Gideon Lichfield: Hello every­body. Welcome to the ses­sion on Compassion Through Computation: Fighting Algorithmic Bias. I’m Gideon Lichfield, I’m the edi­tor of MIT Technology Review. And I’m going to be mod­er­at­ing the dis­cus­sion with two very inter­est­ing speak­ers. Joy Buolamwini, who is cur­rent­ly doing she says her fourth degree at MIT and is founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, and uses a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent forms of expres­sion to exam­ine the way in which algo­rith­mic bias affects the AI tech­nol­o­gy that we use, and describes her­self also as a poet of code. And then, Justine Cassell is the Associate Dean of Technology, Strategy, and Impact at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. 

I’m gonna ask Joy to speak first and then Justine, then we will have a Q&A. And you can ask ques­tions by rais­ing your hand, but if you feel like using tech­nol­o­gy, there is this app we are using called Slido. You can access it by this web­site, wef​.ch/​b​e​t​a​z​one. You can go in there, you can put in ques­tions that you want to ask the speak­ers. Those will come up and then we will be able to select from them and lead the dis­cus­sion. So, I’ll ask Joy to step up first. Thank you Joy.

Joy Buolamwini: Hello, my name is Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, where we focus on cre­at­ing a world with more inclu­sive and eth­i­cal sys­tems. And the way we do this is by run­ning algo­rith­mic audits to hold com­pa­nies accountable. 

I’m also a poet of code, telling sto­ries that make daugh­ters of dias­po­ras dream, and sons of priv­i­lege pause. So today it’s my plea­sure to share with you a spo­ken word poem that’s also an algo­rith­mic audit called AI, Ain’t I A Woman?” And it’s a play on Sojourner Truth’s 19th-century speech where she was advo­cat­ing for wom­en’s rights, ask­ing for her human­i­ty to be rec­og­nized. So we’re gonna ask AI if it rec­og­nizes the human­i­ty of some of the most icon­ic women of col­or. You’re ready? [The Davos record­ing omits most of the cor­re­spond­ing visu­als for Joy’s piece; the fol­low­ing is her pub­lished version.]

So there you are. [applause] And so what you see in the poem I just shared, which is also an algo­rith­mic audit, is a reflec­tion of some­thing I call the cod­ed gaze. Now, you might have heard of the white gaze, the male gaze, the post-colonial gaze. Well, to this lex­i­con we add the cod­ed gaze, and it is a reflec­tion of the pri­or­i­ties, the pref­er­ences, and also some­times the prej­u­dices of those who have the pow­er to shape tech­nol­o­gy. So this is my term for algo­rith­mic bias that can lead to exclu­sion­ary expe­ri­ences or dis­crim­i­na­to­ry practices. 

So let me show you how I first encoun­tered the cod­ed gaze. I was work­ing on a project that used com­put­er vision. Didn’t work on my face until I did some­thing: I pulled out a white mask. And then I was detect­ed. So I want­ed to know what was going on, and I shared this sto­ry with a large audi­ence using the TED plat­form; over a mil­lion views. And I thought some­body might check my claims, so let me check myself. 

And I took my TED pro­file image and ran it on the com­put­er vision sys­tems from many lead­ing com­pa­nies. And I found some com­pa­nies did­n’t detect my face at all. But the com­pa­nies that did detect my face? labeled me male. I’m not male; I’m a woman, phe­nom­e­nal­ly. And so I want­ed to know what was going on. 

Then I read a report com­ing from Georgetown Law show­ing that one in two adults, over 130 mil­lion peo­ple, have their face in the face recog­ni­tion net­work that can be searched unwar­rant­ed, using algo­rithms that haven’t even been audit­ed for accu­ra­cy. And across the pond in the UK where they actu­al­ly have been check­ing how these sys­tems work, the num­bers don’t look so good. You have false match rates over 90%; more than 2,400 inno­cent peo­ple being mis­matched. And you even had a case where two inno­cent women were false­ly matched with men. So some of the exam­ples that I show in AI, Ain’t I a Woman,” or the TED pro­file image, they have real-world consequences. 

And because of the real-world con­se­quences, this is why I focused my MIT research on ana­lyz­ing how accu­rate sys­tems work when it came to detect­ing the gen­der of a par­tic­u­lar face. And so with the research we’re doing, it’s been actu­al­ly cov­ered in more than thir­ty coun­tries, more than 240 arti­cles, talk­ing about some of the issues with facial analy­sis technology. 

So in order to assess how well these sys­tems actu­al­ly work, I ran into a prob­lem. A prob­lem that I call the pale, male data issue.” And in machine learn­ing, which are the tech­niques being used for com­put­er vision (hence find­ing the pat­tern of a face), data is des­tiny. And right now if we look at many of the train­ing sets or even the bench­marks by which we judge progress, we find that there’s an over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of men—75% male for this nation­al bench­mark from the US gov­ern­ment. 80% lighter-skinned indi­vid­u­als. So pale, male data sets are des­tined to fail the rest of the world, which is why we have to be inten­tion­al about being inclusive. 

