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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Coded Bias - Documentary Review


The Documentary: Coded Bias

The Director: Shalini Kantayya

The Story: An exploration of the fallout of MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini's startling discovery of racial bias in facial recognition algorithms.


The Review:
At this point in time, we all have a pretty good idea of just how extensively racism is embedded into our history and culture and the impact it has on our lives each and every day. What I never thought of before, and apparently most people are right here with me on this, is how racism can be embedded into actual computer code and specifically into facial recognition software and algorithms that can determine whether or not we get a job interview or a desirable interest rate.

Shalini Kantayya's documentary focuses on a very specific discovery accidentally made by Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, as she ran into issues with a facial recognition program that wouldn't recognize her face simply because of the color of her skin. From the moment of Buolamwini's discovery, the story becomes an intense thriller that expands around the globe, shows how governments are using the technology in some very eye opening ways, and how software programs are negatively impacting women and  people of color. The director follows this trail from a small apartment all the way to the hallowed hallways of our federal government.

You can tell by the pacing and urgency of the documentary that Kantayya really wants people to get this and to understand the impact that facial recognition software can have in just about every aspect of our lives. Governments are using it, law enforcement is using it, business are using it and all of them are finding ways to manipulate and control and influence entire populations which is a very dangerous thought. As big as this story is, it's also unfortunately one that is a piece of a very large puzzle of racism so ingrained into the human experience that it's easy to miss that it's even there.

Kantayya also shows the differences of how artificial intelligence, facial recognition tech, and other algorithmic programs can be used and even accepted by the people they have the most impact on. In China, we see how software programs are ingrained in daily life from the government using a scoring algorithm that some might consider oppressive and controlling all the way down to using facial recognition to buy a beverage from a vending machine. A lot of people in China see these things as normal parts of their daily lives and also see a lot of benefits like how the scoring system can give people certain freedoms and can also give insight into other people around them.

I feel like a lot of these things wouldn't fly here in the States as privacy, or at least the last lingering illusions of privacy, is something that a lot of people hold dear and as a whole, not something the country would be willing to give up. Of course, Kantayya takes that idea and shows just how manipulative and invasive social media and internet commerce already is and also how it's basically the same implementation, it's just packaged in different and more subversive ways. This begs the question of where do we draw the line when it comes to what is acceptable in implementing programs that can have automatic bias built into them and what are the first steps we can take to recreate programs and algorithms so the biases don't exist.

The director raises a lot of questions and most of those questions do not have answers just yet so she shows us people like Joy Buolamwini, Safiya Noble, Zeynep Tufekci, and many others who are moving the conversations forward while bringing awareness to the fundamental problems that exist in a digitized world that has been largely controlled and created by white men. Ultimately, this documentary introduces us to a roster of heroes who are leading the fight against the racism, classism, and gender bias that technology is constantly using against us.


The Verdict:
Coded Bias is a fascinating journey of discovery and a warning to the world that our freedoms, our thoughts, and our beliefs are under attack by programs and algorithms that are constantly dehumanizing the human experience. Shalini Kantayya has created an essential documentary that puts a spotlight on one of the most important and pivotal topics of our time.


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