-day exchange options for vehicles assessed through its program.

To launch the business, Hall partnered with Jeffrey Schwartz, the co-founder of the used car marketplace and review platform, Autobytel.

Used car dealerships are hurting in the ecommerce age just like other traditional retailers. SureSale is betting that its value-added services and better reporting standards can give dealers a competitive advantages versus online services like Carmax.

Dealerships pay for the service, but in return their customers get a full inspection, a title and a background check alongside the five month warranty.

“Even though there have been a number of recent startups that have seen massive exits in this category like Carvana ($13BN market cap) and Carmax ($16BN market cap), given that each company has less than 2% market share, any market this large is always ripe for continued efficiency gains,” wrote UpFront Ventures partner and SureSale director, Kobie Fuller, in a blog post.

Source: TechCrunch