So, the first step was mak­ing a more inclu­sive data set, which we did, called the Pilot Parliaments Benchmark, which was bet­ter bal­anced by gen­der and skin type. The way we achieved bet­ter bal­ance was by going to the UN Women’s web site, and we got a list of the top ten nations in the world by their rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women; Rwanda lead­ing the way, pro­gres­sive Nordic coun­tries in there, and a few oth­er African coun­tries as well. We decid­ed to focus on European coun­tries and African coun­tries to have a spread of skin types.

So final­ly with this more bal­anced data set, we could actu­al­ly ask the ques­tion, how accu­rate are sys­tems from com­pa­nies like IBM, Microsoft, Face++—a lead­ing billion-dollar tech com­pa­ny in China used by the gov­ern­ment, when it comes to guess­ing the gen­der of a face? 

So what do we see? The num­bers seem okay. 88, maybe you get a B with IBM. 94%, Microsoft is the best case over­all. And Face++ is in the mid­dle. Where it gets inter­est­ing is when we start to split it down. 

So when we eval­u­ate the accu­ra­cy by gen­der we see that all sys­tems work bet­ter on male faces than female faces, across the board. And then when we split it by skin type, again we’re see­ing these sys­tems work bet­ter on lighter faces than dark­er faces. 

Then we did some­thing that had­n’t been done in the field before, which was doing an inter­sec­tion­al analy­sis bor­row­ing from some of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on antidis­crim­i­na­tion law, which showed that if you only did single-axis analy­sis, right, so if we only look at skin type, if we only look at gen­der, we’re going to miss impor­tant trends. 

So, tak­ing inspi­ra­tion from that work, we did this inter­sec­tion­al analy­sis. And this is what we found. For Microsoft you might notice that for one group there is flaw­less per­for­mance. Which group is this? The pale males for the win! And then you have not-so-flawless per­for­mance for oth­er groups. So in this case you’re see­ing that the darker-skinned females are around 80%. These were the good results. Let’s look at the oth­er companies. 

So now let’s look at Face++. China has the data advan­tage, right, but the type of data mat­ters. And so in this case we’re actu­al­ly see­ing that the bet­ter per­for­mance is on dark­er males mar­gin­al­ly. Again, you have dark­er females with the worst performance. 

And now let’s look at IBM. For IBM lighter males take the lead, again. Here you see that for lighter females there’s a dis­par­i­ty, right, between lighter males and lighter females, but lighter females actu­al­ly have a bet­ter per­for­mance than dark­er males. And cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly across all of these sys­tems, dark­er females had the worst per­for­mance. So this is why the inter­sec­tion­al analy­sis is impor­tant, because you’re not going to get the full spec­trum of what’s going on if you only do single-axis analysis. 

Now we took it even fur­ther and we dis­ag­gre­gat­ed the results of the dark­er females since that was the worst-performing group. And this is what we got. We got error rates as high as 47% on a task that has been reduced to a bina­ry. Gender’s more com­plex than this, but the sys­tems we test­ed used male and female labels, which means they would have a 50/50 shot of get­ting it right by just guess­ing. So for these sys­tems, we’re pay­ing to do an audit that actu­al­ly shows is mar­gin­al­ly bet­ter than chance. 

So I thought the com­pa­nies might want to know what was going on with their sys­tems, and I shared the research. IBM was by far the most respon­sive com­pa­ny; got back to us the day we shared the research and in fact released a new sys­tem when we shared the research pub­licly. So first we gave the research pri­vate­ly to all of the com­pa­nies and gave them some time to respond. 

So here you can see that there’s a marked improve­ment from 2017 to 2018. So for every­body who watched my TED talk and said, Isn’t the rea­son you weren’t detect­ed because of you know, physics? Your skin reflectance, con­trast, etc.” The laws of physics did not change between December 2017 when I did th study and 2018 when they launched the new results. What did change was they made it a pri­or­i­ty. And we have to ask why. 

So, this past sum­mer you actu­al­ly had an inves­tiga­tive piece that showed that IBM report­ed­ly secret­ly sup­plied the New York Police Department with sur­veil­lance tools that could ana­lyze video footage by skin type—skin col­or in this case, and also the kind of facial hair some­body had, or the cloth­ing that they were wear­ing. So enabling tools for racial pro­fil­ing. And then for The New York Times I wrote an op-ed talk­ing about oth­er dan­gers [of the] use of facial analy­sis tech­nolo­gies. We have a com­pa­ny called HireVue, for exam­ple, that says we can use ver­bal and non­ver­bal cues, accord­ing to their mar­ket­ing mate­ri­als, and and infer some­body’s going to be a employ­ee for you. And how we do this is we train on the cur­rent top per­form­ers. Now, if the cur­rent top per­form­ers are large­ly homo­ge­neous, we could have some problems. 

So it’s not just a ques­tion of hav­ing accu­rate sys­tems, right. How these sys­tems are used is also impor­tant. And this is why we’ve launched some­thing called the Safe Face Pledge. And the Safe Face Pledge is meant to pre­vent the lethal use of facial analy­sis tech­nol­o­gy. (Don’t kill peo­ple with face recog­ni­tion, very basic.) And then also think­ing through things like secret mass sur­veil­lance, or also the use by law enforcement. 

So so far we have three com­pa­nies that have come on board to say we’re com­mit­ted to the eth­i­cal and respon­si­ble devel­op­ment of facial analy­sis tech­nol­o­gy. And we also have oth­ers are say­ing we’ll only pur­chase from these com­pa­nies. So if this is some­thing that you’re inter­est­ed in sup­port­ing, please con­sid­er going to the Safe Face Pledge site. And if you want to learn more about the Algorithmic Justice League, vis­it us at ajlu​nit​ed​.org. Thank you.

Justine Cassell: You’ve heard beau­ti­ful­ly about one aspect of bias in com­pa­nies today, and that’s algo­rith­mic bias. In the same way we want to be taught by edu­ca­tors who rep­re­sent us and we want politi­cians who rep­re­sent us, we also want tech­nol­o­gy to rep­re­sent us, in every sense of rep­re­sent.” We want it to look like us; we want it to mir­ror who we are; and we want it to stand up for us—share our val­ues and pre­serve them. 

But that real­ly has­n’t been the case, yet. And that’s what I’m gonna talk to you about. I’m gonna talk about the kinds of bias that are lead­ing to tech­nol­o­gy let­ting us down. I’m gonna talk about why it hap­pens, and I’m going to start to talk about what to do about it.

But first let me take you back to France in 1984. So in France in 1984 the gov­ern­ment set up a ter­mi­nol­o­gy com­mis­sion. It’s a very French thing. They’d had a whole bunch of ter­mi­nol­o­gy com­mis­sions before. And the goal of this one la fémin­i­sa­tion des noms de pro­fes­sion. That is, the inven­tion of names for jobs tra­di­tion­al­ly done by men that may now or one day be done by women. Like doc­tor, pro­fes­sor, researcher, post­woman, and so forth. 

And they released a report about the words they had invented—the neol­o­gisms that they had invent­ed for these new jobs. Like a woman doc­tor. Or a woman mail deliv­er­er, and so forth. 

As the report was released, there was a counter-report. (And that’s also very French.) And this counter-report was released by the Académie Française, who sees them­self as in charge of the French lan­guage, stand­ing up for and insur­ing that the French lan­guage remains pure. And what they said was This very impulse of yours is hon­or­able, but it’s going to lead to bar­barisms and seg­re­ga­tion, and worse sex­ism than we had before, because it’s unre­flec­tive and unmo­ti­vat­ed by research.”

Well to any researcher, that’s a dream. So I decid­ed to do an exper­i­ment to look to see who was right. Was the fem­i­niza­tion of the terms for jobs going to lead to more women mov­ing into those jobs, as the ter­mi­nol­o­gy com­mis­sion sug­gest­ed? And so I went to the US and I went to France, and I did an exper­i­ment with chil­dren of 8 or 9 years old. They’re start­ing to think about gender. 

And I asked them what they would call this pic­ture. This is a female truck dri­ver. The word’s a lit­tle unfor­tu­nate. Luckily 8- and 9‑year-olds don’t know this. Those of you who are French speak­ers know that camioneusse unfor­tu­nate­ly already has a mean­ing that we might not want to use. But in this instance we asked them sim­ply what they would call this person. 

What they would call this person—a woman researcher: chercheuse. What they would call this per­son—un doc­toresse, a woman doc­tor. And what they would call this per­son—un postière, a female mail deliverer. 

And in fact what I found was that it was chil­dren who scored most high­ly on a test of stereo­type bias, those chil­dren who had the nar­row­est beliefs about who could do what, that used the fem­i­nized terms. And that makes no sense, you might think. Why? And I asked them: why? Why would doc­toresse” not mean a woman doctor? 

They explained doc­toresse” is kind of like a doc­tor but not a real doc­tor. That’s why we call her a doc­toresse.

And that’s because lan­guage reflects life, and not the oth­er way round. And so when you want to change some­thing, you can’t sim­ply change the words. You can’t sim­ply change the pic­tures. You have to change soci­ety. And that’s what we’re gonna turn to now. 

So I cofound­ed, with a num­ber of oth­er very smart peo­ple, a non­prof­it called EqualAI​.org. And I invite you to join us online and also to get to speak to Miriam Vogel, the new exec­u­tive direc­tor who’s here in Davos. We real­ized that very well-intentioned peo­ple can do very nasty things. And we start­ed this foun­da­tion, this non­prof­it, with that in mind. 

We looked at the stats. We saw that the num­bers of women going into com­put­er sci­ence are going down and not up. That par­ents say that they’d like their chil­dren to be com­put­er sci­en­tists so that they can earn more, but don’t want their girl chil­dren to take com­put­er sci­ence class­es. We know that in less-resourced schools com­put­er sci­ence isn’t even taught. 

