H.A.L, Terminator, Replicants, Droids: this is what Hollywood has told us to expect from artificial intelligence in the 21st century. But today there are nine companies building A.I., all in the U.S. and China, and what they’ve created is much more sly and devious than predicted by Kubrick, Lucas, and the like.

Exploring this topic means going down a dark, deep rabbit hole, but it’s a worthwhile journey to take in CODED BIAS, a documentary now playing in our Virtual Movie Palace from director Shalini Kantayya, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Rather than a physical automaton that can think on its own, as in so many Hollywood movies, the A.I. we have is dependent on math and probability, working on a scoring systems to predict human nature. It is used to monitor streets, determine hiring, evaluate professionals, manage housing, and most noticeably to sell, sell, sell. And we’ve allowed it to cozy into our personal cyber bubbles with barely a second thought.

There is, however, a simple flaw just in that description: if A.I is meant to predict human nature, how does it account for the innate biases in us all? The frustratingly simple answer is that it doesn’t. In fact, our biases are embedded in its programming, born from an industry where fewer than 14% of researchers are women, and even fewer are people of color.

CODED BIAS sets off across the globe to investigate the myriad ways that A.I is regularly being used in our society but finds its main focus on M.I.T. Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini. Buolamwini is founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, whose research began when she found that a face recognition algorithm, implemented in many of the devices we keep in our pockets, couldn’t detect her face at all… That is, until she donned a nondescript, emotionless, white mask.

This example is just a drop in the bucket of “algorithmic harm”, and Kantayya’s documentary swirls with information and data to comprehensively build and enlighten us on the dangers that are creeping across the globe and into our daily lives. Dangers that are specifically targeting people of color. These algorithms are being programmed and trained to identify patterns, but the patterns that they’re learning from are based on image data from light-skinned males.

In London, we see people walking along the street who are stopped by police because a camera misidentified them as a criminal or person of interest. We even see a man given a fine just for pulling his shirt up to hide his face. In fact, when shown prominent people of color in our own Congress, such as the late John Lewis, the software still misidentified some of them as criminals.

Even given its obvious shortcomings, A.I. still passes through few safeguards, testing, or oversight before it enters the public sphere. It has been distributed widely to identify protestors in Hong Kong, monitor low income housing complexes, take advantage of those with addictions on the internet, and, as we’ve seen in the last four years, can become a major tool in swinging close elections via social media.

However, despite the cynicism all this generates, Kantayya’s greatest weapon is to zero in on the people fighting for our human rights. By simplifying its programming to math and probability, A.I. seems small compared to the colorful and honest personalities of those we meet on this dark journey. Joy Buolamwini, the Ghanaian-American who ignites this film, is brilliant and wise in her thesis but it’s her youthful spirit that shines the brightest.

And there are more just like her in the Algorithmic Justice League, as well as the Big Brother Watch in London. These fighters instill hope, and they are not the stiff white men who might come to mind when you think “scientist”—they are a mighty cast of female researchers who are not just altering A.I. programming, but the way we think of scientists and researchers.

Finally, Kantayya leaves us with hope. Not only from the people we meet, but from companies like IBM that understood and implemented the changes required. And then there are those in Congress who are beginning to intervene and take power from the tech companies that have gone too far.

Though the advancement of A.I. has progressed so quickly, it is still young, and it is not too far gone that we can’t find and fix these flaws. Kantayya tasks the audience to open our minds, accept new ideas, and not put blind faith in “Big Data” as we have begun to.

If you haven’t already experienced it, these scrappy young fighters taking on tech “Goliaths” is very similar to the sentiment of THE FIGHT, still playing in our Virtual Movie Palace. And although it’s no longer available on our site, if you get a chance to view PICTURE A SCIENTIST, wherever it might end up, it’s another worthy film that also asks you to reimagine what you think of when you hear the word “scientist”.

Now that our doors are closed once again, we hope you continue joining us in our Virtual Movie Palace on a weekly basis, and we thank you for your continued support of the Michigan & State Theatre. We have a lot of great titles ahead for you.

Have a great week!

Nick Alderink

Rent Coded Bias here!

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