The racism of technology – and why driverless cars could be the most dangerous example yet

‘Machine vision’ is struggling to recognise darker-skinned pedestrians, and cost pressures could make things worse

There is a rule for dealing with computers: garbage in, garbage out. Put the wrong number of zeroes in your Excel spreadsheet and it will unthinkingly pay your staff pennies on the pound; train a self-driving car to recognise human figures by showing it millions of pictures of white people, and it might struggle to identify pedestrians of other races.

That was the finding of researchers from Georgia Tech, who analysed how effective various “machine vision” systems were at recognising pedestrians with different skin tones. The results were alarming: AI systems were consistently better at identifying pedestrians with lighter skin tones than darker. And not by a little bit: one headline comparison suggests that a white person was 10% more likely to be correctly identified as a pedestrian than a black person.

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