And why is that? And what do we do about it? Why does it mat­ter? A par­ent said to me, I don’t under­stand you. Why would you want my girl to become a com­put­er sci­en­tist? That’s a sucky pro­fes­sion. It’s a bunch of badly-dressed, non-washed, greasy-haired men eat­ing Cheetos, and drink­ing Red Bull, and stay­ing up all night alter­nat­ing between writ­ing code and play­ing video games.” 

You see the prob­lem here? So, what I sug­gest­ed was I don’t want to make any girl become a com­put­er sci­en­tist. But I want every pro­fes­sion to be avail­able to girls, to peo­ple of col­or, to oth­er under­rep­re­sent­ed groups, those of dif­fer­ent abil­i­ties. Because if not, we’re going to ampli­fy the worst of our­selves in tech­nol­o­gy. We’re going to ampli­fy our abil­i­ty to kill. Our abil­i­ty to destroy. Our abil­i­ty to hate. And not the best of us. And it takes inten­tion­al­i­ty, and it takes work to cre­ate tech­nol­o­gy that ampli­fies the best of us. Human-centered technology. 

Now Joy spoke beau­ti­ful­ly about one aspect of that human-centered tech­nol­o­gy that has not been inten­tion­al­ly cre­at­ed. That’s relied on what’s called a con­ve­nience sam­ple.” My stu­dents define con­ve­nience sam­ple” as your two office mates and the two office mates across the hall. And that’s not real­ly what you want when you build a piece of tech­nol­o­gy. And the peo­ple who built those algo­rithms grab the first data set avail­able, and it was the pale males. 

But there are oth­er kinds of bias. As well as algo­rith­mic bias, there’s also bias in what the work­force looks like, and bias in what the tech­nol­o­gy looks like. And in all three are­nas, we are not rep­re­sent­ed. Neither what we look like, what we sound like, what our val­ues are. And what we want them to be. 

And this all hap­pens for a rea­son that is not inten­tion­al for the most part. And that is because of the psy­cho­log­i­cal notion of stereo­type. Now when we talk about stereo­types usu­al­ly what we mean is neg­a­tive beliefs about a per­son. But that’s not what a stereo­type is in tech­ni­cal lan­guage. A stereo­type is the abil­i­ty to take in infor­ma­tion, and rather than need­ing to take in the huge stream of infor­ma­tion that comes at us every sec­ond, we grab a piece of it and extrap­o­late. We look at an eye, for exam­ple, and we say, Oh. Totally. Olive-shaped eye…pseudo-ethnicity: Asian. Really good at math. Mmm…not so good at inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships. Won’t argue in public.”

Now the first part of that, the Asian, that’s an extrap­o­la­tion from one lit­tle detail. What it allowed me to do was not look at the rest of that body, or hear that per­son talk, or have a con­ver­sa­tion with that per­son, but sim­ply to pattern-match what’s in the world with what’s in my head. And pattern-matching is a lot faster than tak­ing in information.

But, as you saw, it has dan­gers. And here are some oth­ers. Because when we match a kind of per­son to a set of traits like good at math” or not will­ing to argue,” some­times that’s fine. There’s a great old movie called Pillow Talk where Doris Day is talk­ing to Rock Hudson, and he’s talk­ing in a Southern accent. He turns out to be a con man. But she hears him speak­ing in his Southern American accent, she says, He’s so cute. He’s so sweet. So naïve, so inno­cent.” And he’s not at all. But she extrap­o­lat­ed from that one datum to that. 

Miley Cyrus thought it was okay to rep­re­sent her­self with slan­ty eyes. But by doing that she extrap­o­lat­ed to all of those oth­er traits. And that leads peo­ple in those negatively-stereotyped groups to try and become like the norm. Like Joy wear­ing a white mask. This is an actu­al prod­uct for sale to keep your eye­lids look­ing Caucasian, non-Asian. And that’s a very sad thing. 

So, it leads to even worse things than that. For exam­ple, it turns out that when the hand hold­ing a cell phone is black, peo­ple are way, way more like­ly to see that phone as a gun. And this is unfor­tu­nate­ly even more true of police­men than it is of every­day peo­ple. So you can imag­ine a young per­son grab­bing a phone and being shot dead. And it unfor­tu­nate­ly has hap­pened way too often, and con­tin­ues to happen. 

And things like that lead to say­ing, I’m look­ing for peo­ple to work on my team. I need peo­ple who are gonna suc­ceed. People who are gonna suc­ceed like I suc­ceed­ed. I’m from a group that fits here. We need peo­ple who fit in.” And only a few weeks ago a friend of mine went for an inter­view in Silicon Valley, and when she did­n’t get the job she said, Can you tell me why?” And the hir­ing man­ag­er said, You just don’t fit.”

Yeah, you’re right, I don’t. I don’t wear the same size. I’m not the same height. My skin hap­pens to be a dif­fer­ent col­or. And you need that. Why do you need that? Because a bro cul­ture, a cul­ture where every­one looks alike, which is what Silicon looks like now, cre­ates bro prod­ucts. Our stu­dents from Carnegie Mellon come back and tell me—and this has changed over the last cou­ple of years—that their boss­es tell them to cre­ate for them­selves. Design tech­nol­o­gy that you would love.” Even nar­row­ing that field of technology. 

