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Racism, AI, and a question of justice

Reverend Professor David Wilkinson

Guardian article last week reported that an AI ‘editor’ at Microsoft, built to amalgamate news stories from across the web, had confused two mixed-race members of girl group Little Mix in an article about anti-racism. It was the epitome of irony, compounded by the fact that the robot editor now has a team of humans to check its work.

The problem of racism within AI isn’t new. At an ECLAS conference on AI, Prof Margaret Boden said “There is no such thing as an ethical robot.” To have ethics requires responsibility, and AI cannot have responsibility; that is all ours. Humans write these codes and algorithms, and more often than not the writers are young, male, and white. Biases and blind spots creep into the design process, and the finished product reflects that. Sociologist Ruha Benjamin has termed the racism that infiltrates tech ‘the new Jim Code’, after the Jim Crow segregation policies; the difference being that racism in tech often stems from oversight, a failure to consider the experiences and needs of people different from us, rather than a deliberate aim. Nevertheless, the results are things like the Little Mix mix-up, where image searches aren’t built to distinguish black faces from one another, and at the other end of the scale the programme built for US courts which flagged black defendants as twice as likely to reoffend as their white counterparts.

A composite image showing the white, male founders of some of the world’s largest tech companies

Founding fathers: Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook; Jack Dorsey, Twitter; Kevin Systrom, InstagramLarry Page and Sergey Brin, Google; Evan Spiegel, Snapchat; Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, Skype

Artificial intelligence both reflects reality and shapes it; the more that technology edits out people who look, sound, move, or live differently to us, the less diversity we go looking for, and the more our physical world starts to represent just one segment of humanity. This is a justice issue, and it’s an issue that we’re seeing writ large in towns and cities on both sides of the Atlantic, right now, as protestors march on behalf of Black Lives Matter. Society isn’t static, but is constantly being built and rebuilt. How can we make sure that we build a society that reflects everyone, and benefits everyone?

The church should be at the forefront of this struggle for justice. Philippians chapter two tells us: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or other campaigns for equality, we should seek out the voices of those whose reality may not overlap with our own. It’s time to listen, to acknowledge our blind spots — the biases that we may not even know we have — and welcome opportunities to ally with groups who are crying out for recognition. Would we rather have bad science and poorly-designed technology that discriminate against large swathes of the population? Or will we instead advocate for technologies designed to be positive tools in a society seeking to shape itself in the image of God, rather than ourselves?

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Article By Reverend Professor David Wilkinson

David is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and has PhDs in astrophysics and systematic theology.

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