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Words In the Bucket

“The idea is that we are building our own MIT here,” says Roya Mahboob, founder of Digital Citizen fund, and one of the first Afghan women to become CEO of a tech company in the country.

The project she is referring to is something she has envisioned since she began her work.  Ada-AI, a newly launched nonprofit working to ensure that artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies are developed and adopted in inclusive and equitable ways, is working with Mahboob to make that vision a reality. The organization recently launched a fundraising campaign to open a STEM school in Herat, Afghanistan.

Organizations like Ada-AI are key to ensure a more inclusive future in this white male-dominated industry.

An industry dominated by young white males

Doctor Virginia Dignum from Delft University, who is working on creating models that ensure that AI systems behave according to a set of ethical parameters, is keen to highlight that the way AI systems are being developed needs to have a strong “human” perspective, rather than solely an economic one. The way algorithms are fed, she says, should be adaptable to other cultures. 

Although the bias is not intended, say Doctor Dignum, it is a fact that most AI work is done by white young males and only a small portion of the population is involved in producing AI algorithms and responsible for organizing and using the data that is available.   

Her work focuses on making sure that in the future there will be more representation of cultures, genders,  disabilities, and races in AI growth.

Inequality today

A recent report by Oxfam shows the current state of inequality globally, where last year, 1 per cent of the global population earned 82 per cent of wealth generated. With an already existing digital divide, the risks are that AI could make this worse.

In terms of AI, Porter says you could almost draw a parallel with a child in terms of the cognitive stage, and, like a child, AI can pick up existing biases from the people who manoeuvre them.

Examples of this are numerous. A report by ProPublica, for example, showed this when a software used to predict future criminals predicted that 61% of these criminals would be black. When a white man and a black man were incarcerated, a program predicted that the black prisoner was more likely to commit a future crime, despite the criminal history of the white man being more serious. The machine was proved wrong later on.

Existing inequalities in access to healthcare, as well as education, could also be exacerbated. The same goes for existing inequalities between wealthy and poorer countries.

Sarah Porter and Roya Mahboob on stage at World Summit AI. Photo by: Inspired Minds

Porter says that if AI learns in a non-inclusive way, the equal treatment of people will be more in jeopardy than it is now. A non-inclusive growth of AI technology could destabilize society through rapid automation and have ripple effect consequences that could exacerbate conflicts and inequality. 

Tech in developing countries

Andrew Schroeder, Founder of WeRobotics, an organization focusing on creating sustainable tech projects in developing countries, is optimistic, saying that we can “build new conversations off of (this) history” and learn from it.

During his experience working in the development sector, and in tech, Schroeder notes that many tech projects that were done in developing countries had very little continuity after the project was finished.

A common thought would be that the capacity to develop the technology is limited in developing countries, but Schroeder’s work at WeRobotics proves that there is a capable and experienced force that can participate in AI development and implementation in developing countries.

For example, one of WeRobotics ‘Flying Labs’, local innovations centres that aim at accelerating and scaling the impact of development projects locally, is being led by a local force that is currently in the process of making the centre a Tanzanian entity recognized by the government.

This proves that the potential is there, and that “it could be just that the business model is not developed yet,” says Schroeder.  

Afghanistan as a leading example

Mahboob supports this vision and wants to bring her country to the forefront of the global discourse on AI. Just a year ago, Mahboob, who sponsored an Afghan girls’ Robotic team to compete in the US, found herself in a difficult position when the girls were not allowed a visa to US under the Trump travel ban.

The girls were eventually given a visa after the fact caused outrage in the media, but it did more than that. As the girls gained their “celebrity status,”as Porter says, experts in tech and AI business saw this as a blatant example of non-inclusion in AI for the future.

“It’s just about giving [them] the right tools and education”

The girl’s team recently won a competition at the Estonian Robotics Festival, says Mahboob, for building a prototype of an agriculture robot using solar energy to support small-scale farmers.

“They proved that it’s just about giving [them] the right tools and education” she continues, pointing out that after they won the competition in Europe they returned to find the support of the Afghan President and their community.