And yet we know that diver­si­ty in teams cre­ates inno­va­tion. That is, it has been shown, as defin­i­tive­ly as we can show any­thing, that the more per­spec­tives, the more dif­fer­ent points of view, dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple we have on a team, the more objec­tive tech­nol­o­gy inno­va­tion will be created. 

This is not an exam­ple of that. This is an exam­ple of cre­at­ing a tech­nol­o­gy that fits a stereo­type. That is, Alexa is a ser­vant. In the same way that girls (those are young women), were asked to be phone oper­a­tors because they had soft voic­es and gen­tle tem­pera­ments, and could serve those peo­ple who use the phone, Alexa does the same thing. And that’s why in the UK, Siri had a male voice. Because there the male valet, or but­ler, was enough of a stereo­type to allow men to serve. But that dis­ap­peared in the face of US Alexa, and it’s now a female voice. This stereo­type gets more and more nox­ious. Taxi dri­vers in Germany refuse to have a GPS with a female voice. They refuse to take instruc­tions from her on how to drive. 

And an even ugli­er exam­ple, unin­ten­tion­al­ly for sure, comes from a paper on vir­tu­al tutors teach­ing chil­dren math. These are four vir­tu­al tutors,” four rep­re­sen­ta­tions. Children were allowed to choose—this is not my work. Children were allowed to choose whichev­er one they want­ed. And they chose the one to use first that looked like them—same gen­der, same eth­nic­i­ty. But they learned more math from the white male. 

And that’s not sur­pris­ing. If you look at the rep­re­sen­ta­tion in these pic­tures, these are stereo­types of what a sci­en­tist sit­ting in his arm­chair believes black men and women and white women and white men look like. 

Children who collaborated with the bi-dialectical virtual peer, speaking both African-American Vernacular English and Mainstream School English would better at science than children who collaborated with a Mainstream School English only virtual peer.

So we did an exper­i­ment. We built two ver­sions of a piece of knowl­edge. They looked iden­ti­cal but one spoke the same dialect as the chil­dren we were work­ing. Took us two years to build a gram­mar of that dialect. And the dialect is just lan­guage with­out an Army and a Navy. Two ver­sions of that piece of tech­nol­o­gy. And chil­dren worked with the tech­nol­o­gy to do sci­ence. And it turned out that the chil­dren who worked with the tech­nol­o­gy that sound­ed like them learn more sci­ence. So this has real-world con­se­quences that we have to pay atten­tion to. 

So what do we do? We’re at an inflec­tion point, and it’s both a risk and an oppor­tu­ni­ty. And this is a fourteen-minute talk and not four­teen hours, and I’m hap­py to talk to any­one who wants to know more. But the inflec­tion point is that the future of work is not gonna be like the past of work. We have to grab hold of that. We have to have inclu­sion and diver­si­ty offi­cers on the team that dig­i­tizes the com­pa­ny. That builds the plat­forms, the per­for­mance algo­rithms, the met­rics, and the poli­cies that gov­ern change. It’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty. Because all of our com­pa­nies and our uni­ver­si­ties are in the mid­dle of change. And women, peo­ple of col­or, peo­ple of dif­fer­ent abil­i­ties, need to be at every stage of that change. Not just women engi­neers but women prod­uct design­ers. Women mar­keters. Unless we do that, we won’t have a diverse group like this. 

And I want to say some­thing that does­n’t get said often enough. We need to invest in the pipeline. We need to make it okay for girls to be engi­neers with­out hav­ing to have greasy hair, like Cheetos, or drink Red Bull. It has to be okay. But, the pipeline is leak­ing just as bad­ly at the top. Senior women when they get to senior posi­tions are told that they’re dif­fi­cult. They’re hard to man­age. They’re just not right. And they don’t stay in those posi­tions because they’re kicked out. 

So you can’t just hire women. You need to keep them. And to do that you need what’s called the cohort effect. Not one but a min­i­mum of three. Not one per­son of col­or but a min­i­mum of three. For any­one who’s seen The Intern, not one old man but a min­i­mum of three. And if you do that, if you have old­er women and younger women, then you’ll have role mod­els for peo­ple to look up to. You’ll have cohorts to talk to one another. 

So we’ve talked about two kinds of bias. And here’s the third. One is the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of us in the work­force. The sec­ond is the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of us in the tech­nol­o­gy that we use, such as Siri and Alexa. And the third is algo­rith­mi­cal bias. If we pay atten­tion to this, we can have a work­force that looks like the peo­ple that we’re build­ing for. And all of us win if that hap­pens. Thank you.

Gideon Lichfield: Okay. So thank you very much Justine and Joy. So, as a reminder, you can— I’m going to do some audi­ence Q&A in a moment. And if you want to jot down some ques­tions and put them in so they’ll show up on my screen you can go to the wef​.ch/​b​e​t​a​z​one. But I will also take ques­tions in the ana­log method. 

