Movie Review: ‘Coded Bias’

Review by James Lindorf

“Coded Bias” is a powerful new film from Director Shalini Kantayya (Catching the Sun) inspired by the groundbreaking research of MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini. Joy was able to prove that a racial bias was coded into facial recognition algorithms while working on a class project. While continuing her research, Joy has gone on to speak in front of congress and create the Algorithmic Justice League. Kantayya also highlights Cathy O’Neil, the author of “Weapons of Math Destruction,” and Safiya Noble, author of “Algorithms of Oppression.” While some members of Kantayya’s list of interviewees seem one news story away from donning a tinfoil hat, that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, but they can be exhausting. “Coded Bias” will be rolling out in 34 markets starting on November 11th, with more locations to come. You can find a complete list of sites and ticketing info on the official website.

As a major fan of the early 2000’s show “Numbers,” I am familiar with the idea that math is in everything and that it is more than just numbers and equations. Math in the shape of algorithms can shape what Facebook ads you see, decide if you’ll get the job, or be able to buy a home. It can even influence our interactions with law enforcement. The idea is that any process can be faster and more reliable by using computers and advanced mathematics. The problem lies in the often-unconscious bias that we all possess. The group responsible for creating the algorithms that decide our fate consists of mostly straight white males. While they may have no intent to cause harm, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen because of the lack of balance.

“Coded Bias” makes you think about unintended consequences and how societal shortcomings of the past will dictate our future. If there isn’t a concerted effort to regulate this new frontier and, more importantly, have influences from all walks of life, we will continue to relive history. The only difference is that this time it is digital and happens without your knowledge. Applying for a job where a racist or misogynistic boss conducts your interview is pretty self-evident, and you don’t have to wonder what the outcome will be. However, as these algorithms continue to permeate our everyday existence, you won’t even make it to the interview because the computer will reject your application because you had the gall to go to an HBCU or play women’s soccer. By the time the credits roll, it is hard to imagine anyone not wanting to support Joy, Cathy, Safiya, and the rest in their cause to protect us all from an imperfect system.

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