The Afghan Robotics Team on stage at World Summit AI. Photo by: Inspired Minds

“(AI) will be the future, and I want Afghanistan to be part of it” adds Mahboob. For Ada-AI, the launch of the school project is the first stepping stone, but they hope to continue their work in creating bodies that can regulate this growth.

“The future of AI will be as inclusive as we make it”

Schroeder agrees, saying it’s really important not to only think about development and implementation of the technology, but to think of all the processes around it, from access to the technology to the setting up of new institutional models able to build tangible projects, to inclusion of communities in decision making.

The challenges are not scarce. The biggest challenge, Porter says “Is in countries where we’re battling with culture change”  for example in countries where girls’ access to education is limited, like Afghanistan, “and where families risk being ostracised from the community for allowing their daughters go to school.”

People like Schroeder, Porter, Dignum and Mahboob are starting fundamental conversations which will write our future.

There is a possibility to reach more stakeholders, Porter says that her organization has until now had a lot of support from white males, who are very aware of the risks.

“The future of AI will be as inclusive as we make it” concludes Schroeder.


Motherboard VICE

“It’s time to take our future into our own hands,” Roya Mahboob told me.

A year ago, the Afghan entrepreneur represented a four-strong girl’s Robotics team from Afghanistan to present a robot prototype for a competition held in Washington DC. Mahboob, who lives in New York and was the first woman CEO of a tech company in Afghanistan, found herself in a difficult situation when the girls were denied a visa to the US. President Donald Trump had just signed his “Muslim Ban” executive order, which barred people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan, from entering the US.

When she saw that the ban had prevented the girl’s’ participation to the competition, Sarah Porter, founder of Inspired Minds, a tech and science strategy group focused on building communities around emerging technology, felt she had to intervene.

She contacted Mahboob and spent six months trying to raise awareness about the girls’ situation—they were eventually given a visa, and when they returned home, a movement started.

“We started this with inspiration from the girls,” Mahboob said. “They brought a huge sense of pride, hope and unity to the Afghan community.” This weekend, the Afghan Dreamers won the Rookie Inspiration Award at the FIRST Robotics World Championship in Detroit.

Not only did they inspire people at home, the girls also opened the eyes of many artificial intelligence field experts who saw the team’s ban as a blatant example of exclusion in tech.

From Porter and Mahboob’s encounter, the idea of building a tech school in Afghanistan was born, and so was Ada-AI.

Read the whole article here


Blog Post

I met Cynthia at a café in Goa, India, and before that, I had never realised how important it was to define my fears.

She did it with ease and grace with hers, threw it in a sentence whilst talking about the Roses she had named after two dear friends who were no longer in her life. “I am scared of dying alone”. That was her only fear, she said.

I teared up. I think it was a mix of surprise, awe and resonance I felt. I too, was scared of dying alone, more than anything, more than being afraid to Bungee Jump, and definitely more than the fear I felt driving in the backseat of any car in India.

That fear cut deep, touched an emotional part of me I didn’t even know I had. It tore me apart for one second, stripped me of all the layers of confidence and security I had built, and for a moment there, I was naked. Perhaps I was so afraid of it because it was, and still is, a fear I cannot face.

Other than unable to face it, this particular fear reveals a problem that many face: fear of the unknown. And this is why a lot of the time, when our future is uncertain, or we feel we don’t have control over it, we panic.

When Cynthia spoke her fear out loud, although emotional for having been hit with something I resonate with, I also felt extremely liberated. Hearing that fear spoken out loud, processing it my brain as words, felt really good. I knew it now.

It made it lighter, less scary.

That’s when I realised that defining your fears, saying them out loud, and facing them, is fundamental for removing them all together. Other than making them smaller, if you define and face your fears, you can really feel their weight decrease.

And also, in practical terms, what use is it to be afraid of something you don’t know. You can’t really control it, all you can do is trust it and choose your reactions for later.

Every time you face a fear, it makes facing all your other fears easier. This is an exercise that Cynthia had probably done, she had faced a lot of fears she told us. And this is why she could say with so much confidence that the only fear she really really had, was the one she could not face yet.


Blog Post

This is the moment women speak up.

This is the moment women express themselves.

This is the moment women march for women.

This is the moment men march for women.

This is the moment women reinvent relations with men.

This is the moment women become pilots.

This is the moment women become presidents.

This is the moment women are not just mothers.

This is the moment white women admit privilege.

This is the moment impunity for vile powerful sexual abusers ends.

This is the moment women stop competing with each other.

This is the moment women stop making excuses for men.

This is the moment we rise up, insist, and persist.


Motherboard VICE

Last May, Iranians re-elected president Hassan Rouhani, a reformist leader, in hopes he will slowly edge Iran toward a more open and progressive sociopolitical culture.

In a country where 60 percent of the 80 million population is under 30 years old, the mobile-savvy, VPN-using youth in Iran have been resisting government control. Telegram, the encrypted messaging service, has become a popular form of communication for political expression, for example. But young people are also up against internet censorship, moral policing and fundamental religious clerics. Even with a relatively more liberal leader like Rouhani, Facebook and Twitter are still banned.

“Iranians are techy, they are ready.”

In their quest for expanded civil rights, some Iranians are taking ideas from Silicon Valley to the streets of Tehran and channeling them into apps that fill the gaps in health, education and dialogue. Built by Iranians both at home and abroad, there is hope that these mobile solutions could work where protests and advocacy has not.

“They want Iran to open up, it’s very clear,” said Firuzeh Mahmoudi, co-founder of United 4 Iran (U4I), a US-based non-profit that is working to advance civil liberties in Iran through technology. “Iranians are techy, they are ready.”

At the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), an annual human rights conference, Mahmoudi told me how technology in her country is being wielded as a tool for political dissent. Mahmoudi herself is an Iranian, though raised mostly in the US. She said the Iranian government now deems her an “anti-revolutionary fugitive” because of her work and political views.

But with around 20 million smartphone users, and a million new smartphones being added to the market every month in Iran, it’s clear she is not the only one looking to technology for change. The spate of new apps targeted toward Iranians and their rights reveal their priorities.

Avoiding the Moral Police

One app that sparked success upon its release was Gershad, which helps users protect themselves from the Gasht-e Ershad (guidance patrol), the so-called “morality police” of Iran. This de facto police force identifies and arrests anyone deemed to be inappropriately dressed, or in violation of Islamic cultural values, as reported by Iran Wire. Inevitably, women are more persecuted than men, as one of the main responsibilities of the morality police is to make sure women wear the hijab according to Islamic law.

Read whole article here. 


Blog Post, Women in the World

“I come from the same blood as Taliban,” Maria Toorpakai Wazir said in a recent speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a human rights conference that happens every year in May.

When asked how it was to live among terrorists, Toorpakai Wazir explains that in her area “the system is so conservative that you don’t know who is a Taliban and who is not.” There is a gun and drug culture, she continues, that has spread like wildfire in the recent decades. Because of the lack of government presence and infrastructure (mainly schools and hospitals), there is not much left for inhabitants to do. “These are lawless areas.”

Toorpakai Wazir was born in Waziristan, Pakistan, a semi-independent tribal region spreading across the border with Afghanistan. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, mujahidin escaped to Waziristan, which became a sanctuary for terrorists. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 also pushed many al Qaeda and Taliban elements into the region. The area is considered especially dangerous for women, both because of the presence of terrorists and the prevailing culturally conservative mindset. Women’s education, for example, is considered a vulgarity.

Also contributing to Waziristan’s tattered image is the fact that to those who aren’t residents, the region is difficult to enter. NGOs, human rights activists and media are seldom present. “It’s a restricted zone, so how can you hear the voices from those who want change, or don’t want to be terrorists?” she wonders.

A liberal family 

Toorpakai Wazir’s strong sense of freedom is rooted in her upbringing. She grew up in a different kind of family. Her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, brought Toorpakai Wazir and her siblings up with exposure to liberal views; the women of the family had the same rights as the men. She explains that she grew up in a household where everyone could question everything, and no questions went unanswered. She touched on her home life last year during her appearance at the 7th Annual Women in the World New York Summit. Speaking with  Financial Times managing editor Gillian Test, Toorpakai Wazir said, “My father is very supportive and he believes in equality.”

Read the full story here


Al Jazeera

Ngongongeri, Nakuru County, Kenya – Kenya’s Ogiek, an indigenous minority of hunters and gatherers, have won a historic case against the Kenyan government, close to a decade after they began their legal battle. 

The African Court on Human and People’s Rights, a continental court established in 2006 by African countries, on May 26 delivered its verdict in Arusha, Tanzania – ruling in favour of the Ogiek and recognising their right to Kenya’s Mau Forest as their ancestral home, and their role in protecting it.

The court ruled that the Kenyan government had violated seven articles of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, of which Kenya is a signatory, and which is intended to protect basic freedoms and human rights.

The verdict recognises the Ogiek’s indigenous status and their right to reparations from the Kenyan government for the suffering they have endured through forcible evictions. It recognises the Ogiek’s “strong attachment to the forest”, their legal right to live on the forest land, their freedom to practise their traditions and deemed evictions to be disproportionate to conservation aims. The Kenyan government in court said it accepted the judgment. 

“The room has never been so full. It was packed to the brink,” said Lucy Claridge, legal director of Minority Rights Group International (MRG), a campaign group working closely with the Ogiek. She has been working on the case since April 2010.

Speaking from Arusha, Claridge said around 75 Ogiek attended the court hearing, dressed in their traditional clothes. After the victorious judgment, the Ogiek broke out in celebratory singing and dancing. 

It is an unprecedented legal victory for an indigenous people in Africa. The ruling marks the first judgment from the highest institutional human rights body in Africa to favour the cause of indigenous peoples.

“This sends a message to governments of the standards around indigenous people’s rights in Africa,” says Claridge. “It’s a very clear message for governments that they need to respect indigenous people’s rights.”

The victory could set a precedent for similar cases across the continent.

Read the full article here



Most questions that international nongovernmental organizations get from refugees and migrants sheltering in Greece these days have to do with how they can get out. Aid officials working on the ground told Devex they often are asked, “How long will I be here? When can I get out of Greece?” or “ What is going to happen to me and my family?”

Now several years into the refugee crisis in Europe, basic humanitarian needs such as food and shelter are no longer the primary concern. Instead, many of the 60,000 migrants and refugees in Greece need legal help. Protection, including counseling, dissemination of information and legal representation have now become a fundamental requirement for the refugees. Asylum-seekers need to learn how to file and support their claims, which can take years to process. Victims of crimes need to know how they can seek justice. Nearly everyone needs to know what rights they have to move on from Greece.

“We all see the situation now evolving more towards being a protection crisis, rather than a humanitarian crisis,” Kiriakos Giaglis, director of Danish Refugee Council Greece, told Devex. “There are not enough possibilities to give individual refugees access to free legal aid, if they need one.”

For organizations seeking to help, legal aid poses an enormous challenge. NGOs must confront language barriers, limited funding, logistical obstacles, and an overwhelmed court system. In that context, many are focusing their efforts on appeals alone, hoping to pick up the most difficult or needy cases.

A difficult context

Refugees in Greece are scattered across camps and cities throughout the country, each settlement with a different social, political and legal scenario. There are currently over 60,000 persons of concern in the country, spread out between approximately 50 sites.

The crisis has been subject to major political changes. In March, the European Union signed a deal with Turkey in hopes of stemming the inflow of migrants to the continent. Arrivals intensified in the months leading to implementation of the deal and some NGOs pulled out in protest, removing their support from the Greek authorities.

Migration and asylum policies changed as a result of the agreement, but the decentralized Greek geography impeded the information from flowing out systematically. Many migrants and refugees didn’t have access to information about how the deal would impact them.

There is also a different understanding about the asylum processes in each island as well as on the mainland. “You have many sites, but many of them don’t have the right capacity to provide legal aid and information”, said Giaglis.

Claire Whelan, protection and advocacy adviser at Norwegian Refugee Council, offers one example of the variation: there are almost 3,000 refugees in Chios, where she is based, and only seven lawyers, not including volunteers.

Read more.