But first I’m going to try to for­mu­late a ques­tion… And I’m not sure if I’m going to for­mu­late it very well, but I’ll try to for­mu­late a ques­tion that is to both of you that kind of encom­pass­es what you were both talk­ing about. 

We are now…we’re in an era and we’re mov­ing into an era of ever more per­son­al­iza­tion and opti­miza­tion. And this is true in the algo­rithms that fig­ure out what we might want to buy and how to sell it to us. And what cloth­ing will fit us best and will match the pur­chas­es we’ve made in the past and so on. It’s also going to be true of the soft­ware that is going to help employ­ers make deci­sions about who they should look for and where they should recruit. It’s in the soft­ware that is going to be increas­ing­ly used to mon­i­tor how peo­ple per­form at work, and how they could per­form bet­ter and more opti­mized. And inher­ent in all of that opti­miza­tion and per­son­al­iza­tion, inevitably there are going to be cor­re­la­tions between cer­tain kinds of behav­ior. And whether gen­der, or race, or socioe­co­nom­ic class, or oth­er things. So I think the ques­tion I’m try­ing to for­mu­late is, how in this world of increas­ing opti­miza­tion where the algo­rithms will be accu­rate… They’ll increas­ing­ly be accu­rate. But their appli­ca­tion could lead to dis­crim­i­na­tion. How do we stop that? 

Justine Cassell: Do you want to go first?

Joy Buolamwini: Sure. So, accu­rate algo­rithms can be abused but we always have to remem­ber that accu­ra­cy is always rel­a­tive. And as we learn more the sys­tems that we thought would be more pre­cise might not actu­al­ly be doing what we think. So let’s take the exam­ple of pre­ci­sion med­i­cine. The right med­i­cine for the right per­son, at the right time. And when you look at what some star­tups are doing, they’re say­ing okay we have all of this clin­i­cal data. Let’s train on that so we can make bet­ter predictions. 

In the US case it was­n’t even until 1993 that women and peo­ple are col­or were man­dat­ed to be part of clin­i­cal tri­als. If you look at car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, one in three women die of this, but less than a quar­ter of research par­tic­i­pants are women, and the way in which heart dis­ease man­i­fest in women and man­i­fest in man is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the same. 

So as a result you might think you’re get­ting more and more accu­rate but it could be just for a small sliv­er of soci­ety. So I’m always think­ing about what does full-spectrum inclu­sion look like? And if we’re talk­ing about pre­ci­sion, pre­cise­ly who are we ben­e­fit­ing and pre­cise­ly who are we harming? 

Lichfield: Mmm, Justine.

Cassell: That exam­ple’s a great exam­ple, because one of the things we know about research par­tic­i­pants is that low socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus cit­i­zens often don’t want to be part of research. Because they don’t want their data to be stolen. They don’t want peo­ple to make mon­ey off of their per­son­al data. And that’s a ten­sion, because if their data isn’t used; they own it, they’ve kept it; but they’re also not part of that data set. And it’s a com­pli­cat­ed question.

But I want to talk about anoth­er aspect of per­son­al­iza­tion. What I thought you were going to say was aren’t we going to build more and more instances of tech­nol­o­gy? A white pale male, a white woman who’s old, a white woman who’s young. And there I was going to say that in my own work I’ve been work­ing very hard to build gen­der ambigu­ous, eth­nic­i­ty ambigu­ous, rep­re­sen­ta­tions of tech­nol­o­gy. And what we find is—and we’ve done this most­ly for children—is that chil­dren attribute their own eth­nic­i­ty and their own gender-binary gen­der to those pieces of tech­nol­o­gy. In fact the only gen­dered piece of tech­nol­o­gy I’ve ever built, that looks like a woman, is SARA (for any of you who inter­act­ed with her two years ago), the socially-aware robot assis­tant. Other than that, all of our work has gender-ambiguous names, ethnicity-ambiguous names, and looks, so as to not fall into stereo­types that I know I have as a scientist. 

And I was going to stand up here and make you all take the implic­it asso­ci­a­tion test to have you all see the way I’ve seen the stereo­types, the nox­ious stereo­types, you car­ry with you. The only thing that we can do is real­ize them, and then decide what to do about them. And until we do that, we’re capable—I’m capable—of hope­ful­ly noth­ing as real­ly ugly as those math tutors, real­ly neg­a­tive as those math tutors. But stereo­types nonethe­less and so I try and stay away from per­son­al­iza­tion in the realm of what tech­nol­o­gy looks like. 

Lichfield: Do you feel like the com­pa­nies that’re build­ing these algo­rith­mic tools have got­ten bet­ter about issues of bias since you and oth­er peo­ple start­ed rais­ing it? And also, oth­er than IBM how did the oth­er com­pa­nies react when you approached? 

Buolamwini: Sure, so we got a range of reac­tions. One reac­tion was no response. Another was a very cau­tious cor­po­rate response. We have a new paper that’s com­ing out where we look to see if our process actu­al­ly made a change. And so after we did the Gender Shades research which showed racial bias, that showed a gen­der bias and it also showed inter­sec­tion­al bias, all the com­pa­nies that we audit­ed with­in sev­en months made sig­nif­i­cant improvements. 

