Coded Bias

During her first year at MIT Media Lab, Joy Buolamwini took a class in Science Fabrication. The class involved the creation of technology inspired by science fiction. Buolamwini decided to build a mirror that would motivate her in the morning. She called her concept the Inspire Mirror.


The mirror needed computer vision software to project another image onto Buolamwini’s face (something like a social media filter). Unfortunately, the project did not work - the software just would not recognise her face. 


Investigating the problem, Buolamwini made a startling and disturbing discovery. A discovery that changed her life. A discovery that will likely change all our lives. Only when Buolamwini, an African American woman, wore a white mask did the software recognise the existence of a face. 


In that moment, Buolamwini took her first steps on an incredibly important journey - a journey explored in Shalini Kantayya’s powerful documentary, Coded Bias. Buolamwini realised that most facial recognition software does not accurately identify darker skinned faces and the faces of women.


Examining Buolamwini's work, Coded Bias asks two critical questions. What does it mean when artificial intelligence (AI) governs our liberties? And, what are the consequences for the people AI is biased against? 



Investigating the background of this issue, Coded Bias examines the development of AI. Why has it been built with embedded bias? How does AI impact democracy and our civil rights? What are consequences of our reliance on big data and machine learning? 


All HAL 9000 jokes aside, this is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Today, algorithms are deciding who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets access to health insurance and, in some cases, the length of a person’s prison term.


Cathy O’Neil knows the potentially destructive power of algorithms all too well. In Coded Bias, the mathematician, data scientist and author of Weapons of Math Destruction explains how algorithms are being weaponized - deliberately misused by governments and large corporations for both power and financial gain. 


Meanwhile, in London, Coded Bias follows Big Brother Watch‘s Silkie Carlo as she takes to the streets to raise awareness of this issue. Carlo highlights the inaccuracy of facial recognition software and the dangers inherent in this gradual infringement of our civil liberties (in one shocking scene, a man is fined by police for walking past a police facial recognition surveillance van with his face covered). 



Coded Bias was filmed before the world became dominated by Covid 19. Now, of course, we are required to cover our faces. However, we are also being asked to sign up to apps that track and trace our movements. 


While we all want to do everything in our power to rid the planet of this devastating virus, Kantayya’s film raises crucial questions about how such data is being used. Is there appropriate regulatory oversight in place? How much surveillance is necessary?


The documentary takes us to China where citizens use facial recognition in many aspects of their lives - shopping, using the transport system and even entering their own homes.


“There’s this thing called the social credit score in China,” says O’Neil. “They are sort of explicitly saying: ‘here’s the deal, citizens of China: we are tracking you, you have a social credit score. Whatever you say about the Communist Party will affect your score. Also, by the way, it will affect your friends’ and your family’s scores'." 


“And it is explicit," O'Neil explains. "The government who is building this is basically saying, you should know you are being tracked and you should behave accordingly. It’s like algorithmic obedience training.”


Chiling no?


Many documentaries have warned us of the consequences of our adoption and use of technology. They often leave us feeling disturbed and unsettled. Can we make things better? Has the ship already sailed? Are we doomed?


Thankfully, however, Coded Bias does not leave its audience feeling hopeless or in a state of panic. I felt surprisingly optimistic, in fact. There is great comfort to be had in the existence of people like Buolamwini, O’Neil and Carlos.


They are out there making a real and powerful difference in the world - and that really is pretty inspiring. 


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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones



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