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‘We lose out on a lot of incredible STEM talent when the barrier is so high’

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Janet Phan, a tech leader at PwC and founder of nonprofit Thriving Elements, explains why good mentors are invaluable to disadvantaged communities.

As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Janet Phan is certain she wouldn’t be working in tech today without the guidance of mentors.

Now, Phan is an EMEA technology programme leader at PwC and the founder of Thriving Elements, a nonprofit specialising in mentorship for girls from disadvantaged communities.

‘Mentors can make all the difference in a mentee’s life; they sure did for mine’
– JANET PHAN, PWC AND THRIVING ELEMENTS

Why are women from disadvantaged communities often excluded from the tech industry?

Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families and their communities. Communities in need lack the access to quality education and resources, such as reliable and affordable broadband and devices to connect to the internet.

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Refugees have the challenge of adapting to a new environment, including culture and language barriers. They may come with a good education in their home country, but it is not recognised in their new country, and thus they are forced to take a job far below their skillset.

A culture still exists that encourages women to stay at home to take care of their partners and children. In addition to communities in need, in a thriving country like Switzerland, expensive childcare results in women staying at home. Those who live in poverty are at risk of not reaching their full potential because their priority is survival.

For a woman who wants to get into tech, this could be near impossible if she isn’t set up for success financially, educationally or without a mentor to guide her. Without mentors creating access and opportunities for me, I wouldn’t have reached mine.

What do you see as the major barriers in tech for women from disadvantaged communities?

We need more mentors. From my experience of being in this industry, the one thing that has really stuck out to me is that oftentimes I am the only female at the table.

Women are grossly underrepresented in key leadership and managerial positions within the industry. We need those in those positions now to lead and mentor the next generation. Sometimes it takes just that one moment or that one person to help someone see what they are capable of and go beyond their potential.

I’ve also observed from time to time junior to mid-level male counterparts who are also trying to reach leadership positions or get that next promotion not being supportive of their female counterparts’ growth, since they are looking out for themselves.

We need more male allies to help with sharing with leadership about their team members’ impact and achievements, especially those who are underrepresented. In some cases, people who have risen from communities in need, we feel so thankful to have the opportunity to be where we’re at that we don’t necessarily push the grain as to avoid conflicts.

What steps can we take and what resources will we need to address this?

We need our women leaders in technology to shift the narrative that technology is computer programming or coding. Computer programming is just one facet of the field. Technology encompasses a breadth of areas. If more girls and women understood how many STEM careers were available to them beyond coding, the number of women in tech would increase.

We need creative designers to make digital interfaces attractive and user-friendly. We need auditors and detail-oriented personalities to ensure compliance with local country regulations. We need those who love programming and project management to be the glue that brings a successful technology or engineering programme together. We need to change the narrative to expand our audience and message. We need more inclusivity of the diverse personalities and skillsets needed in order for technology to be impactful.

My ask is that leaders, educators and anyone in the sphere of influencing the next generation of women in technology expand the scope of messaging. We need to shift from the idea that technology and engineering is computer programming to the message that technology is for everyone, and the industry needs what you have to bring to the table, whatever that may be.

We lose out on a lot of incredible STEM talent when the barrier is so high.

What makes for a good mentor, do you think?

Encouragement and empowerment are important. Some of the most powerful advice I’ve ever received from a mentor was, ‘The worst thing they can tell you is no. What do you have to lose when you try?’.

As a mentor, the role isn’t to instruct; it’s to encourage and empower. Great mentors also share their thought process on the decisions they’ve made along their career paths. More importantly, they share their failures and what they learned from them. Transparency and authenticity can help mentees make these difficult decisions as they face them later in their career.

Mentees may feel too intimidated to share some of their challenges or worry that it will make them seem unqualified. This is why it’s also important the mentor gets to know the mentee on a personal level. It’s crucial to understand what they need help with and what drives them.

Lastly, mentoring isn’t one-sided. For the relationship to be rewarding to the mentor, it’s important they find a mentee who’s willing to take advantage of access to the knowledge, experience and time the mentor can offer.

What impact can a good mentor have on a mentee’s life?

My life has been changed by my mentors. I am the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, and I quickly learned my parents would not be able to guide me to where I needed to go, whether educationally or financially, to achieve my goals.

I spent my summers working 12-hour shifts at KFC (with a night shift at Hollywood Video) to save for a car and tuition. I met my first mentor in high school, before I had a name for what he was. I was dropping out of a business competition that would have required me to travel across the state. With a phone call, he was able to bring my parents around and I ended up participating. For the first time, I realised that there could be ‘guides’ along my way. If I was willing to do the hard work, they could open doors, increase access and help me navigate the system.