So then we decid­ed to look at com­pa­nies that we did­n’t audit in the first place. So we did­n’t include Amazon, for exam­ple, but Amazon is sell­ing their tech­nol­o­gy to law enforce­ment. And we found out that tech­nol­o­gy has racial bias, has gen­der bias, and it was close to the lev­el of the com­pa­nies a year before. So here we’re see­ing the com­pa­nies that were checked, right, are try­ing to make some kind of improve­ment. And then the com­pa­nies that weren’t weren’t held to the fire. So it def­i­nite­ly makes a dif­fer­ence. Some peo­ple are pay­ing atten­tion, not enough peo­ple are pay­ing atten­tion, but we’ll keep watching.

Lichfield: Right, so that then rai— Oh, sor­ry. Justine.

Cassell: I was going to say since I build per­son­al assis­tants I’ve looked a lot at the per­son­al assis­tants on the mar­ket, and over the last six months I’ve done a lot of press inter­views. And I’ll leave the com­pa­ny name­less but I can say that one com­pa­ny, you would tell the per­son­al assis­tant to go away and the per­son­al assis­tant would reply, Why? Can’t we just stay friends?” And I quot­ed this in the inter­view and it dis­ap­peared a week lat­er. So, we can do good but we should­n’t have to fol­low com­pa­nies around let­ting them know they’re being watched. 

Lichfield: Right. So who in the end should be doing this? I mean, what is the role of of law and reg­u­la­tion in set­ting how algo­rithms should work, especially—and this is like a per­pet­u­al prob­lem now with technology—especially when the tech itself is mov­ing way faster than law­mak­ers and leg­is­la­tors can. 

Buolamwini: Absolutely. We have to def­i­nite­ly think about the matu­ri­ty of a spe­cif­ic tech­nol­o­gy. So going back to facial analy­sis. With what we know about the flaws it’s com­plete­ly irre­spon­si­ble to use it in a law enforce­ment con­text, yet we see com­pa­nies sell­ing it in that space. So I believe one of the first leg­isla­tive steps that we can take, as oth­ers have called for, are mora­to­ri­um’s until we have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the real social impact of some of these technologies. 

Also mak­ing sure that there’s some­thing called affir­ma­tive con­sent, where we know if I’m going into an inter­view and they’re going to ana­lyze my face? I have some way of push­ing back. There’s some kind of due process and I have to say yes. Right now you might have opt-out, at best? but often­times you’re chan­neled into these sys­tems. So that’s a place where you could have reg­u­la­tion come in to increase trans­paren­cy but also have affir­ma­tive consent. 

Cassell: I’m very American in my per­spec­tive. Regulation’s okay but I’d like to dimin­ish it as much as pos­si­ble and rely on edu­ca­tion. And I think this is an area where we don’t edu­cate our young peo­ple. We don’t edu­cate our old peo­ple very well about it either. And we need to intro­duce into the dis­cus­sion about AI, into the edu­ca­tion of AI researchers, a lot more infor­ma­tion about soci­ety. We talk about human-centered com­put­ing. We’re start­ing to talk about human-centered AI. That includes a lot more than build­ing a tool that can rec­og­nize when you’re hav­ing trou­ble walk­ing and send­ing a wheel­chair. It means know­ing who peo­ple are; how they are; how they behave, with the finesse and the depth of pre­ci­sion that’s need­ed in order to design for them in a tru­ly justice-oriented way. 

Lichfield: But that requires a whole lot more data on them.

Cassell: It does, and we have those data.

Lichfield: Right.

Cassell: We’re not miss­ing the data, we’re not using them. We’re using my two office­mates and the two guys across the hall: con­ve­nience sample. 

Lichfield: Right. But that’s what I mean, is because we need that much more data then it rais­es that many more pri­va­cy questions. 

Buolamwini: And we are miss­ing a lot of data. So let’s go and look at the Human Genome Project, right. So, let’s say peo­ple who are African or of African dias­po­ra, about 20% of the glob­al pop­u­la­tion. Less than 5% of what we have for the genome rep­re­sents those pop­u­la­tions. So you have severe under­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of many dif­fer­ent kinds of Asians as well. So we do have intense data gaps, but we also have to think about agency when peo­ple get to decide if they par­tic­i­pate or not. 

So ear­li­er you were talk­ing about var­i­ous peo­ple in low­er socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus not trust­ing. But there’s also a rea­son for not trust­ing. If you have a case where you have a pop­u­la­tion with syphilis and you don’t tell them, as hap­pened with the Tuskegee exper­i­ments, there are very valid rea­sons not to trust—

Cassell: To go ahead believ­ing that. Yeah, for sure. 

Buolamwini: Absolutely.

Lichfield: There’s a ques­tion here from some­one in the audi­ence, Abinav? Is Abinav in the room? No? Okay. Because oth­er­wise I would have them explain their ques­tion, but as it is it does­n’t real­ly quite make sense to me. Are there any oth­er any oth­er ques­tions in the room here? 

