Joy Buolamwini just wanted to make something positive. Her idea: An aspiration mirror, which looks like any other mirror, only with a camera. The idea is, the camera takes a photo of your face and then maps an image over it so that when you look into the mirror, you see your reflection shadowed by something to inspire you. Say, a lion or Serena Williams. But when Buolamwini hooked up her device, the camera had a hard time mapping her face. So, Buolamwini, who is Black, tried something—she put on a neutral, expressionless white mask, and presto! The camera found Buolamwini without issue.

But the camera was not the problem, Buolamwini discovered, the code was. And not by happenstance: Eight men, all white, developed the building blocks of artificial intelligence at Dartmouth College in 1956. Unwittingly or not, these men imbued their bias into the code that has given birth to countless more in the past 60-plus years.

Those codes—aka algorithms or artificial intelligence (AI)—have permeated and invaded every aspect of our daily lives. From retail recommendations (Amazon) to information searches (Google) and social connections (Facebook), the code shapes our individual worlds by presenting this, not that.

Joy Buolamwini in Coded Bias. All photos courtesy The 2050 Group.

The why of “this not that” is the engine behind writer/director Shalini Kantayya’s documentary, Coded Bias. Buolamwini is her primary protagonist, but Kantayya collects multiple voices—all women—to navigate the myriad ways these codes are employed.

Social media is the most recognizable, but law enforcement is where the sinister side shines. As Buolamwini discovers, facial recognition software—of which there is only a handful globally—can recognize a white male face with high accuracy. That accuracy plummets when the face is female and a person of color. And since governments worldwide use facial-recognition software to identify dissidents, as it is employed in Hong Kong for the pro-Democracy protests, or suspected terrorist, as it is on the streets of London, women and persons of color find themselves at a sizable disadvantage.

Worse yet, there is a Kafkaesque aspect to that disadvantage. Government agencies use it, so do banks and credit lenders to help make risk assessments. But since no one really seems to understand how the code works, there is no arbitration and retribution once an outcome is determined.

Primarily working with on-camera interviews, Katayya bombards you with plenty of that kind of data—enough to send chills down your spine. The pitfalls are many, and we’ve already fallen into a good deal of them. Facebook’s political influence is well-mined territory, but Coded Bias presents a terrifying story of power from 2010 that I either missed entirely or lost in the shuffle. One piece of data I’ve never forgotten: In 2005, the New York Civil Liberties Union conducted an exhaustive count of the cameras in Manhattan and came up with a number around 5,000. Five years later, they went back to count again, this time coming back with the verdict “uncountable.”

Ten years have passed since, and the uncountable has become unfathomable. And if all of those cameras, and the code behind them, have a biased gaze, there’s no telling what kind of noirish hellscape awaits us.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Coded Bias (2020)
Written, produced, and directed by Shalini Kantayya
Starring: Joy Buolamwini, Meredith Broussard, Zaynep Tufekci, Amy Webb, Silkie Carlo, Jenny Jones, Tranae Moran, Cathy O’Neil
7th Empire Media, Not rated, Running time 90 minutes, Now playing CU-Boulder’s International Film Series virtual theater.