The racism of machines

The Liberty Group’s two-day Vuka Knowledge Summit kicked off today in Johannesburg with prophetic odes to curiosity and learning

Veteran journalist and author Nechama Brodie inspired deep reflection on “racist” systems of knowledge, pleading with the audience to constantly check and re-check information with which they may be dealing.

She unpacked how problematic it was that science had been dominated by white men for centuries.

“If it makes you uncomfortable that white patriarchy has dominated our systems of knowledge for centuries, I’m sorry. But I’m also not sorry because it’s true,” she said.

Brodie also poked apart the problems of only “allowing” women into science at the turn of the past century, saying humanity had been denied the different questions and perspectives that women would have brought to the scientific world. It was also therefore unfair to question why so few black people and women were graduating from certain professions today, considering our knowledge systems had been “exclusionary from the start”.

Machine learning and algorithms were pegged as equally problematic.

“We have algorithms for everything; they’re promising to save the world. We have algorithms to tell us who to give a policy or a bursary to… But do you know that algorithms are racist?” she asked. Examples included Google tagging black faces as chimpanzees, because the largely white male developers had only fed their computers with photos of white people in their research process. Another expose in the USA by ProPublica proved how an algorithm for predicting the recidivism rate for offenders was discriminatory against black offenders.

“Black people who were first-time offenders for minor crimes like stealing a tricycle were given a worse ranking than white men who committed an armed robbery, for example,” she said.

She went on to warn about algorithms’ “extreme human limitations”.

“I like the idea of sharing information and the problem with algorithms is that a lot of them are proprietary and secret. They are determining your lives, from bank loans to jobs. And we don’t know what they are. They need to stop being secret,” she said.

Brodie urged people to follow specific steps to assess information, starting with always trying to identify the original sources of information.

“Also, check the accuracy of content. Find a professor or an elder and ask them to verify the information. Also, check the context – the quality and source of the research methods used.”

Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka delivered a keynote speech that had the largely corporate crowd tut-tutting at his subversive references to the march of technology. He presented a deeply questioning presentation on what he called the “taboos that interdict the imagination”.

Technology was a valuable partner in the constant quest of human curiosity but it was able to either free or freeze the imaginative function.

“Truth begins with self-knowledge. After that come the complexities of outer knowledge. As reality encroaches, the maturing mind discovers that beneath the glitter lies a world of disenchantment and disgust… But the voyage of the creative hand is unstoppable.

“Keep faith with the empowering sibling of technology in ensuring we do not turn it against ourselves and one another,” Soyinka warned.