The series of mentors that I’ve had since – mentors who guided me through college, the start of my career and my role today as a global technology consultant for a major consulting firm – were so impactful on my life that in 2016, I founded a global nonprofit, Thriving Elements, that matches girls in underserved communities with long-term STEM field mentors.

So yes, mentors can make all the difference in a mentee’s life; they sure did for mine.

Is current STEM mentorship lacking? How can we fix that?

Yes. I believe there are three key reasons why and how we can fix it. The first is that people are not sure how to be a mentor.

The second is that the mentoring programmes that exist are often an add-on to the core competency or vision of a nonprofit organisation. Or someone is running it on the side of their desk in a for-profit organisation with no proper funding or resources.

To fix this, nonprofits should partner with mentoring programmes where mentoring is their core competency.

The third is that mentoring programmes – either those run by nonprofit or for-profit organisations – are fixated on the number of mentor and mentee pairs they can match up and lack proper guidance to mentors and mentees. I believe mentor-mentee matches should not be run like a supply chain. It is a two-way street that must be driven by the mentee.

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Protecting data now as the quantum era approaches • The Register

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Analysis Startup QuSecure will this week introduce a service aimed at addressing how to safeguard cybersecurity once quantum computing renders current public key encryption technologies vulnerable.

It’s unclear when quantum computers will easily crack classical crypto – estimates range from three to five years to never – but conventional wisdom is that now’s the time to start preparing to ensure data remains encrypted.

A growing list of established vendors like IBM and Google and smaller startups – Quantum Xchange and Quantinuum, among others – have worked on this for several years. QuSecure, which is launching this week after three years in stealth mode, will offer a fully managed service approach with QuProtect, which is designed to not only secure data now against conventional threats but also against future attacks from nation-states and bad actors leveraging quantum systems.

“The current and near-term capability in quantum computing, which would allow for the decryption, is the big threat,” Mike Brown, a retired Navy rear admiral and former senior cybersecurity specialist with the Department of Defense (DoD) and Homeland Security (DHS), told The Register. “That’s what we’ve been talking about for years.”

Brown, founder and president of security consultancy Spinnaker Security, who now onsults with QuSecure and other companies, said there has been steady progress in building up the capabilities of quantum computers in the US and abroad. He points out that nation-states with a checkered history in cyberspace, such as China, are spending huge sums and mounting massive efforts to develop such systems.

Steal now, decrypt later

A key worry is what is known as “steal now, decrypt later,” QuSecure co-founder and COO Skip Sanzeri told The Register.

“This is the biggest problem, where data gets exfiltrated and it sits on servers waiting to be decrypted. If that data has 50 or 75 years of life left in its value [and] you crack it in 10 years, that’s 40 to 65 years of value. This is the problem,” Sanzeri said.

“This is why things need to happen. We’re getting a lot of inbound inquiries from both federal and commercial [entities]. We’ve got pilots going across both sides of it. People are now starting to take it seriously.”

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The Biden Administration earlier this month issued a national security memorandum to address quantum computing and security, including ordering federal agencies to begin a multi-year process of migrating computer systems to quantum-resistant cryptography.

In addition, a bipartisan bill – dubbed the Endless Frontiers Act – calls for spending $100 billion on emerging technologies, including quantum computing and artificial intelligence, to close the innovation gap with China. The bill is moving through Congress.

Another bill, the Quantum Computing Cybersecurity Preparedness Act, is also finding bipartisan support to ensure that government systems adopt post-quantum cryptography by securing systems with algorithms and encryption that will be difficult for even quantum computers to break.

The USA’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is undergoing a multi-year process of setting such standards, with the hopes of publishing those by 2024.

The promise of quantum

Quantum computers promise to solve problems that are out of reach of today’s supercomputers.

Classical computing elements are bits, which can be either 0 or 1. Quantum computing uses qubits, can be 0, 1 or any combination – what’s referred to as a superposition. The concern is quantum systems will easily be able to break encryption methods that would take the most powerful machines today years to crack.

Like other vendors, QuSecure is working to address these challenges. It’s QuProtect as-a-service architecture includes a software suite that combines zero-trust, post-quantum cryptography, quantum-strength keys and active defense. It leverages Quantum Random Number Generation (QRNG) to create truer randomness in the encryption keys, which is central to secure encryption because patterns in keys can often be detected by cryptanalysts.

The architecture also relies on a proprietary technique that enables QuSecure to get this protection out to the various endpoints, from on-premises servers and web browsers to the Internet of Things and the edge, while also ensuring the security of the networks that data traverses.

“We now have a way to create a quantum channel without putting software out on all these devices,” Sanzeri said. “This method that we’ve discovered and are using … allows us to create quantum channels rapidly between any end devices. If you think of IoT and edge, a lot of time those little sensors don’t have any storage capacity, almost no compute capacity aside from doing the one job they do. But we can still secure those.”

That said, if an enterprise or government agency needed to keep its data behind a firewall, QuSecure will manage it on-premises or in a private cloud.

QuSecure also built software interfaces, a UI and protocol switch and developed the ability to send encryption keys. It also partners with companies like Quintessence Labs and ID Quantique for QRNG.

In addition, it has what Sanzeri called “crypto agility.” The architecture is optimized for all the algorithm finalists in the NIST program, so it doesn’t matter which ones the organization eventually chooses, it will be supported by the QuSecure service.

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The telehealth revolution is here to stay – and here’s what’s coming next

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Webdoctor CEO David Crimmins offers up his insights into the growth of telehealth in Ireland and worldwide.

The pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented shift to healthcare being delivered outside of the traditional clinical settings. While businesses and industries in marketplaces across the world were forced to pivot their services or close their doors for a period of time over the last two years, the pandemic created an opportunity for the telehealth sector as patient demand for virtual healthcare soared rapidly.

Digital health offerings are not new services per se. In fact, Webdoctor was established in 2013. And whilst telemedicine was already on the rise before Covid-19, the pandemic put a magnified spotlight on the sector.

Future Human

Recent reports show the global market is projected to grow to $185.6bn by 2026, with 83pc of patients saying they expect to use telemedicine post pandemic. We’ve already seen an indication of this in the Irish marketplace with the demand for Webdoctor consultations up 226pc in 2021 compared to 2019 – the last full year before the pandemic.

This trend is backed up by another recent report, which surveyed hundreds of clinicians around the world. More than half (56pc) of doctors surveyed predicted that they will make most of their clinical decisions using artificial intelligence tools within the next 10 years.

Global trends

With the telehealth space evolving at a rapid pace both domestically and internationally, digital healthcare platforms and technologies are fast becoming much more than just a convenient alternative.

Mirroring global trends in the telehealth sector, results from the latest National Health Watch report conducted by Webdoctor illustrate that while the demand for online GP services may have increased out of necessity due to Covid 19, it is now the preferred service option for the majority.

For example, given the choice, 60pc of people would prefer to use an online GP or prescription service instead of going to an in-person consultation for general health concerns. This figure rises when it comes to specific concerns such as erectile dysfunction (85pc), hair loss (70pc) or sexual health checks (77pc).

This demand, combined with lengthy waiting times for physical in-person GP appointments, is driving mass growth for online GP and prescription services like Webdoctor and other health-tech platforms.

Telemedicine also offers employers a real opportunity to implement digital healthcare offerings as part of their employee benefits strategies. A recent study from Mercer revealed that 68pc of employers globally expect to increase their investment in digital health and wellbeing, while 40pc of employees say they would be more likely to stay with a company that offers digital health services. By looking after the wellbeing of your workforce through these benefits, you are contributing to the overall long-term success of your business.

In addition, employers in traditional healthcare businesses such as a GP practice or pharmacy, should seize the opportunity to expand and implement new telemedicine technology where possible. The sector is constantly evolving and by using digital tools to complement traditional care, it offers the opportunity to broaden their current offering, improve patient care and potentially increase profits.

Remote monitoring with wearables

So, given the swift pace of progress within the sector, what innovations are coming down the track?

Wearable technology has become a regular part of our everyday lives and is significantly changing how we collect and analyse health-related data. These devices range from smartwatches to virtual at-home health monitors such as Pulsewave, a modern alternative to the traditional arm cuff to measure blood pressure.

A key benefit of wearable sensors is that by providing real time data and enabling people to track their progress, they are encouraging patients to take a more active role in their health. This is something everyone could gain from.

As more digital healthcare platforms incorporate remote patient monitoring utilising wearable technology, it could lead to a more diverse range of results which would help create more accurate diagnoses that ultimately would result in better patient treatment and outcomes.

Increased patient autonomy

Digital healthcare platforms can give patients direct instant access to their medical records or provide them with self-tracking devices. This gives people the opportunity to take control of their health.

As the sector continues to evolve, patient autonomy is likely to continue to increase. While this is a positive outcome for patients, it will be important not to lose the personal interaction and relationship side of traditional medicine as it progresses.

Effective, integrated telehealth services are more than just GPs behind a computer screen. They essentially act as a virtual gateway to the healthcare system, providing easily accessible, affordable medical advice and a positive patient experience, which ultimately improves the patient and GP relationship.

At Webdoctor, our mantra is to “allow clinicians operate at the top of their licence” by reducing unnecessary administrative processes and freeing up their time to focus on patient outcomes. The future of this sector will see hybrid models emerge and the key to achieving success going forward for all health-tech platforms and medical practices alike will be to recognise this and integrate telemedicine into their patient’s care and journey.

What’s also evident is that there is much more growth and development still to come for the telehealth sector. We will see the continued integration of telemedicine and online GP services into everyday life.

Health professionals are excited to explore what the post-pandemic future of telehealth looks like and patients will ultimately benefit. Telehealth, with its flexibility, innovation and convenience, is most definitely here to stay.

By David Crimmins

David Crimmins is the CEO of Webdoctor, a telehealth service that has carried out over 100,000 patient consultations in Ireland.

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‘A catastrophic failure’: computer scientist Hany Farid on why violent videos circulate on the internet | Social media

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In the aftermath of yet another racially motivated shooting that was live-streamed on social media, tech companies are facing fresh questions about their ability to effectively moderate their platforms.

PaytonGendron, the 18-year-old gunman who killed 10 people in a largely Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, on Saturday, broadcasted his violent rampage on the video-game streaming service Twitch. Twitch says it took down the video stream in mere minutes, but it was still enough time for people to create edited copies of the video and share it on other platforms including Streamable, Facebook and Twitter.

So how do tech companies work to flag and take down videos of violence that have been altered and spread on other platforms in different forms – forms that may be unrecognizable from the original video in the eyes of automated systems?

On its face, the problem appears complicated. But according to Hany Farid, a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley, there is a tech solution to this uniquely tech problem. Tech companies just aren’t financially motivated to invest resources into developing it.

Farid’s work includes research into robust hashing, a tool that creates a fingerprint for videos that allows platforms to find them and their copies as soon as they are uploaded. The Guardian spoke with Farid about the wider problem of barring unwanted content from online platforms, and whether tech companies are doing enough to fix the problem.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Twitch, Facebook and YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Twitch says that it took the Buffalo shooter’s video down within minutes, but edited versions of the video still proliferated, not just on Twitch but on many other platforms. How do you stop the spread of an edited video on multiple platforms? Is there a solution?

It’s not as hard a problem as the technology sector will have you believe. There’s two things at play here. One is the live video, how quickly could and should that have been found and how we limit distribution of that material.

The core technology to stop redistribution is called “hashing” or “robust hashing” or “perceptual hashing”. The basic idea is quite simple: you have a piece of content that is not allowed on your service either because it violated terms of service, it’s illegal or for whatever reason, you reach into that content, and extract a digital signature, or a hash as it’s called.

This hash has some important properties. The first one is that it’s distinct. If I give you two different images or two different videos, they should have different signatures, a lot like human DNA. That’s actually pretty easy to do. We’ve been able to do this for a long time. The second part is that the signature should be stable even if the content is being modified, when somebody changes say the size or the color or adds text. The last thing is you should be able to extract and compare signatures very quickly.

So if we had a technology that satisfied all of those criteria, Twitch would say, we’ve identified a terror attack that’s being live-streamed. We’re going to grab that video. We’re going to extract the hash and we are going to share it with the industry. And then every time a video is uploaded with the hash, the signature is compared against this database, which is being updated almost instantaneously. And then you stop the redistribution.

How do tech companies respond right now and why isn’t it sufficient?

It’s a problem of collaboration across the industry and it’s a problem of the underlying technology. And if this was the first time it happened, I’d understand. But this is not, this is not the 10th time. It’s not the 20th time. I want to emphasize: no technology’s going to be perfect. It’s battling an inherently adversarial system. But this is not a few things slipping through the cracks. Your main artery is bursting. Blood is gushing out a few liters a second. This is not a small problem. This is a complete catastrophic failure to contain this material. And in my opinion, as it was with New Zealand and as it was the one before then, it is inexcusable from a technological standpoint.

But the companies are not motivated to fix the problem. And we should stop pretending that these are companies that give a shit about anything other than making money.

Talk me through the existing issues with the tech that they are using. Why isn’t it sufficient?

I don’t know all the tech that’s being used. But the problem is the resilience to modification. We know that our adversary – the people who want this stuff online – are making modifications to the video. They’ve been doing this with copyright infringement for decades now. People modify the video to try to bypass these hashing algorithms. So [the companies’] hashing is just not resilient enough. They haven’t learned what the adversary is doing and adapted to that. And that is something they could do, by the way. It’s what virus filters do. It’s what malware filters do. [The] technology has to constantly be updated to new threat vectors. And the tech companies are simply not doing that.

Why haven’t companies implemented better tech?

Because they’re not investing in technology that is sufficiently resilient. This is that second criterion that I described. It’s easy to have a crappy hashing algorithm that sort of works. But if somebody is clever enough, they’ll be able to work around it.

When you go on to YouTube and you click on a video and it says, sorry, this has been taken down because of copyright infringement, that’s a hashing technology. It’s called content ID. And YouTube has had this technology forever because in the US, we passed the DMCA, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that says you can’t host copyright material. And so the company has gotten really good at taking it down. For you to still see copyright material, it has to be really radically edited.

So the fact that not a small number of modifications passed through is simply because the technology’s not good enough. And here’s the thing: these are now trillion-dollar companies we are talking about collectively. How is it that their hashing technology is so bad?

These are the same companies, by the way, that know just about everything about everybody. They’re trying to have it both ways. They turn to advertisers and tell them how sophisticated their data analytics are so that they’ll pay them to deliver ads. But then when it comes to us asking them, why is this stuff on your platform still? They’re like, well, this is a really hard problem.

The Facebook files showed us that companies like Facebook profit from getting people to go down rabbit holes. But a violent video spreading on your platform is not good for business. Why isn’t that enough of a financial motivation for these companies to do better?

I would argue that it comes down to a simple financial calculation that developing technology that is this effective takes money and it takes effort. And the motivation is not going to come from a principled position. This is the one thing we should understand about Silicon Valley. They’re like every other industry. They are doing a calculation. What’s the cost of fixing it? What’s the cost of not fixing it? And it turns out that the cost of not fixing is less. And so they don’t fix it.

Why is it that you think the pressure on companies to respond to and fix this issue doesn’t last?

We move on. They get bad press for a couple of days, they get slapped around in the press and people are angry and then we move on. If there was a hundred-billion-dollar lawsuit, I think that would get their attention. But the companies have phenomenal protection from the misuse and the harm from their platforms. They have that protection here. In other parts of the world, authorities are slowly chipping away at it. The EU announced the Digital Services Act that will put a duty of care [standard on tech companies]. That will start saying, if you do not start reining in the most horrific abuses on your platform, we are going to fine you billions and billions of dollars.

[The DSA] would put pretty severe penalties for companies, up to 6% of global profits, for failure to abide by the legislation and there’s a long list of things that they have to abide by, from child safety issues to illegal material. The UK is working on its own digital safety bill that would put in place a duty of care standard that says tech companies can’t hide behind the fact that it’s a big internet, it’s really complicated and they can’t do anything about it.

And look, we know this will work. Prior to the DMCA it was a free-for-all out there with copyright material. And the companies were like, look, this is not our problem. And when they passed the DMCA, everybody developed technology to find and remove copyright material.

It sounds like the auto industry as well. We didn’t have seat belts until we created regulation that required seat belts.

That’s right. I’ll also remind you that in the 1970s there was a card called a Ford Pinto where they put the gas tank in the wrong place. If somebody would bump into you, your car would explode and everybody would die. And what did Ford do? They said, OK, look, we can recall all the cars, fix the gas tank. It’s gonna cost this amount of dollars. Or we just leave it alone, let a bunch of people die, settle the lawsuits. It’ll cost less. That’s the calculation, it’s cheaper. The reason that calculation worked is because tort reform had not actually gone through. There were caps on these lawsuits that said, even when you knowingly allow people to die because of an unsafe product, we can only sue you for so much. And we changed that and it worked: products are much, much safer. So why do we treat the offline world in a way that we don’t treat the online world?

For the first 20 years of the internet, people thought that the internet was like Las Vegas. What happens on the internet stays on the internet. It doesn’t matter. But it does. There is no online and offline world. What happens on the online world very, very much has an impact on our safety as individuals, as societies and as democracies.

There’s some conversation about duty of care in the context of section 230 here in the US – is that what you envision as one of the solutions to this?

I like the way the EU and the UK are thinking about this. We have a huge problem on Capitol Hill, which is, although everybody hates the tech sector, it’s for very different reasons. When we talk about tech reform, conservative voices say we should have less moderation because moderation is bad for conservatives. The left is saying the technology sector is an existential threat to society and democracy, which is closer to the truth.

So what that means is the regulation looks really different when you think the problem is something other than what it is. And that’s why I don’t think we’re going to get a lot of movement at the federal level. The hope is that between [regulatory moves in] Australia, the EU, UK and Canada, maybe there could be some movement that would put pressure on the tech companies to adopt some broader policies that satisfy the duty here.

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