Can Technology Be Biased? This Beauty Contest Reveals How Much

 

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Before I start, allow me to thank you all for your super interesting comments on last week’s post.   I love hearing and learning from all of you!

And now for our regularly scheduled program…:)

For about a year I’ve come across a few stories about beauty contests being judged by robots, that is Artificial Intelligence.   By measuring people’s (let’s face it, women’s) facial structures these robots can accurately determine beauty.  And given the judges are robots versus actual humans, we assume that the judgements are devoid of cultural or ethnic biases.  I’ve read these stories with mild interest.  But this time, a recent story stuck with me…and not in a good way.

I’m sure such a contest raises a whole host of issues for many of you.  First, I imagine many of you oppose such contests — humans or no humans as judges.  How can one judge beauty anyway?  Second, so much of physical beauty emanates from within.  I’m not talking about inner beauty.  That’s a whole other subject.  I’m talking about the energy, the light, the passion that springs forth from someone making then either more or less beautiful.  Can a robot really judge that?

But those issues aside, my biggest concern with this contest is what is conveys about technology as a whole.  The results of these contests showed how actually, how terribly biased A.I. can be!

According to this article in NextWeb, the contest drew over 6,000 applications from across 100 countries. And despite the obvious diversity of beauty that the robots were exposed to, out of the 44 winners, only a few were Asian, one was black, and the rest were white.  None had dark skin.

WTF!

Are the foolproof “complex algorithms” that biased?  I’m afraid so.  How can that be?  Easy.  A human being has designed them that way.  And that’s pretty scary.

I’m not saying the engineers behind the algorithms intentionally developed them to be pro white.  It’s just that bias is going to inevitable when the majority of the brilliant brains behind the development of technology are of a certain gender, ethnic background or culture.  No matter how much we try to rid ourselves of our biases, it’s super, super hard to erase the ones we don’t even know we have.

If technology can be biased when it comes to beauty, could it also be biased when it comes to truly understanding the user and what s/he needs?  Or can it be biased with regards to places on the map or particular destinations?  You get the point.

So what do we do?  It’s not a new news that we should push harder for diversity our work places.  It makes for diversity of thought and ideas.  But it goes deeper than that.  Diversity ensures that the seemingly “judge-free,” non-biased technologies we create actually hold up to that expectation.  When humans are led by their biases, we forgive them.  Because, well, it’s “human” not to be perfect.  But technology shouldn’t make mistakes, right?  It can’t be biased.  So if technology, or in this case A.I., declares someone fit or beautiful or smart, well then it must be so!    And the result?  People deem the seemingly unbiased robots as arbiters of truth.

I’m not the first person to call for more diversity.  It’s a MUST.  But I’m also calling on all of us to challenge our notions of how “smart” our technology really is.  Believe me, I LOVE technology.  I’m benefiting from it in all aspects of my life, and, most, importantly in my job.  But let’s realize that behind all technology are human beings.  This recognition should mostly strike a sense of admiration in human kind. After all it takes a buttload of brilliance to be creating the amazing technology we have, and will have in the coming years.  But it should also open our eyes to that fact that technology isn’t fool proof, totally unbiased or “right” all the time.

Let’s remember, human beings are the smartest, most elegant and beautiful “machines” that exist.  We are complex, emotional and gorgeous in so many diverse ways.  We don’t need a technology-driven beauty contest to prove that.

Sexism, Searches & SEO: Time for a RESET

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This is a screen grab from my good friend and creative partner, Rudi Anggono’s, phone. He sent it to me the same night I announced the relaunch of my site via last week’s post. His email message to me, entitled “bias,” was the following:

I was googling your new site but halfway typing, check out the screen grab. “Husband” before “speaker”. We have to do something about this.

This is not the first time someone has mentioned this to me. I usually just crack up. You see, my husband is the LEAST likely to indulge in social media. The last thing he wants is to have any sort of presence online (unlike me, of course 😉 lol).

But Rudi has a point. And I love him for caring. You see Google search results reflect the popularity of a search term. That is, the more searched a term, the higher up on the search list it will appear. So, the fact that “abigail posner husband” appears before “abigail posner speaker” means more people are searching for information about my love life than they are about my speaking. Hmmmm.

I have to confess, there’s a part of me which is kinda flattered. Someone is intrigued enough to want to know about my love life? But, really, I’m just buying into the same sexism that Rudi is pointing to.

No matter how evolved we are, we STILL think it’s ok to demean women by focusing on their femininity, appearance or love lives over their accomplishments.

