Racism and Bias at the Dawn of AI

Racism is arguably the most perplexing and frustratingly difficult issue to confront in American society. The belief that black people are inherently inferior and that white people are inherently superior is woven into our collective American consciousness. From the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 to the modern-day goal of integration, racism has been an integral part of the American experience. Now we are approaching the age of artificial intelligence where the specter of algorithms, robots, and machines looms ominously over an American public still grappling with unresolved issues of inequality, injustice, and what it means to be human.

Andrew Yang and Universal Basic Income.

In 2018, a fresh political face entered the 2020 presidential race with a warning of the impact artificial intelligence will have on the American industry and labor. Andrew Yang, a former lawyer, and tech investor warned that, in the very near future and across a vast number of industries, human labor will be replaced by AI-powered robots and machines. The Democratic candidate predicted that the demand for human labor will be so diminished that a universal basic income (a guaranteed monthly government stipend to furnish basic needs) will be required for every American to offset the impact of AI on these sectors. Andrew Yang’s candidacy and his platform brought to the attention of the American public a picture of the coming power and permanence of artificial intelligence.

The Human Factor.

Yet, many Americans are unaware of this rapidly advancing technology and its potential for societal disruption. From a 2018 Brookings Institution publication, Jessica Harris writes,

Today, AI generally is thought to refer to “machines that respond to stimulation consistent with traditional responses from humans, given the human capacity for contemplation, judgment, and intention.” According to researchers Shubhendu and Vijay, these software systems “make decisions which normally require [a] human level of expertise” and help people anticipate problems or deal with issues as they come up. As argued by John Allen and myself in an April 2018 paper, such systems have three qualities that constitute the essence of artificial intelligence: intentionality, intelligence, and adaptability.

The author went on to warn of the potential dangers of the technology,

I discuss these qualities and why it is important to make sure each accords with basic human values. Each of the AI features has the potential to move civilization forward in progressive ways. But without adequate safeguards or the incorporation of ethical considerations, the AI utopia can quickly turn into dystopia.

AI and Big Brother.

Meanwhile, America sits at a crossroads as to which way it will proceed. Is this country, amidst the future fortunes, promised convenience, and potential perils of AI, willing to tackle the difficult societal issues required for a continuing democracy? And is our society capable of the change necessary to give this country a final shot at a more equal and just society before entering an age where computers and algorithms may have the final say? The time to choose may already be running out.

A 2020 article from The Atlantic entitled, “The Panopticon Is Already Here,” chronicles China’s leader, Xi Jinping’s, planned use of artificial intelligence to achieve universal surveillance in China. The article also documents the leader’s plan for AI technology that can potentially crush political dissent,

Artificial intelligence has applications in nearly every human domain, from the instant translation of spoken language to early viral-outbreak detection. But Xi also wants to use AI’s awesome analytical powers to push China to the cutting edge of surveillance. He wants to build an all-seeing digital system of social control, patrolled by precog algorithms that identify potential dissenters in real-time.

Big Data. Little Understanding.

In America, predictably, cries of foul are already being hurled at some police departments’ alleged misuse of artificial intelligence. An MIT Technology Review article from July 2020, entitled, “Predictive Police Algorithms are Racist,” documents how algorithms are allegedly fed skewed police data, which then spews out what the article refers to as a racist crime predictor report. According to the article,

There are two broad types of predictive policing tool. Location-based algorithms draw on links between places, events, and historical crime rates to predict where and when crimes are more likely to happen — for example, in certain weather conditions or at large sporting events. The tools identify hot spots and the police plan patrols around these tip-offs. One of the most common, called PredPol, which is used by dozens of cities in the US, breaks locations up into 500-by-500 foot blocks and updates its predictions throughout the day — a kind of crime weather forecast.

The problem lies with the data the algorithms feed upon. For one thing, predictive algorithms are easily skewed by arrest rates. According to the US Department of Justice figures, you are more than twice as likely to be arrested if you are Black than if you are white. A Black person is five times as likely to be stopped without just cause as a white person.

He’s Not a Data Model. He’s My Brother.

When it comes to computers, no matter how sophisticated or advanced the technology, the old adage applies: garbage in, garbage out. As the writer from the Brookings article warned, without adequate safeguards or the incorporation of ethical considerations, the AI utopia can quickly turn into dystopia. The input of data and its potential manipulation will determine whether an algorithm is a service or a disservice. Ethical people capable of fair and unbiased evaluations are crucial for this coming responsibility. Algorithms powering skewed data put in place by racist, biased, unethical, or even incompetent people have the potential to erase societal gains and doom future generations to a life of automated oppression. What is needful at the dawn of this fourth industrial revolution is our ability, as a society, to embrace the full, intrinsic value of our individual and collective humanity; a value that may one day be factored into an algorithm.

Still, automation creeps closer thus making our continued fight to end racism and bias evermore urgent. We must achieve the ability to see the full human value of our fellow Americans and our fellow man in order to meet the demands of the coming age of AI. A tall order, indeed. Yet, If we are successful, we can prevent the downloading of racism and bias into an automated future which, in the end, may lock us all out.

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Tyrone R. Crowder

Tyrone R. Crowder

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Writer, former teacher and producer of The Human Story of America Podcast; a history podcast dedicated to Millennials seeking dialogue which inform and inspire.