Race to the Future? – Dr. Ruha Benjamin

I really enjoyed an online lecture I attended last night by Dr. Ruha Benjamin, discussing the intersection between race and technology.

I’ve been listening to a lot of talks about race this past year, and this has been one of the best. Honestly, a lot of people who work in academics or research give talks that are very high-level and more than a bit dry. But this talk was not. Dr. Benjamin is an incredibly gifted storyteller and she had me hanging on every word, wanting to hear more.

Some of what she talked about intersects with the content in the talks I’ve been giving over the past couple years on the ethics of tech — topics such as hostile architecture, and how algorithms are never neutral because they are built on human biases. But she also hit on a lot of things that were new to me.

One really interesting thing she brought up that I had never heard of was this article that was published in 1957. The article said that slavery is coming back… but it will be robot slaves that we will own. Is this coming true, or has it come true? Why do we need to think of technology as humans that serve at our command (Siri, Alexa, et al)? How does our perception of race play into that?

That article ends with a chilling warning (reminder, this is from 1957) that someday we will be able to place radios in people’s brains, perhaps making possible the “control and enslavement of entire nations.” And yet the author concludes that “good seems to outweigh evil in the case of the robots.”

Technology does and will make many things possible, but when we look at the amazing technological advances of today, how often are our dreams built on the nightmares of others? The technological advancements that save us labor are built on the cheap labor of others — and whether or not they look like us, we do think of them as “others.”

If you’re interested in race and technology, there’s a recording of Dr. Benjamin’s lecture from last night.

She also has a book out called Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code.

Posted in Uncategorized

AI Training Data Isn’t Neutral

MIT just deleted a huge dataset used for training AI because the dataset contained image labels with racist and misogynistic slurs. This type of dataset is used to “teach” other software what words to use when labeling photos.

Racism and misogyny are built into our society. Software is created by humans, so racism and misogyny are frequently built into software that we create. Perhaps not intentionally, but that doesn’t matter when you look at the results.

How much software has been “taught” by this dataset to label photos of Black people with the n-word? (Yes, it’s in there.)

The dataset has been in use since 2008. It was built by a university, so people thought they could trust it. They were wrong. If you are creating software, you can’t just assume that any third-party data, libraries, etc. are okay, no matter how reputable the source.

Posted in Uncategorized

National Indigenous Peoples Day

Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, where Canadian politicians say how pleased they are that Canada doesn’t have systemic racism like the United States. (Spoiler alert: they’re wrong.)

Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, where 61 First Nations communities still can’t get clean drinking water from their taps. The Neskantaga First Nation has had a boil-water advisory for 25 years so far.

Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, where an indigenous person is more than 10 times more likely to be killed by police than a white person.

Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, where the rate of homicides for indigenous women/girls is seven times higher than for other females. Many other indigenous women just disappear. Often, the police don’t bother to look for them.

Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, where from the 19th century until the 1980s, more than 150,000 children were stolen from their families and placed in residential schools to “to kill the Indian in the child.” Many were abused. Some died.

Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, where in the 1950s to 1980s, 20,000 indigenous children were take from their families and adopted out to white families. This is generational trauma that will be passed down through families.

Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, where everyone gets free (single-payer) health care, but First Nations children often don’t get the care they need because the provincial and federal governments argue about who is supposed to pay for it.

Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, where indigenous people have to fight the government with protests and blockades to try to keep oil pipelines off their traditional and sacred land.

Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, where we spend one day a year talking about indigenous people. It’s not enough.

Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada. I became a Canadian citizen last year and I’m also a U.S. citizen. Both countries need to recognize and eradicate racism against their indigenous people. I need to do better and we all need to do better.

Posted in Uncategorized

Black Lives Matter

I grieve with you, Minneapolis.

And I wanted to share this that I posted on social media earlier in response to someone’s comment. This is for anyone who hears “Black Lives Matter” and responds with “all lives matter” and that we can solve racism by simply not looking at color:

People have ALWAYS looked at skin color and treated people differently. The whole point of Black Lives Matter is that we (all of us) need to acknowledge that people are being treated differently depending on their skin color by those in power. We can’t just pretend that racism doesn’t exist. George Floyd wouldn’t have been murdered if he had been white.

Black people are angry because they have been treated as lesser people for the entire time that they have lived on this continent. For the past 400 years they have been told, over and over, that their lives don’t matter. They are tired of it, and are speaking out to tell those in power that their lives DO matter. The rest of us need to support them if we expect to ever live in a world where people are equal. Because right now it sure isn’t equal.

Please read: Here’s Why It Hurts When People Say, “All Lives Matter” and All Lives Matter: A racist response to a race problem in America.

Posted in Uncategorized