TECHNOLOGY CAN HELP US, BUT IT WON’T SAVE US.
Earlier this month, Vox published an article by Sigal Samuel titled, “A new study finds a potential risk with self-driving cars: failure to detect dark skinned pedestrians.” In January, new research from M.I.T.’s Media Lab found that the facial recognition software Amazon is selling to law enforcement falls short on tests for accuracy, misidentifying the gender of darker-skinned women about 30 percent of the time. And recently, my friend and fellow transportation practitioner Veronica O. Davis reminded me of the study showing how some automatic soap sensors couldn’t recognize darker skin tones.
For me, as someone with dark skin, none of this is new. From automated handwashing to biased facial recognition data, folks of color know all too well that technology is often not built for us.
Many people I respect have been a part of the tech industry and are committing their lives to disrupting and transforming everything from how we communicate to how we get from point A to point B. I think these people are smart. I think they care. I hope they are successful in their endeavors.
But still, something about the tech industry always has me on the lookout for something to go wrong or turn out to not be quite what it first seemed. I do not think everyone in Silicon Valley lives in a bubble with no concept of life outside of their industry—that would be an unfair thing to say. But it’s well-established that the tech industry is primarily white, male, and educated, which leaves me unconvinced that things that come out of the industry can reflect the experiences of those of us who are not. Even as the tech industry calls for more diversity and creates ethics boards, we see similar results.
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