In Plain Sight: Hot Docs 2020-Coded Bias

What happens if you want to create a fun project for your MIT class only to find that you don’t exist to your own project? This happened to then graduate student Joy Buolamwini when she wanted to create a facial recognition mirror, the “Aspire Mirror”, that would project fun filters to start your day. Because of her race, the artificial intelligence or social robot, could not recognize her facial features. Why? Because of the unconscious bias in technology. In Coded Bias, director Shalini Kantayya follows Buolamwini as she takes her findings of the bias of AI and algorithms to the highest chapters of government in a high-tech fight for equality.

Buolamwini, a computer scientist at the MIT Media Lab, started her crusade when her fun project turned into a disappointing discovery: her face was not viable according to artificial intelligence. Her black existence did not register on a machine, fed with code and algorithms built by those in power who were essentially led by historical bias. She takes us to the very white and male beginnings of A.I. in 1956 at the Dartmouth math department to the streets of modern-day London where police use surveillance vans on unwitting citizens to serve their ambiguous and often inaccurate purposes. It’s an intriguing and frightening path of systemic bias and racial/gender bias in an artificial device meant to be neutral. This neutrality, however, is built on white supremacy and assumptions.

What director Kantayya and Buolamwini show us is the decks are stacked against people of color and women. It seems an insurmountable obstacle since they outline how deep the roots of algorithmic bias goes, affecting people of color and their chances at a job, a place to live, medical treatment, or a fair trial. There is a huge amount of sobering data collected, including what our smartphones collect on us and just how close the U.S. is to the surveillance of China.  It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as they consult Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch UK, and many other experts to pinpoint the problem and map out solutions. We also get to see Buolamwini go to congress to present her findings and the harm occurring.

I came away feeling two things: pride in seeing these women, black and brown women, showing their expertise in S.T.E.M. and finding a voice to sound the alarm on a systemic giant built without any thought of diversity. The second was anger. We have such an insidious yet obvious enemy in the systems that govern us as people of color; it works its way in like an odorless gas, poisoning our lives because of the way we look and our culture, but the anger is like a cleansing fire because Buolamwini is using her true brilliance to remedy this problem. She is the essence of an Afrofuturist and heads towards a future of equality by recognizing the harm these training sets for A.I. do and how they can be changed. In a future that is swiftly turning because the powder keg has finally blown, this is a salve for a break in this social war.

If you’re in Ontario, you can get tickets for online viewing during the Hot Docs Festival here. It’s well worth the $9.00 to see Afrofuturism at work.


Joy Buolamwini is the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League where she and other women in S.T.E.M. do invaluable work to make A.I. more equitable and accountable. Check out the website here.

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