Director Shalini Kantayya’s documentary ‘Coded Bias’ unravels how inherent gender and racial biases get embedded in the algorithms that run our lives.
There’s been no shortage of documentaries covering the perils of Big Tech. Most recently, Netflix’s The Social Dilemma made waves, for better or worse, as it leaned on insiders to unpack the manipulative designs of social media algorithms.
Now filmmaker Shalini Kantayya is digging deeper into how social media and Big Tech’s algorithms are impacting society’s most marginalized groups in her new doc Coded Bias.
Coded Bias unravels how a homogenous group of people are responsible for the rapid development of AI and how inherent biases from their world views get embedded in code.
From Amazon’s recruiting tool that may have weeded out women candidates to discriminatory practices from landlords and banking institutions to code being weaponized by police forces and government, Coded Bias pulls from a wide array of cases to build an argument for more checks and balances on the algorithms that essentially run our lives.
It’s a conversation that’s gained significant traction thanks to Joy Buolamwini, a research assistant at MIT’s Media Lab and founder of Algorithmic Justice League, whose groundbreaking discovery and subsequent studies on the biases in facial recognition software against darker-skinned individuals and women led to some of the biggest companies including Amazon and IBM rethinking their practices.
It was actually seeing Buolamwini’s 2016 TED Talk that led Kantayya down the rabbit hole of how Big Tech can impact civil rights.
“Hopefully [Coded Bias] helps us understand in simple terms how bias can get encoded, and beckons us to question Big Tech,” Kantayya says. “The film is told from the perspectives of half of the population that’s overlooked in science and tech documentaries, which are women and people of color—and that happens to be who is also leading the fight for more ethical and humane uses of the technologies of the future.”
Coded Bias features a refreshing wealth of women sources and experts, including Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction; Zeynep Tufekci, sociology professor and New York Times contributor; Silkie Carlo, director of the U.K.’s human rights organization Big Brother Watch; Safiya Umoja Noble, professor and author of Algorithms of Oppression; and more.
“In that process of rigorous research and interviewing, there was a moment I sat back like, ‘Wow, it’s predominantly women,’” Kantayya says. “Coded Bias has the same gender ratios as most technology films—it’s just flipped. And I think people are still so surprised and taken aback by hearing women speak with such authority and insight.”
The unanimous tone of Coded Bias is that there needs to be more regulation in Big Tech, specifically in curbing algorithmic abuses and flaws that perpetuate biases. While those big swings at legislation are playing out in courts, Kantayya also wants Coded Bias to have a more immediate impact with viewers.
“I hope that people will start to question that gentle nudge of power, whether it be nudging us to what song to listen to or what information is being pushed to us,” Kantayya says. “My hope is that Coded Bias will be a sort of An Inconvenient Truth, a landmark film about something that matters vitally to our futures.”
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