Artificial Intelligene’s (AI) facial recognition algorithms can help unlock your smartphone apps, but for African Americans who already face bias in the criminal justice system, the fear of being misidentified as a criminal by AI is very real.
That bias exists in the field of technology is a fact. Since 2014, multiple reports regarding the lack of diversity in tech, industry change has been minimal. Facebook, for example, barely moved one percentage point from 3% in 2014 to 3.8% in 2020 with respect to hiring Black workers, but improved by 8% in those same six years when hiring women. The essential whiteness of tech extends to the field of AI as well. Industry leaders have said AI holds the keys to the future of everything from criminal justice to business and banking. But without adequate representation in the development of AI technologies, there is growing evidence of implicit bias. For example: multiple facial recognition systems fail to recognize the faces of those who are not white and male at a higher rate than people with darker skin tones who are of other genders.
Black and other ethnic minority people, especially women, were 10 to 100 times as likely to be misidentified, as noted in a New York Times article which includes studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Florida Institute of Technology and the University of Notre Dame. The federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which publishes reports on technology lists a bibliography of reports on systemic bias in AI which is 19 pages long with hundreds of reports on the subject from top science journals, academic researchers and media investigations.
In a recent CNN article, Tendayi Achiume, a law professor at UCLA and a United Nations special rapporteur on racism said that, “Even when tech developers and users do not intend for tech to discriminate, it often does so anyway. Technology is not neutral or objective. It is fundamentally shaped by the racial, ethnic, gender and other inequalities prevalent in society, and typically makes these inequalities worse.”
A few examples of different AI systems exhibiting techno-racism include:
- Google Photos categorized Black people as gorillas.
- A woman in China was reportedly refunded by Apple after her co-worker, also Chinese, was able to unlock her iPhone X using Face ID.
- A system piloted in Detroit misidentified women and people with darker skin tones at a higher rate than white men.
- A Black researcher couldn’t get an AI system to identify her face, until she put on a white mask.
In December 2020, two Black AI researchers at Google claimed to have been forced out of the company after one criticized the company’s Google’s search algorithm AI in a research paper and the other defended the former’s conclusions. Posts highly critical of Google and in defense of the scientists erupted from colleagues and students tagging Twitter’s #BlackInAI and #BlackInTech hashtags following the announcement.
100 Years Until Black Workforce Equity or One Generation
With current industry trajectory, experts in tech believe it would take 95 years for Black workers to reach an equitable level of private sector paid employment, according to a 2021 report compiling federal data published by McKinsey & Company, an independent research group. The report was a collaboration including: Walmart, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, PolicyLink, and McKinsey’s Institute for Black Economic Mobility.
“Truly making progress will require more than addressing corporate policies; it calls for system-level change, an examination of our broader society, and active collaboration among companies and other stakeholders,” states the conclusion of the McKinsey report, a collaboration between researchers André Dua, JP Julien, Mike Kerlin, Jonathan Law, Nick Noel and Shelley Stewart III.
Over the last year, programs and initiatives specifically designed to make an impact in one generation have been launched. And, by October 2020, companies pledged $66 billion to racial equity. Whether those pledges are actualized or not, fundamental change is underway as the private sector is realigning policies on diversity.
Robert F. Smith and the Fight for Racial Equity
Philanthropists like Robert F. Smith who span the worlds of tech and finance are stepping up with solutions to ensure Black Americans take full share in prosperity over the next few decades.
Smith’s ongoing philanthropic work to liberate the human spirit has centered around building an infrastructure to allow more diverse Americans access to resources such as education, internships, mentorships and job opportunities. He has worked with HBCUs like Morehouse, Claflin, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and six other schools currently graduating top tier STEM workers, who have the same opportunities as their white peers. Smith’s work, including the newly launched Student Freedom Initiative, helps to ensure these students can find professional onramps and alternatives to the unforgiving loans which currently penalize Black and other minority students.
Read about other pathways to racial equity for which Smith advocates, such as The 2% Solution.