We are a nation of masks — we repress our true feelings and protect our basic being. On the surface, we claim we are all equal and that skin color doesn’t matter and that technology is agnostic, non-atavistic, non-discriminatory and non-evangelistic. Today, we have been forced to know better by peeking out from behind our masks to divine the reality before us.

Technology is only as good as the people who program it and manufacture it for distribution.

There’s a YouTube video that has gone viral over the past week that demonstrates how an HP computer with “facial recognition” software will follow a White face but not a Black one; this performance is spectacular, damning and revealing:

Are HP computers discriminating against Blackness?

The obvious answer is, of course, “Yes!” — because we see what’s happening and the reason behind the technological Racism is simple to understand: This never would’ve happened if the HP engineers and testers had a single dark-skinned Black person on the team.

Here’s the standard PR mumbo-jumbo from HP on the matter:

We are working with our partners to learn more. The technology we use is built on standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose. We believe that the camera might have difficulty “seeing” contrast in conditions where there is insufficient foreground lighting.

That runaround from HP takes me back 15 years when I was teaching at a small, elite, New York college.

The college had invested millions of dollars in teleconferencing software and hardware so all the satellite campuses could regularly come together for faculty meetings and shared student events.

The company that created the technology was installing it at our school and students and faculty were invited to help test the connection between the main campus and our location. Our faculty and student population were mainly made up of minorities.

The three people on camera for the historic first teleconference broadcast were a light-skinned Asian student, a dark-skinned female Dean, and Lily-White me. We were sitting at a long table in front of traditional slate blackboard.

When the lights were turned on and the cameras were activated, the three of us began to show up on the monitor as we watched the main campus also come to life.

The lighting was so harsh that my skin was “tearing” on the video monitor, the Asian woman looked Black and the dark-skinned female Dean was completely missing — her skin tone and the blackness of the slate blackboard behind her had blended together rendering her completely invisible on camera.

It was an uncomfortable moment as someone on the main campus said into their microphone, “Where is the Dean? She disappeared!”

The Dean, sitting next to me, was waving and swaying back-and-forth to try to get noticed — and the only thing visible on camera was her pink suit as it appeared to be gently swaying in the breeze without her in it.

The all-White techs were going crazy trying to adjust the lights and the camera and their software — this was quickly turning into a multi-million dollar boondoggle — but nothing they did brought the Dean back from her invisible Blackness.

As the tension grew to painful levels, one student in the room had the guts to speak the truth out loud: “Guess they didn’t have any Black folk workin’ on this.”

Some of us smiled. The rest pretended they didn’t hear the plain truth.

A more valuable lesson was never learned in the face of a million dollar disappointment as it was proven how technological Racism can have institutional births.

7 Comments

  1. It’s quite amazing how oblivious companies can be to things that are, well, so fundamental — ignoring an entire part of their purchasing demographic, for example!

  2. It’s just so obvious the HP test team is filled with light-skinned people, Gordon, or this never would have happened. When you’re dealing with face recognition technology, you have to be especially keen to be sensitive to all shapes, sizes and colors of faces — even though that may be disfigured by war or disease. You also have to be extremely careful to test as many of those different faces as possible before even thinking of releasing that personal software into the raw wilds of the real world!