Image of Joy Buolamwini's silhouette against bright lights.

The World is Programmed to Leave People Out

She’s Rewriting the Code

March 2, 2020

When she discovered racial and gender bias in major A.I. software, Joy set out on a mission to fight for algorithmic justice.

Portrait

Joy Buolamwini | Computer Scientist and A.I. Researcher | Atlanta, US

MASTER OF ALL TRADES

When she’s not advising Congress, performing spoken word, or giving TED Talks on artificial intelligence, Joy Buolamwini likes playing guitar…and dreaming of a second career in Olympic pole vaulting. We’d expect no less from a woman bent on redefining the categories that run our world.

Computers captured Joy’s imagination at a young age. She remembers stealing sessions on the computers in her dad’s office lab, building robots, and spending whole days holed up in the public library, building Geocities websites. Joy saw worlds emerging on that screen—worlds she wanted to be a part of shaping.

WHEN COMPUTERS ARE PREJUDICED

Joy’s talent for tech has taken her places few have gone, and even fewer women, at that. After graduating with a degree in Computer Science from Georgia Institute of Technology, Joy went on to conduct research at Oxford University and MIT, picking up a host of coveted academic awards—the Rhodes, Fulbright, and Aspen Scholarships, to name a few.

Yet despite all her academic recognition, there was one arena where Joy was, disturbingly, not getting recognized. One of her projects at MIT involved showing a computer a series of human faces to analyze. The computer did fine, until it reached her and failed to recognize her face. Joy changed her expression, turned on a lamp, took off her glasses…but time and again, the computer struggled to detect her. It wasn’t until Joy donned a pale, plastic mask with conventionally “White” facial features, that the computer was finally able to recognize her as “human.”

“Having to put on a white mask to have my face detected...led me to questions about identity in my work.”

This was a turning point for Joy. As the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, she knew just how grave the consequences of this “minor computer glitch” could be for people of color—particularly Black and Brown women. Facial recognition technology is used widely by law enforcement, healthcare, and major tech companies to make decisions on anything from hiring, to college loans, to even jail time. Yet a whole group of people were falling through the cracks. Racial and gender bias was getting built into social systems. And Joy was not okay with that.

RECODING THE WORLD

Since that fateful experiment, Joy has been on a mission to fight the faulty algorithms that run our world. In 2016, she founded the ​Algorithmic Justice League​, a non-profit collective that empowers coders, activists, and tech companies to build more inclusive and ethical facial recognition software. She’s penned op-eds for ​TIME Magazine​ and the ​New York Times.​ She’s even sat on advisory boards at US Congressional hearings.

Joy’s showing no signs of stopping, either. As a writer of both code and spoken-word poetry, Joy’s created performance pieces on A.I. bias that have been featured in museums across the nation. And Coded Bias,​ a documentary featuring her story, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year. That’s a long way to travel, from “just a girl interested in computers,” to someone widely known as “the conscience of the A.I. revolution.”

“I inspire the next generation to recode the worlds we need.”

WORDS OF WISDOM

To girls:
Even if you don’t necessarily see an example that looks like you, believe in yourself and push for what you really want to do. And don’t let other people make you feel that you have to suppress some part of yourself to fit their box.

To women in the world:
You’re brilliant. You’re excellent. We need you. Look what happens when we’re not in the frame.

To the world:
Never stop dreaming of a better world, and take the steps to make it happen.

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