It’s not a secret that Black women in the labor force are paid less, hold fewer senior-level positions, and participate less in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). According to the National Science Foundation, women make up 47% of the current workforce but only 28% of the science and engineering workforce. Of this percentage, Black women comprise less than 5 percent.
With the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology, we have to ask: What will tomorrow’s labor market look like for Black women? More importantly, are we effectively harnessing the power of AI technology to narrow gender and racial equality gaps, or are we allowing these gaps to widen?
We can look at the design of seat belts, headrests, and airbags. Since the 1950s, design specifications were made just for men’s bodies. At the time, men were the primary drivers. As a result, women suffered serious bodily injuries and even died at a higher rate in car accidents. It wasn’t until 2022 that auto manufacturers finally got the memo that they should conduct testing with women’s proportions to make driving safer for everyone. When we talk about the power of inclusion, this is an example that may not even cross our minds. However, it’s why every industry needs to prioritize it, especially technology.
There’s a tremendous opportunity with AI to center diversity and equity. For example, everything from ensuring photo recognition picks up on deeper skin tones to creating auto-correct functions on our phones that include broader gender terms. In the real estate market, AI capabilities can help build a more inclusive society by eliminating racially restrictive language from property deeds.
We learned a long time ago that machines aren’t perfect. They make mistakes, just like people do. These mistakes can risk the health and safety of Black women. Let’s face it – technology is given the task of guessing the gender of a face. Yet, for darker-skinned women, error rates have been over 30 percent. AI systems from leading companies have failed to correctly classify the faces of Oprah, Michelle Obama, and Serena Williams. When technology vilifies even these iconic women, it is time to reevaluate how these systems are built and who they serve.
We know that bias is an unavoidable truth in life. The result gives us a limited view of the world. But social bias can be reflected by AI in dangerous ways, whether it be in deciding who gets a bank loan or who gets surveilled.
A friend of mine that works in technology says that computer programs “learn” from the previous activity that is inputted; consistency and repetition. It seems that if we’re not careful, we could automate the same biases these programs are supposed to eliminate. Actually, it’s already been happening.
Several years ago, a Google image recognition program labeled the faces of several Black people as gorillas; a LinkedIn advertising program showed a preference for male names in searches, and a Microsoft chatbot called Tay spent a day learning from Twitter and then began sending out antisemitic messages.
Faye Cobb Payton, Timnit Gebru, Mutale Nkonde, and Danielle Belgrave are part of the small number of Black women in the AI space, focusing their research on fairness and accountability. Joy Buolamwini, a Ghanaian-American computer scientist, uses art and research to highlight the social implications of artificial intelligence. She founded the Algorithmic Justice League to create a world with more ethical and inclusive technology. Her TED Talk on algorithmic bias has amassed over 1 million views.
Those with power in the field of AI must invest in and prioritize Black women’s work and ideas to develop full equity. This includes Black women in technical, policy, activist, and community roles, as AI’s problems are much more than just technical considerations. Without including and investing in Black women, impacts will continue to be flawed.
Since the pandemic, companies have attempted to pivot and reimagine their company culture to one where everyone feels included. The truth is, AI systems can be biased based on who builds them, how they are developed, and how they are used. With AI increasingly becoming a part of our everyday lives, perhaps diversity needs to begin with the engineers who develop and monitor AI systems.
Federal agencies are supposed to regulate industries that utilize AI technology. Unfortunately, not enough has been done to ensure that these systems are accountable to the people they impact most or that they adhere to civil rights laws. While the Biden administration continues to make grand commitments to center racial equity, their priorities have fallen short when it comes to equity for Black people who have been directly subjected to bias.
The goal of technology should be to influence and improve our lives, and not make us fearful and discriminated against. We have to make sure we are not allowing racism or any other kind of discrimination to be at the root of AI systems. The administration must prioritize and address how AI can exacerbate racial, gender, and other inequities and ensure Black women, in particular, have better outcomes.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.