Meet the Computer Genius Decoding Racial and Gender Bias in Tech

Photo Credit: The Feminist Portfolio/Tom Lindboe

Joy Buolamwini is on a mission to make the world of data, coding, and AI more inclusive.  

Joy Buolamwini calls herself a “poet of code.” This 31-year-old Ghanaian-American isn’t just an influential computer data scientist. She’s also using poetry to shine a light on how computer technology and artificial intelligence (AI) can perpetuate injustices of racism, sexism, and ableism.

Search engines are designed to serve up whatever’s most popular, and Buolamwini’s research points out how that can lead to certain groups of people becoming more marginalized — even on the web.  

“Poets give voice to hidden and ignored truths — they articulate and illuminate our shared humanity,” Buolamwini tells KCM. “As a poet of code, I give voice to the biases and harms of technology that can often be buried under assumptions of machine neutrality.” 

Buolamwini founded her company, Algorithmic Justice League, to prevent digital bias and to hold tech companies and policymakers accountable. Her mission? To raise public awareness about the dangers of relying on computer technology or search engines to show us, for example, what a “beautiful woman” looks like. “If you have a face, you have a place in the conversation about coded bias and AI systems that increasingly shape our lives,” she says. 

That’s why Buolamwini was a natural fit to partner with Olay on the brand’s #DecodeTheBias campaign. The campaign wants to literally “decode” exclusionary biases in AI and computer data while working to double the number of women working in STEM. 

“The #DecodeTheBias campaign tackles two issues that are very important to me: Coded bias through exclusionary representation in beauty imagery, and the need to create more equitable opportunities for young girls of color, especially in the STEM fields,” says Buolamwini. “I remember being a little girl and being teased for my dark skin and being told I wasn’t the standard of beauty, so having the opportunity to be a face that young girls can relate to is incredible.”

Below, we caught up with the computer-coding activist to learn more about her mission, her work so far, and her vision for the future. 

KCM: How would you describe your mission?

I’m the daughter of an artist and a scientist, and those two themes animate my approach to the Algorithmic Justice League, which combines art and research to illuminate the social implications and harms of artificial intelligence. We work to raise public awareness about the impact of AI, increase accountability in the use of AI, and reduce AI harms in society that often arise from coded bias. You can learn more about our work in the film Coded Bias, which is currently on Netflix. 

What inspired you to found the Algorithmic Justice League and what are AJL’s goals for the future?

I’ve always had a founder’s spirit. In high school, I had a web design company that helped me pay for equipment for basketball, track, and cross-country. In college, I co-founded a haircare technology company that analyzed hair and gave personal recommendations. As a Fulbright fellow In Zambia, I started an organization to teach girls how to code, and by the time I went to grad school at MIT, I had the experience and confidence to start the Algorithmic Justice League, to create an organization unlike any other that combines art, academic research, and advocacy to fight for the “ex-coded” or those harmed by AI.

I’m looking forward to building a phenomenal team of artists, advocates, academics, and troublemakers of all kinds who believe in the vision of creating a world where technology works well for all of us, not just the privileged few.

What’s your hope in partnering with Olay’s #DecodetheBias campaign? Why is it personal to you?

I was drawn to Olay because of their commitment to closing the STEM gap — the brand is committed to doubling the number of women in STEM, and tripling the number of women of color in STEM by 2030. And I’m proud to work with a brand that’s taking real action to empower the next generation of girls in code, and celebrating both intellect and beauty.

What have been the most surprising findings you’ve learned through the #DecodetheBias campaign?

What might be surprising to many people is how data, computer code, and AI play a role in reinforcing exclusionary beauty standards and excluding women of color. Let’s take a look at search engines: Generally speaking, search engines are optimized to present what is most popular. That means that representations of dominant groups generally make it to the top of the stack. That’s why, if you search for “beautiful face” or “beautiful skin,” you’ll see results that are lacking women of color. This is showing girls that what’s considered “beautiful” may not be representative of them. 

We also see this exclusion in certain beauty filters and apps. For example, many filters on social media apps skew toward lightening skin and slimming the nose — features it has identified as “more beautiful” by Western or European standards. These filters often use a form of artificial intelligence that’s trained on face datasets that aren’t representative of a more diverse definition of beauty. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the power to #DecodetheBias and approach the design of algorithmic systems differently to ensure all perspectives and all types of beauty are included.

What’s your hope for the future as it relates to AI, computer code, women in STEM, and our collective understanding of what “beauty” looks like?

My hope is that brands like Olay will step up to help change the STEM gender gap, and through that effort, we can create a digital world — AI and computer code — that’s more representative of us all. I also hope to see a more diverse and inclusive standard of beauty in which there is not one, but many, representations of what is “beautiful.” I believe that when we have greater inclusion in the field of computer science, we can help achieve this. That’s why I’m so excited that Olay is sending 1,000 girls of color to coding camp, with Black Girls CODE. And you can help us out! Use the hashtag #DecodetheBias on IG and Twitter to help us send even more girls to code camp. I really commend Olay for holding up the mirror to an industry that they’re a part of, raising the issue, and then taking actions to be part of the solution.