Audience 1: Yes. A com­ment. I’m very much in Joy’s camp in terms of think­ing about how the data’s actu­al­ly used. Because I think in terms of a com­put­er, hav­ing the nuance to make some of the dis­tinc­tions based upon the data that it has, I don’t know that com­put­ers are there yet. So even for like, my son who has more priv­i­lege than he knows what to do with, we tell him when he goes out, Don’t wear a hood­ie,” you know. Don’t do this, don’t do that,” because a com­put­er isn’t going to say you’re a black boy of priv­i­lege. It’s going to you’re a black boy who’s six two who looks like this. Right?

Cassell: Stereotype. 

Audience 1: So there’s a lot of nuance that needs to go behind the data. And I tell him you know, You’re going into a world where the data might be used in a police sit­u­a­tion, right. And the com­put­er’s going to make a very quick deci­sion because the com­put­er did­n’t go to school with a guy like you. The com­put­er’s not mak­ing that nuanced deci­sion.” And that’s some­thing that I think that we need to work on, and that needs to be part of the discussion. 

The sec­ond thing I would just say is you know, when we look and say we need to have more peo­ple of col­or, more women, more diver­si­ty in the pro­gram­mers and the peo­ple who are doing these algo­rithms so that they’re think­ing about these oth­er peo­ple and the dis­tinc­tions, that’s a long-term play. And I’d be inter­est­ed to know what are the things that we need to do now to start to make those corrections?

Cassell: Love that ques­tion. So, CMU this year attained 50% of the enter­ing class in com­put­er sci­ence as women. [Buolamwini snaps fin­gers] Yeah. And there’s this beau­ti­ful mur­al… And it’s only in the wom­en’s room and I’ve been talk­ing to them about this. But it says Computer sci­ence: an old boys club? Not at Carnegie Mellon.” And I love that. It took us…years. Not a very very long peri­od of time, but a few years to accom­plish that. But we accom­plished it by invest­ing in the pipeline young. In going into grade schools, and mid­dle schools, and high schools, and work­ing with chil­dren, insur­ing— Jane Margolis has writ­ten a beau­ti­ful book called Stuck at the Shallow End about race and com­put­ing. And she’s looked at the LA school sys­tems. There is no AP com­put­er sci­ence in inner city schools in Los Angeles. Or there was­n’t till she arrived. She had done the same thing with women before she wrote Stuck at the Shallow End. She wrote Unlocking the Clubhouse.

So there are things we can do. Yes, we’re start­ing now with kids who are 7 or 8 and so it’s not going to be right away that we’re going to hire. But, I want to point out that we make a mis­take, we make a ter­ri­ble mis­take that back­fires, when we think about hir­ing diverse people. 

So, I once had a job as a fac­ul­ty mem­ber at a high-status uni­ver­si­ty. And the head of my depart­ment came up to me and the one black fac­ul­ty mem­ber on the fac­ul­ty and said, I give the two of you six months to diver­si­fy the fac­ul­ty.” Yeah. Okay. Now, it hap­pened to be a top­ic that I had been look­ing at for twenty-three years. Not my col­league; it was­n’t his top­ic of inter­est, and cer­tain­ly we could­n’t do any­thing in six months. 

I was offered a posi­tion as diver­si­ty offi­cer at anoth­er uni­ver­si­ty. And I said no, despite the fact that this is some­thing I care very deeply about. Because when I said, Okay. We need to think about a pro­noun pol­i­cy. We need to have non­bi­na­ry bath­rooms. Half our build­ings are not acces­si­ble, we need ramps up right away.” And the provost said to me, We’re just going to start with women.” 

But inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty, Kim Crenshaw’s work, tells us that you can’t just work along one axis. You have to con­sid­er for exam­ple first-generation col­lege atten­dees. You need to con­sid­er the full range of peo­ples, not only the diverse peo­ple (which usu­al­ly means black or women), but diverse teams because that’s where cre­ativ­i­ty comes. And the only way this is going to get done, you all know it, is if we show val­ue. And we can show dol­lars raised. 85% of con­sumers are women. And so few women are prod­uct design­ers or mar­keters or engi­neers. And we could sell more—our cre­ativ­i­ty will go up, our inno­va­tion will go up, if we hire diverse teens. And if we work in col­lab­o­ra­tive teens. 

Buolamwini: On the point of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. I’m a com­put­er sci­en­tist, right. But I don’t fit the many stereo­types that you list­ed off in your orig­i­nal talk. And I think the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what it looks like to be a com­put­er sci­en­tist— I’m also an ath­lete, pole vaulter, all of these oth­er things. But invit­ing peo­ple in who don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly look like the stereo­type and say­ing, You too mat­ter. What you’re doing is valu­able. And also your per­spec­tives mat­ter.” The paper I wrote, Gender Shades, I did it in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Dr. Timnit Gebru who was at Stanford. And she is from Ethiopia. It’s no sur­prise that as dark-skinned women we found the prob­lems that we did. So it’s also being able to ele­vate the work that is there as well. 

Lichfield: Unfortunately that is all the time that we have. So, Joy and Justine thank you so much for being here.