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Tina Casey headshot

In the Techno-Racism Fight, Quitting Is Not Good Enough

By Tina Casey

IBM staked out the high ground over facial recognition last summer, when the company dropped its interest in the technology and warned of the potential for racial bias and human rights abuses. Now IBM is taking the so-named techno-racism fight to a wider arena, with new programs aimed at ensuring a more diverse pipeline of talent for the technology sector.

Techno-racism and the tech industry

The lack of diversity in the U.S. tech industry is a well-known phenomenon, and facial recognition has underscored how bias within the tech company walls can spill into society at large, whether intentional or not.

Earlier this week, CNN took a deep dive into the topic and presented several aspects of the issue.

One leading problem is the application of facial recognition technology to law enforcement. Facial recognition algorithms can be mistaken, and they have been shown to make far more mistakes in identifying people of color and women.

Among other studies, CNN cited a report on more than 100 facial recognition algorithms by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The researchers found that algorithms “falsely identified African American and Asian faces 10 to 100 times more than Caucasian faces.”


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Another problem is the application of facial recognition technology to financial applications and other important transactions. Mistakes can lead to rejection and other life-changing complications based on false identification, with people of color and women more at risk than white males.

In a related issue, the CNN report also described how bias in algorithms can be rooted in flawed data. Mutale Nkonde, founder of the nonprofit organization AI For People, describes one risk assessment algorithm based on “historical data from a period when Black people could not own property.”

Facial recognition technology: quitting is not enough

When IBM publicly canceled its facial recognition program last summer, its CEO, Arvind Krishna, made it clear that wiping its own slate clean was not a solution.

In a letter to Congress dated June 8, 2020, Krishna noted that former IBM President Thomas J. Watson, Jr. vigorously affirmed the company’s stand on equal opportunity in a letter to employees 70 years ago. However, Krishna cited the murder of George Floyd and other recent instances of racially biased violence in policing to make the point that Watson’s proclamation had little to no impact on racism in America.

Krishna underscored how these broader concerns factored into IBM’s decision to drop the technology. While avoiding lawsuits was probably a concern, it is overplayed by fundamental human rights issues.

“IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software. IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency,” Krishna wrote.

The need for national action

Krishna also emphasized the importance of addressing the issue on a national basis in order to foster progress.

The four years of the Trump administration have underscored the importance of a national, far-reaching effort.

For all the progress over the generations, structural racism is still deeply embedded in the institutions of the United States, and Trump’s tenure in office further underscored the fragility of progress on race in America.

Even as business leaders responded to the Black Lives Matter movement with renewed efforts on diversity training, last fall the Trump administration moved to ban certain types of training from federal agencies and federal contractors alike.

More recently, Republican legislators in various states have been chasing the red herring of critical race theory, a scholarly pursuit that analyzes elements of racial bias embedded in legal systems. State-based Republican lawmakers are also attempting to keep The 1619 Project out of schools (a publication of The New York Times, the 1619 Project describes the foundational role of slavery in American history).

How business leaders can lead the fight against techno-racism

Krishna’s letter provides other business leaders with a roadmap for creating widespread social impact.

“IBM would like to work with Congress in pursuit of justice and racial equity, focused initially in three key policy areas: police reform, responsible use of technology, and broadening skills and educational opportunities,” Krishna wrote.

The educational area is particularly important because it can lead to a new, more diverse generation of creators, innovators, and decision makers in the tech industry.

Although diversity hiring may not eliminate internal bias, the participation of diverse voices can make a difference, as Krishna himself demonstrates.

“We need to create more open and equitable pathways for all Americans to acquire marketable skills and training, and the need is particularly acute in communities of color,” Krishna explained. “At IBM, we see an urgent demand for what we call ‘new collar’ jobs, which require specialized skills but not necessarily a traditional 4-year college degree.”

Expanding the talent pipeline

Krishna cited IBM’s P-TECH initiative for providing high school students access to no-cost associates degrees in STEM fields.

This year, IBM is building on the program in partnership with Miami Dade College (MDC). The school has the largest undergraduate enrollment of any college or university in the U.S. and enrolls more Hispanic undergraduate students than any other. MDC also has the third largest Black undergraduate enrollment in the nation.

As described by MDC, the partners will “collaborate on a joint mission to enable students of diverse backgrounds and experiences to have access to strategic skills necessary to help them succeed in a rapidly changing workplace.”

The IBM collaboration supports MDC’s partnership with the “Data Science for All” diversity initiative of the data literacy firm Correlation One. With the support of IBM, the school will expand its course offerings in the tech area including artificial intelligence, cloud computing, cybersecurity and quantum computing.

Last month, IBM also joined with Citi, Justworks, FanDuel, fuboTV, Meetup, Datadog, VTS, Giant Machines, Infinia ML, Chubb, Cvent and Wunderkind to relaunch a coding bootcamp hosted by the Flatiron School in New York City.

The boot camp is funded through the school’s John Stanley Ford Fellowship program. IBM and the other firms have each committed to hiring at least two Black alumni of the program on a paid apprenticeship basis. The program includes a mentoring regimen followed by opportunities to interview for full-time positions.

Brand reputation and the fight against techno-racism

IBM itself has seen first-hand the lingering reputational impacts that can occur when technology falls into the wrong hands. As detailed in a controversial 2001 book, the company's machines and expertise were deployed by the Nazis to horrific effect during World War II and the years leading up to the war.

When the racial impact of facial recognition technology began to come into focus several years ago, IBM waffled at first. In 2019, the company proposed a “precision regulation” approach in support of its facial recognition programs.

The murder of George Floyd sparked a renewed examination of structural racism in America last year, and IBM traded in its tweezers for a sledgehammer. In addition to enabling creation of a more powerful diversity hiring pipeline, the company has also lobbied in support of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021.

As another summer approaches, the issue of police violence continues to fester. Companies that seek to make a real difference should follow IBM’s lead and act strategically on challenges such as techno-racism by supporting programs and policies that can have a national impact.

Image credit: Lianhao Qu/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey