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Research Roundup: Coronavirus, bias in speech recognition, squid communication

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Each week, The Daily’s Science & Tech section produces a roundup of the most exciting and influential research happening on campus or otherwise related to Stanford. Here’s our digest for the week of March 22 – March 28.

Large-scale survey on coronavirus impact

Stanford researchers have launched a public survey intended to gather information on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people’s lives. It has gathered more than 20,000 responses since March 14.

“We want to capture how the coronavirus crisis is affecting people’s lives around the world — what changes and decisions are they are making, and what they need from their governments and their employers to make this situation work,” dermatology professor Eleni Linos told Stanford Medicine’s blog SCOPE. “This is an incredibly challenging time and this crisis is affecting different people differently. We’d like to hear from young people, older people and those of various geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds.”

The questionnaire asks people about their mental health and financial situations, as well as their physical health and access to COVID-19 testing.

“We want to share this as quickly as we can with the community in order to help people,” Linos told SCOPE.

Speech recognition more accurate for whites than African Americans

Five leading automated speech-recognition software systems made twice as many errors interpreting African American speech compared to processing the same words said by whites, found a study published on March 23 in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

“One should expect that U.S.-based companies would build products that serve all Americans,” Allison Koenecke, a fourth-year computational and mathematical engineering graduate student, told Stanford News. “Right now, it seems that they’re not doing that for a whole segment of the population.”

The findings suggest African American speech were interpreted with the highest error rates by speech-recognition software. The disparity was higher for speakers who used more African American Vernacular English.

Potential solutions, according to researchers, include enacting independent audits of the software to help eliminate biases.

Squids communicate through pigmentation

Humboldt squids, animals that live 1,500 feet below the ocean surface, communicate visually by using light-producing organs as a backdrop for changing pigmentation patterns on their skin, found a study published on March 23 in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

“Many squid live in fairly shallow water and don’t have these light-producing organs, so it’s possible this is a key evolutionary innovation for being able to inhabit the open ocean,” Benjamin Burford, a fifth-year biology graduate student, told Stanford News. “Maybe they need this ability to glow and display these pigmentation patterns to facilitate group behaviors in order to survive out there.”

The findings suggest squid pigmentation patterns change depending on the biological situation. For example, researchers observed squid pigmentation patterns may convey specific messages such as “that fish over there is mine.”

“We sometimes think of squid as crazy lifeforms living in this alien world but we have a lot in common — they live in groups, they’re social, they talk to one another,” Burford told Stanford News. “Researching their behavior and that of other residents of the deep sea is important for learning how life may exist in alien environments, but it also tells us more generally about the strategies used in extreme environments on our own planet.”

Contact Derek Chen at derekc8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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