Black Artists Say A.I. Shows Bias, With Algorithms Erasing Their History


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By Zachary Small, New York Times

Tech companies acknowledge machine-learning algorithms can perpetuate discrimination and need improvement.

Stephanie Dinkins at work in her Brooklyn studio. (Flo Ngala for The New York Times)

The artist Stephanie Dinkins has long been a pioneer in combining art and technology in her Brooklyn-based practice. In May she was awarded $100,000 by the Guggenheim Museum for her groundbreaking innovations, including an ongoing series of interviews with Bina48, a humanoid robot.

For the past seven years, she has experimented with A.I.’s ability to realistically depict Black women, smiling and crying, using a variety of word prompts. The first results were lackluster if not alarming: Her algorithm produced a pink-shaded humanoid shrouded by a black cloak.

“I expected something with a little more semblance of Black womanhood,” she said. And although the technology has improved since her first experiments, Dinkins found herself using runaround terms in the text prompts to help the A.I. image generators achieve her desired image, “to give the machine a chance to give me what I wanted.” But whether she uses the term “African American woman” or “Black woman,” machine distortions that mangle facial features and hair textures occur at high rates.

“Improvements obscure some of the deeper questions we should be asking about discrimination,” Dinkins said. The artist, who is Black, added, “The biases are embedded deep in these systems, so it becomes ingrained and automatic. If I’m working within a system that uses algorithmic ecosystems, then I want that system to know who Black people are in nuanced ways, so that we can feel better supported.”

She is not alone in asking tough questions about the troubling relationship between A.I. and race. Many Black artists are finding evidence of racial bias in artificial intelligence, both in the large data sets that teach machines how to generate images and in the underlying programs that run the algorithms. In some cases, A.I. technologies seem to ignore or distort artists’ text prompts, affecting how Black people are depicted in images, and in others, they seem to stereotype or censor Black history and culture.

Small discusses these questions here.

Algorithms may also contribute to medical racism.

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