'Racist' A.I. Denies New Zealand Passport Application

An incident involving a government artificial intelligence has highlighted the need for scrutiny around future system design. Richard Lee, a 22-year-old engineering student from New Zealand, had his passport application denied by an A.I. that decided his eyes were closed. Lee, who is of Asian descent, had his eyes open.

“No hard feelings on my part, I’ve always had very small eyes and facial recognition technology is relatively new and unsophisticated,” Lee said. “It was a robot, no hard feelings. I got my passport renewed in the end.” The computer recognized Lee’s eyes on the second attempt, and the error was blamed on uneven lighting in the original picture.

After sharing it on his Facebook, Lee’s friends described the error as racist. But Lee himself did not consider the error racist. “Like it’s obviously a programming error,” he said.

Although an error, the story highlights an important aspect of A.I. design. If Silicon Valley isn’t careful, the growing use of A.I. could lead to a world of systems subject to flaws like the ones in the New Zealand passport photo, where the concerns of minority citizens are not considered in the pursuit of a “one size fits most” solution.

It’s an issue that’s arisen with previous A.I. applications. In September, Beauty A.I. ran its second internationa beauty pageant judged entirely by computer. However, just one of the 44 winners was of a darker skin color. Similarly, Microsoft’s TayTweets A.I. chatbot quickly started posting racist tweets, soon after the app went live in March.

On the other hand, A.I. can present the opportunity to redesign our world and reduce racial biases in the process. At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in London on Monday, Google DeepMind’s Mustafa Suleyman said that A.I. offers the opportunity to reshape society along new lines, giving the change to “rebuild our world our world with fewer of those biases.” These changes will take a conscious effort, though, and it’s easy for a complacent tech industry to ignore these concerns and continue without regard for minority concerns.

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