Blog Post

Last night I woke up at 4am and checked my phone to know what the hell was happening with the US election. I don’t know why I was so anxious, I am not from the United States, but I have grown up in a society that considered US the greatest and most powerful country in the world. So wanting to know whether the ‘most powerful individual in the world’ was going to be a masochistic, racist buffoon was well justified. The alternative was a woman who did not represent any major change in the country’s political nature, except maybe the fact that she was a woman.

This morning I woke up with the news that Mr GrabYourPussy had won. I was shocked, but I was not that surprised. What I was surprised about was a recurring phrase I was seeing on social media comments and posts: “America is the greatest country in the world”. Whether it was to reassure sad people who wanted to leave the country after the result, or in support of the new President-elect (“America will now be the greatest country in the world”) , it made no difference.

American exceptionalism
, essentially the thought of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty, rages through the country, and it has spread all over the world as a consequence. The thought that USA is the land of freedom and opportunity, economic prosperity and equal rights, is intrinsic in American society. Politicians use it to convince voters that they should vote for them, everyone has done it, left and right.

What has been deemed as ‘patriotism’, looks more like putting your country and your people on a pedestal higher than everyone else, and that constant need to repeat that phrase becomes redundant.

The result of this rhetoric being intrinsic in politics and society? A massive brainwash of a people that in reality live in what essentially is the biggest hypocrisy of the 21st century.

To quote Ian Tyrrell, “Many aspects of American history may be left out or distorted in the traditional narratives–particularly the histories of Amerindian peoples and the contribution of other ethnic groups that preceded the Anglo-Americans, e.g. Hispanics. Race and slavery are seen as tragic exceptions, and the abolition of the latter was viewed as a partial resolution, encompassed in Lincoln’s idea of a “new birth of freedom” in the Gettysburg Address.”

USA is a country driven by political and economic interests. It is a country where black people receive 10% longer sentences than whites, where black mothers have to give “the speech” to their children to avoid them getting killed by the police. It is a country where gun laws make it possible for a 20-year-old to walk into an elementary school and massacre 20 children (yes, fucking kids) and 6 teachers, and this happens over and over again. A country where lobbies control politics and politicians, essentially transferring the power to rich corporations, and narrowing the space for smaller businesses to have any influence. And again, a country that has made of interventionism a way forward, bringing the white savior complex to a whole other level. This does not look to me like “ The greatest country in the world”.

The United States alone contributes to large percentage of the world’s carbon emission, leading to global warming, perhaps the greatest problem of our time.

So maybe it is time to look at the big picture and step back a little bit, and get real. There is no more hiding behind that phrase anymore, because shit just got real.

Maybe, some people had already woken up to the idea that US is not the greatest country in the world, and were tired of politicians playing that card over and over again. A while ago Trump said about American exceptionalism: “I don’t like the term, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think it’s a very nice term, we’re exceptional, you’re not … I never liked the term.”.

I am more than sure that this election has woken many people up. Who thought that the greatest country in the world would vote their president, the most important person in the world, to be a buffoon who said this at one of his rallies: “Its freezing here, and they talk about global warming, its freezing”.

You get what you deserve, always.

note: This piece is not meant to say that other countries are better than the US, nor is it an attack on the myriad of people who believe in change and truth. It is meant to be a point of reflection, and it is my own and personal opinion.

originally published on Medium


Al Jazeera

Roya Mahboob knew that she wanted to build a career in technology from the first time she set her eyes on a computer in the only internet cafe in Herat, Afghanistan, when she was 16 years old.

In 2010, at the age of 23 she became the first tech chief executive in Afghanistan when she founded Afghan Citadel Software (ACS) with the aim of involving more women in her country’s growing technology business.

“We are not thinking, we are not supposed to do critical thinking,” says Mahboob, discussing the way she and many women grew up in Afghanistan. 

Mahboob was born in Iran to Afghan parents as one of seven children. Her parents had travelled to Iran during the Soviet invasion, and the family moved back to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban government in 2003, where she began her university studies and learned English.

Along with some of her siblings, including her sister Elaha as her partner, Mahboob established ACS shortly after. 

“I think digital literacy can give women a voice in our global conversation. Then, they can find different skills and get their financial independence,” she says. Read More