Coded Bias (2020)

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At first, this look at the inherent bias of algorithms in our daily lives made me uneasy and tempted to ditch all my technology. I stuck with it, though it nearly had me nodding off with its ambling pace, and was rewarded with some third act gems,

If you have ever worried that Google knows just a little too much about you or been shocked when the subject of a random conversation appears in your Facebook feed, this well-meaning documentary won’t allay your fears. Its hero and protagonist is computer scientist Joy Buolamwini who, while experimenting with facial recognition software for an art piece, discovered that the algorithms used by just about every business in the USA are biased toward white men.

This may seem harmless on the surface, until you learn how it is being used by police to identify criminals, by companies to direct market (holidays for white people, high interest loans and gambling to black people), by the education department to decide which teachers to fire and by credit companies to calculate how much money you can borrow. As someone quotes, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

The documentary follows UK activitists campaigning to stop police using the technology in unmarked vans on the street and also looks at China’s use of facial recognition on everything. In China, you are given a social credit score based on behaviours including being supportive of the government; a low score restricts you from things as basic as public transport. It’s not hard to see how something so extreme can reflect and embed prejudice and inequity. In China it is overt but in the US, and for any country that uses US companies, the control is much more insidious.

Although the subject matter is interesting, my attention wavered after a while as the pace is plodding and there are lots of talking heads and dinky AI graphics. The Siri-esque voice occasionally telling facts about technology in the first person grated with her kindergarten smugness until I realised I probably unconsciously ascribed less authority to her because of the quality of her voice. If it had been Morgan Freeman, I would have listened. Coded and uncoded bias.

If you watch this film, stick with it until the end as it’s worth it to see Buolamwini testify in front of the US Congress and be questioned by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And Buolamwini’s poetry, which also plays over the closing credits, is a strong coda. “Weapons of math destruction.”

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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