Black women, AI, and overcoming historical patterns of abuse
After a 2019 research paper demonstrated that commercially available facial analysis tools fail to work for women with dark skin, AWS executives went on the attack. Instead of offering up more equitable performance results or allowing the federal government to assess their algorithm like other companies with facial recognition tech have done, AWS executives attempted to discredit study coauthors Joy Buolamwini and Deb Raji in multiple blog posts. More than 70 respected AI researchers rebuked this attack, defended the study, and called on Amazon to stop selling the technology to police, a position the company temporarily adopted last year after the death of George Floyd.
But according to the Abuse and Misogynoir Playbook, published earlier this year by a trio of MIT researchers, Amazon’s attempt to smear two Black women AI researchers and discredit their work follows a set of tactics that have been used against Black women for centuries. Moya Bailey coined the term “misogynoir” in 2010 as a portmanteau of “misogyny” and “noir.” Playbook coauthors Katlyn Turner, Danielle Wood, and Catherine D’Ignazio say these tactics were also used to disparage former Ethical AI team co-lead Timnit Gebru after Google fired her in late 2020 and stress that it’s a pattern engineers and data scientists need to recognize.
The Abuse and Misogynoir Playbook is part of the State of AI report from the Montreal AI Ethics Institute and was compiled by MIT professors in response to Google’s treatment of Gebru, a story VentureBeat has covered in depth. The coauthors hope that recognition of the phenomena will prove a first step in ensuring these tactics are no longer used against Black women. Last May, VentureBeat wrote about a fight for the soul of machine learning, highlighting ties between white supremacy and companies like Banjo and Clearview AI, as well as calls for reform from many in the industry, including prominent Black women.
MIT assistant professor Danielle Wood, whose work focuses on justice and space research, told VentureBeat it’s important to recognize that the tactics outlined in the Abuse and Misogynoir Playbook can be used in almost any arena. She noted that while some cling to a belief in the impartiality of data-driven results, the AI field is in no way exempt from this problem.