You are recognized as a leader for using your skills and your voice to stand up against A.I. injustices. You’ve been at this for a while, and just this past June, your research had a direct impact on Amazon’s decision to put a moratorium on its controversial facial-recognition software. How did you feel after that was made?
“The Amazon decision doesn’t come without IBM’s decision, without Microsoft’s decision. So I view them all as working together. In this moment, there’s liberation for Black lives and there are pushes to defund the police and so forth. It was not to the advantage of Amazon, IBM and Microsoft—particularly when we see Robert Williams being wrongfully arrested and jailed for 30 hours—to be providing facial-recognition technology to law enforcement. I think what’s really important is that these decisions show there is indeed a choice. It’s not inevitable that these technologies are used, and I was encouraged to see that pressure does make a difference on the tech companies. That’s a big reminder that people have a voice and a choice.”
Can you tell us about your current mission at the Algorithmic Justice League?
“We’re really moving toward making A.I. equitable and accountable. The AJL is making sure people have a voice and a choice in the kinds of algorithms that make decisions that shape their lives. We have algorithms that are deciding if you go to prison or not…we have systems that are being used to inform hiring decisions. We also talk about love in terms of our relationship with data. I remember going on a dating app that used face detection. I uploaded an image of myself and it said, ‘Face not detected.’ I uploaded another where I was looking directly at the camera, and it still said not detected. At the time I was procrastinating my thesis work, and this ended up becoming the foundation for those papers. My approach to artificial intelligence is that I bet everyone has something at stake if you care for your freedom, economic opportunities, education opportunities or even your interpersonal relationships.”
I think what’s important for people to understand is that it’s courageous to share your story. But it’s also a necessary act, because it’s through sharing stories that we connect to our humanity. I’ve always thought the hardest part of computing is humanity, and I wanted to show compassion through computation.
- Joy Buolamwini
What’s something you’d like people to know about you or your work that they probably don’t?
“I’m not sure how people come to the work, but something that’s important is that people understand and value the importance of storytelling and also having the courage to share their experiences. For example, my experience coding in a white mask to have my face protected, yet when I take off the mask, my face is not detected. That experience is what opened my eyes to this notion that machines are not necessarily neutral. I think what’s important for people to understand is that it’s courageous to share your story. But it’s also a necessary act, because it’s through sharing stories that we connect to our humanity. I’ve always thought the hardest part of computing is humanity, and I wanted to show compassion through computation.”