A few months ago BuzzFeed came out with the story, “If The Media Wrote About Theresa May’s Husband The Way They Write About Samantha Cameron,” perfectly highlighting this point. The article spoofs the inordinate amount of time media focuses on political figures’ wives, and their attire. The article gives examples with pictures and video clips of Phillip May accompanied by headlines such as: “Philip May shows off his tiny waist in a navy blue two-piece,” or “Phillip May shows off his adventurous side. with a light blue tie for another day at the Conservative Party Conference,” or “And maybe they’ll just wax lyrical about his trendsetting way but remind him he’s so much more than a sharp suit.”  No question the story is hilarious, but kinda sad too.

And here’s a less entertaining example.  Again, I give credit to Rudi for enlightening me about this one. The Washington Post published an article about the amazing victory of Olympiad Hungarian swimmer, Katinka Hosszu.  But the focus of the article wasn’t her win but rather the major faux pas by NBC telecaster Dan Hicks as he credited her coach-husband with the victory.  At the same time, the news media kept displaying images of her “cute” husband and Twitter was alight with tweets but all about HIM! Katinka can’t win…well, at least not in the media.

If you want the media to focus on your own beauty, fashion or romantic accomplishments, great! I have no problem with that.  After all, I love beauty and fashion. And who doesn’t love romance!? But if you’re someone who doesn’t want to be defined FIRST by that, today’s culture — along with my search results — is showing we may have a challenge.

But there’s hope.  Because what this last example of Katinka also shows that WE — the public — can voice our opinion about our culture’s screwy values.  Twitter lit up like bon fire after Hicks’s comment with angry tweets, like:

“Hosszu smashes the world record in the 400 IM. Camera pans up to her husband. Dan Hick:”There’s the man responsible!” Unbelievable”

Whether it’s by posting view via Twitter or spending more time searching in Google about people’s substance versus their relationship status or latest outfit, we can actually push for change. The very channels we criticize for reinforcing these values, are also the ones that bring them to light and can be the source for change.

I’m glad people are interested in my husband. He’s an amazing man and has had a tremendous impact on my life. But he’s first person to see me for who I am — a mother, a thinker, a Googler, a blogger, and friend, not for who I’m married to. I hope you all feel the same :).

9/11, A Case for Beauty & My Return

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This is my first post since June. For those of you who follow my posts on Beautyskew, you know this is unusual. I tend to post at least once per week. Not once every few months.

Where was I all this time?

And why am I posting today of all days?

The reason for my hiatus isn’t a bad one. I wasn’t terribly overworked or recovering from some illness. On the contrary! I had a wonderful summer full of fun, travel and first-time experiences. I was “quiet” because I decided to expand my online presence from Beautyskew.com to a full site, abigailposner.com, of which Beautyskew is a part. And this meant me spending time on site development versus writing. The new site allows me to share some other sides to myself while also sharing my love for beauty in culture. ( Check it out and let me know what you think. :))

Man, I missed writing so I’m thrilled to be back!

Why did I choose today, the anniversary of the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil, to post? I post about beauty, after all. What a terrible, ugly, day to post about something so wonderful, right?

I remember 9/11 as if it were yesterday. I was living a few blocks above Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, and I had given birth to my first son, Elijah, only 14 days earlier. Had it been any other year, I would have walked to work that day. And I would have seen one of the planes flying very low overhead in preparation for the first strike. Instead I was going back to sleep after one of my son’s many morning feedings. No sooner had my head hit the pillow that my brother called me all the way from Israel. He had heard about the attack before I had. I rushed to turn on the TV and saw the images of the Twin Towers in flames.

Needless to say, I spent almost my entire maternity leave with one eye glued to the news in horror. But my other eye was focused on my son as I joyfully watched my new beautiful baby grow.

I’m sure you all have memories of that day — and they may be far worse than mine.

So why am I returning to post about beauty TODAY? It’s moments like this when we must remember that there is beauty in the world. And even more importantly, that we have the potential to create even more of it. The Freedom Tower isn’t just a memorial, or a sign to the world that we’ve persevered. It’s an example of our human capacity for brilliance, beauty and craft. Creating things of beauty, especially on top of ugliness, shows human beings’ amazing sense of imagination and our ability to make things better. And it’s this knowledge of our own agency — the belief that we have the power to make manifest our visions of beauty and creativity — that can overcome our feelings of helplessness, anger, and shame, i.e., the very feelings that push so many towards acts of hatred.

15 years later (and two more children for me :)), I’m not saying we shouldn’t mourn. We must. But let’s also remember that there’s beauty, and more importantly, the potential for beauty, all around us. And by recognizing, sharing and creating more of it, we can create a more just, humane and lovely world.