Socio-economic diversity still lacks within most industries, and the tech realm is no exception. Silicon Valley is dominated by wealth, and it is notably more difficult to fit in if you are not coming from a privileged background. Yet a number of entrepreneurs are changing the scene. Meet Dr. Kortney Ziegler—a multi-talented entrepreneur, scholar, and filmmaker whose incredible work in tech has the power to benefit and improve the lives of those who come from marginalised communities. Ziegler’s motivation has never been to ‘disrupt’, break things, and make a ton of money like the many who enter the field of tech-entrepreneurship. Instead, his work is driven by the desire to help his community and eliminate the socio-economic disparities that affect it.
Born in Compton, California, Ziegler was raised in a family of single women, while his mother struggled with mental illness and drug abuse. Ziegler was the first person in his family to attend university. He completed an undergraduate degree in cinematography at the University of California, Santa Cruz, received a masters degree in ethnic studies from San Francisco State University and became the first person to receive a PhD in African-American studies from Northwestern University. Ziegler is a Black American, and identifies as trans.
After completing his PhD, Zieigler struggled to find a job as a professor within an academic institution, encountering discriminatory behaviour that “attributed to the difficulty of finding a long term position in the academy,” he told Screen Shot. This inspired him to start Trans*H4CK, the organisation that catapulted him into the tech industry, which focuses on helping trans*, gender non-conforming, agender, and non-binary people find resources and connections to work in tech. The idea came to him during a filmmaking hack-a-thon that inspired him to use the same format to help trans people find jobs and build software, while addressing specific issues in the transgender community. During the event, developers, programmers, designers, and entrepreneurs came together to brainstorm ideas and formed a digital activist movement to help raise awareness of the underrepresented community as well as raise money through crowdfunding.
Trans*H4CK specifically wishes to tackle the growing socio-economic barriers that prevent the trans community from economic advancement and financial stability—from unemployment (statistically, transgender people of colour have 4 times less chances of obtaining employmrnt than a cis person) and low income to overwhelimg discrimination in access to healthcare, legal services or housing. When I asked Ziegler whether he considers himself an activist, Ziegler says, “I’m always focused on how to make things better for people like me or other people in the world,” and that he considers himself to be a person with “activist tendencies” rather than identifying as an activist per say. His work certainly is “activist in nature”, though, with that there’s no arguing.
Appolition, another tech initiative founded by Ziegler, is a platform that allows its users to round up their spending to the nearest dollar, which is then donated to a special fund to help bail Black American citizens from prison as they await trial, help them return home as soon as possible, and reduce the damaging effect this can have on families. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with the country making up 21 percent of the world’s prison population alone. Statistically, Black Americans are incarcerated five times more often than white Americans and are often arrested for crimes for which their white counterparts are let off with a warning. Bail can range in price from as low as $1 to “some people having bail up to $60,000”, which, naturally, many people can’t afford. Ziegler’s goal is to help them pay for this.
Ziegler co-founded the project with his business partner Tiffany Mikell in 2017, and since then Appolition has helped bail around 200 people, raising over half a million dollars. He says he was inspired by a group of activists who were fundraising to get mothers out of jail for Mother’s Day, “It touched my heart, how can I elevate their work and get them money quicker?” Ziegler experienced first hand the destructive impact the prison system in the U.S. has on families; he too had an incarcerated parent, his mother, and says this experience has been a massive driving force behind the work he has done with Appolition.
Ziegler’s background plays a big role in his work, and while the world already provides him with “tonnes of barriers for being out and about with (his) gender and for being unapologetically who (he is) as a Black American trans man”, this only serves him as inspiration to move forward. Ziegler is not your average entrepreneur—he’s not looking for the next big tech break that will make him rich. Instead, he is looking for ways to provide financial stability to those who really need it, to challenge the unfair socio-economic politics dictating who can and cannot succeed in our world, and make it a better place for marginalised communities.
Ziegler has also worked on some incredible projects outside of tech.In 2011, for instance, he became the co-owner of Halmoni, a vintage boutique promoting healthy body positivity and self-love for women. He was inspired to help other women after his own medical transition, as he “spent a lot of time shaping (his) body to make (himself) feel comfortable”. Being a scholar specialising in black queer theory, Ziegler used to run a popular feminist blog titled blac (k) ademic, tackling topics such as gender and sexuality from a young black queer academic perspective (and was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award). He also made a film called STILL BLACK: A Portrait of Black Transmen “at a moment when trans people were completely invisible”, created when he was beginning his own medical transition, but due to the lack of trans representation in media or culture, he had little resources or opportunities to meet men like him. The film then served as a research project and helped him, as well as many others, and is still being screened and taught at universities today.
When asked what the future holds, Ziegler hopes to work on some more creative film projects, and wants to make a film about his own childhood and upbringing. It won’t be long before Ziegler makes waves with another project or app; another movement that challenges traditional socio-economic politics and what it means to be a trans, Black American male working in tech.
‘Can we give technology a new voice?’ asks the introduction of the video presentation of Q, the first genderless voice in an otherwise binary landscape of AI voice assistants. A Denmark-based group of linguists, technologists, and sound designers thinks so, that’s why they embarked on a mission to create the first gender-neutral voice that can potentially be implemented within IoT devices and services.
As it fluidly oscillates between higher and lower pitches, the soothing voice of Q is not attributable to neither a male or a female identity. Q’s developers—a team born out of a collaboration between Copenhagen Pride, Virtue (Vice’s creative agency), and Equal AI—began by recording the voices of more than 20 people identifying as male, female, transgender and non-binary. After merging all these voices together, they then identified what audio researchers consider a neutral frequency range—which sits between 145 and 175 hertz. The new voice sample was then tested by over 4,000 people who gave their feedback, and by tweaking the modulation of the voice to match that specific middle range, and also accordingly to the testers’ inability to attribute the voice to a gender, Q was finally here.
Q was created to challenge the gender bias that is present in the AI tools that aid, and that are becoming more ubiquitous to personal assistant devices. We are all accustomed to Alexa’s smooth female voice as well as Siri’s default feminine tones. And it’s no coincidence that our domestic and personal devices all speak with a female voice: their role is to make us feel helped, comfortable and intimately connected with the device. On the contrary, security and public space robots often have a male voice, which is supposed to deliver authority and distance. In this regard and in many ways, despite its limitless ability to be whatever we make it, AI is perpetuating the same gender stereotypes still very much present in everyday life.
Q is still at an early stage as it doesn’t yet have an AI framework that activates it. But to build one is the team’s next goal. As robots, AI assistants, and more generally IoT will increasingly communicate with us via the voice, it’s worth asking ourselves the question of how we can erase the bias in technology from the start. “Q adds to a global discussion about who is designing gendered technology, why those choices are made, and how people feed into expectations about things like trustworthiness, intelligence, and reliability of a technology based on cultural biases rooted in their belief system about groups of people”, said advisor to the project Julie Carpenter, a researcher at the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group.
There is no doubt that Q could challenge some of the bias currently present in our technology, but it also speaks of the potential of tech to become a tool for experimenting and challenging the stereotypes that we still find hard to break IRL. Much of the fear associated with AI is fuelled by the belief that we will not be able to control it as much as it will be able to control us; that it could harm more than it could help. But at the same time we now have the knowledge and the capacity to shape AI to be better—not only at controlling us—but at being more progressive than we currently are.
As the voice continues to be a prominent feature in both present and future technologies, taking the time to reflect on what type of voice should technology have in the first place, appears to be not only a logical, but rather a necessary progression towards shaping AI to be as, or even more, inclusive than our society.