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AI Artist Spotlight: Joy Buolamwini

Joy Buolamwini uses art and research as a means of illuminating the social implications of artificial intelligence (AI). An award-winning researcher and digital activist, Buolamwini introduces herself as the poet of code and is the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL)—an organisation that combines art and research to raise awareness about the social implications and harms of AI. 

Buolamwini identifies bias in AI and develops practices for accountability. As the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, she aims to create a world with more equitable and accountable technology. To spread the word about the impact of AI, Buolamwini wrote numerous op-eds for publications such as TIME Magazine and The New York Times; she also appeared in a featured TED Talk to speak about algorithmic bias. Her work has allowed her to rise to the ranks of other AI pioneers, including Taryn Southern and Trevor Paglen.

Buolamwini’s pursuit of accountability in AI can be traced back to her undergraduate work at Georgia Tech where she programmed a social robot to play peek-a-boo. The robot had trouble recognising her because the facial recognition software had problems recognising dark-skinned faces. To proceed with the work, she had to use the face of her white housemate.

Her thesis at Massachusetts Institute of Technology uncovered extensive racial and gender bias in AI services from industry leaders including Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon. Despite finding that the data sets of most services are not diverse, the use of facial detection and text-to-art generator software is rapidly expanding into almost every sector.

Buolamwini also advises elected officials during U.S. congressional hearings and serves on the Global Tech Panel that advises world leaders and executives on reducing potential negative effects of AI. Her work also earned her notable accolades including being named in Forbes 30 under 30, Bloomberg 50, Time Next 100, and as "the conscience of the AI revolution" by Fortune Magazine. 

Selected AI Projects

Here are a few of Buolamwini’s notable digital projects:

The Coded Gaze

The Coded Gaze is a mini-documentary where Buolamwini explains the bias that she believes lies in AI's function. In The Coded Gaze, Buolamwini explores the subjects of racial and gender biases that reflect the views and cultural backgrounds of those who develop AI.

The inspiration for The Coded Gaze came when Buolamwini was at MIT, creating her work titled Aspire Mirror. The piece is centred around using facial recognition technology to reflect the face of a person who inspires the user onto that user's face.

When the facial recognition technology didn’t recognise Buolamwini and failed to project the face of Serena Williams over hers, she delved deeper into why it happened. She called the conclusion of her research The Coded Gaze, explaining the exclusion of people who look like her as the result of a practice she discovered within AI.

Algorithmic Justice League

To make people more aware of her discovery of The Coded Gaze and limit its growing impact, Buolamwini founded the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL). The mission of the AJL is “to raise awareness about the impacts of AI, equip advocates with empirical research to bolster campaigns, build the voice and choice of the most impacted communities, and galvanise researchers, policymakers and industry practitioners to mitigate AI bias and harms.” 

The AJL advocates the need for fairness, accountability, and transparency in coded systems. 

AI, Ain’t I a Woman?

In AI, Ain’t I a Woman?, which is available on YouTube, Buolamwini highlights the loophole that exists in AI face detection services. 

AI, Ain’t I a Woman? demonstrates AI failures on the faces of iconic women including Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama. The work has been included in a number of exhibitions across the world. It shares her experiences of algorithmic discrimination, while advocating for a shift in the AI ecosystem toward equitable and accountable AI.

Challenging the Status Quo

Buolamwini is known as the “poet of code” for good reason. As she explains, “I tell stories that make daughters of diasporas dream.”

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