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Laptop camera "is racist"! - helen-louise
Laptop camera "is racist"!
This video is making the news: HP Computers are racist. "Black Desi" and "White Wanda" show what happens when they move in front of a new HP laptop with a face recognition camera. The camera moves to track the light-skinned woman, but does not move for the dark-skinned man - even when he gets close.

Of course, the computers aren't really racist - it's a technology problem to do with lighting and shadows. Kudos for the video makers in pointing out the issue without losing their sense of humour. Still, you have to wonder - do technology companies not think to routinely test out "people recognition" technologies with people of many different appearances? including different ages, races, and the disabled, whose faces may not move in a typical way? If not, why not? If technology doesn't work in the same way for everyone, then it is a sort of racism by omission or lack of thought. Unintentional, but hurtful nonetheless.

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5 comments or Leave a comment
xiphias From: xiphias Date: 26th December 2009 20:20 (UTC) (Link)
Yes. This is the form of racism that people are now talking about -- the racism of simply forgetting that people other than white (and often, middle-class, Christian, able-bodied and/or male) people exist.

It is racist. Not in the Ku-Klux-Klan black-people-should-die way -- but in an unthinking "black people aren't important" way. I'm sure that the engineers have no animus against black people -- but the question didn't even occur to them to think of. It's an unthinking racism. Which is the most prevalent kind today.

Yeah, the "not thinking about it" racism is a lot less scary, and less damaging, than the "lynching" kind of racism. But it's still a problem.
baratron From: baratron Date: 5th January 2010 03:36 (UTC) (Link)
Yes. I think in some ways we have quite similar experiences of racism, in that we both "pass for white". It's only in conversation that my mixed-race or your Jewishness get revealed, so we both encounter people being absolute asses.
From: matthewwdaly Date: 26th December 2009 21:36 (UTC) (Link)
I'm not convinced that HP acted by omission or lack of thought here. There seems to be evidence (both by HP itself and independently verified here by K. Tempest Bradford) that HP has compensation factors that can be applied to people who do not have naturally high contrast between their eyes and cheekbones. These aren't patches that were rolled out after the YouTube video, so it seems to me that they must have been very aware of and concerned by the limitations of their algorithm.

One might argue that HP should have spent an extra few months in the lab making the tech work equally well for everyone under typical lighting conditions before releasing face tracking as a feature, so I think that they deserve something less than top marks even if this isn't total "fail". There might also be a story about why the universal adjustments aren't applied to the floor models at the warehouse stores and why Desi and Wanda aren't knowledgeable enough about their products to either fix the contrast or at least know that the option is available.
anansi133 From: anansi133 Date: 27th December 2009 00:23 (UTC) (Link)
I keep thinking of the way Band-Aids used to be. They came in one color that didn't look very much like anybody's skin, but they looked far far worse on black people than on white people.

And then one day they had some kind of imaginative insite, or there was a lawsuit, or something, because suddenly there was a translucent bandage with stippled pigment that looked good on caucasian and dark skin. Plus a zillion other cartoony options like pirate and bacon and scooby do.

You could say that the lack of imagination isn't as bad as an overt institutional oppression, but you could also ask yourself, where are the black engineers at HP? Did they even think to test it with black skin, or was there some kind of subconscious assumption that people with dark skin aren't going to be able to afford this kind of equipment?

new technology goes wrong in all kinds of ways, i'm thinking the handwriting rcognition of the Apple Newton, and the talking coke machines. But when it fails in such a selective way, you have to assume that some user's experience is considered more important than other user's experience, otherwise they would have tested it out- like with the band-aids.

Kudos to the artists for being classy in their video, but that doesn't make the problem any less of a problem. If HP is on the ball, they'll issue a patch, or a recall, straight away.
turkish_coffee From: turkish_coffee Date: 27th December 2009 11:59 (UTC) (Link)
Voice recognition software won't work with every accent, no matter how long you train it. Spellcheck does not count for regional spellings or terms. These, however are more geographical language differences.

White people reflect more light, so the camera wouldn't have to be as sensitive to track them (us?), but it also depends on the light in the environment, and could quite possibly depend on hue. (I'm sort of pinkish, and I reflect less light than some one else I know who is more yellow, no they are not Asian). The logical solution would be to have a setting to fine-tune the sensitivity.

Or, you know, the engineers were all straight men who programed it to pay more attention to women.
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