Unmasking the Bias: How Joy Buolamwini Is Fighting for Ethical AI

February 19, 2024

February is Black History Month, and Capitol Tech is proud to recognize innovative leaders who are advancing the legacy of what it means to be Black in tech and beyond. 

Joy Buolamwini is not just a computer scientist; she's a visionary, an artist, and a “poet of code” working to advance justice in the digital age. As the capabilities of and enthusiasm for artificial intelligence advance at a breakneck pace, her work delves deep into the murky depths of algorithmic bias, exposing the hidden prejudices that exist within artificial intelligence systems and advocating for fair and equitable technology. Her experiences as a Black woman in computer science have deeply influenced her work on bias and discrimination in artificial intelligence systems. 

Born in Canada and raised in Mississippi, Buolamwini's curiosity for tech was ignited by documentary about a robot that could interact with people. This early fascination blossomed into a passion for computer science, leading her to earn her bachelor’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech. However, it was in her master’s degree program at MIT that she uncovered a troubling truth about AI that has turned into her passion. 

Buolamwini’s thesis, titled "Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification," investigated bias and accuracy disparities in facial analysis technology, focusing specifically on the performance of commercial gender classification systems across different demographic groups. Her research revealed significant disparities in the accuracy of these by finding that these systems exhibited higher error rates when classifying the gender of darker-skinned individuals, especially women. In short, she showed that racial and gender biases were built into the algorithms used by these systems because of the data the algorithm was trained on and the diversity –– or lack thereof –– of who created it. 

Buolamwini's research had profound implications for the field of artificial intelligence and raised important questions about fairness, accountability, and transparency in AI systems. The study underscored the need for greater diversity in the datasets used to train facial analysis algorithms and called attention to the potential harms of biased AI technologies, particularly for marginalized communities, as these issues create significant real-world consequences related to everything from criminal justice and hiring decisions to personal freedoms. The study contributed to a growing awareness of algorithmic bias and sparked discussions within both the academic community and the tech industry about the ethical implications of AI technologies. It also inspired further research and activism aimed at addressing bias and promoting equity in AI development. 

Driven by this urgency, Buolamwini founded the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL), an organization that leverages research, art, and advocacy to illuminate the social implications of biased algorithms. By empowering individuals and communities to understand how AI systems are developed and deployed, the AJL aims to organize individuals, community organizations, and legislators to demand change and accountability. 

More than raising awareness, Buolamwini has testified before Congress, pushing for policies that promote transparency and accountability in AI development. She engages in a variety of educational initiatives, ensuring diverse perspectives are heard and considered in the process of building future technologies. Her 2017 TED Talk on algorithmic bias has nearly two million views, and her book, "Unmasking AI," – which has been described as the “conscious of the AI revolution” – digs deeper into her mission to protect what's human in our increasingly technological world. Her work has been featured in prominent documentaries like "Coded Bias," and she has Buolamwini has received numerous accolades, including being name to Forbes 30 Under 30, TIME Next 100, and MIT Technology Review 35 Under 25. 

By shining a light on algorithmic prejudices, Buolamwini is helping to hold companies accountable for the AI they create by addressing built-in prejudices and preventing discriminatory outcomes that could harm marginalized communities. With her advocacy focused on ensuring technology serves everyone rather than just the privileged few, she is empowering individuals to understand and question the ethical implications of AI and demanding transparent and responsible development, while also inspiring others to join the fight for an equitable technological society. 

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