Wed. Oct 28th, 2020

A few years ago, when MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini was leading an interactive digital art project, she found the facial recognition technology it employed was far better at recognizing her lighter-skinned MIT colleagues.  

The discovery sent Buolamwini on a mission. She founded the Algorithmic Justice League and started doing research that builds awareness about biases in software algorithms. One paper she co-authored with Timnit Gebru, the technical co-lead of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team at Google, found facial-analysis software had an error rate of 34.7% for dark-skinned women versus just 0.8% for light-skinned men. 

Facial recognition is the tip of the iceberg. Biases are inherently present in all forms of artificial intelligence algorithms, those digital machines that increasingly run our world. 

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Over the years, an extreme lack of diversity in computer engineering has left white men with a disproportionately large influence over all software design. Unconscious bias – now, finally, a topic of great discussion across the United States – means they end up creating products to serve the needs of people like them, not necessarily those of others. 

This is a vital issue for the algorithm-dependent cryptocurrency and blockchain industry. If this technology is to have a broad impact on the world, it must engage a wide population. 

If bitcoin, for example, is to become a global currency, if it is to become a monetary standard accepted by people of vastly different backgrounds, it must be accessible and valuable for a full cross-section of those groups. And if distributed ledger technologies end up providing the data architecture in “smart cities” or enabling our health systems to manage privacy-protected data for fighting pandemics, we better make sure these platforms don’t discriminate against one group or another.

Diversifying the dev teams

The need for diversity in this industry was the central theme in a virtual symposium held last Friday by Cleve Mesidor, founder of the National Policy Network of Women of Color in Blockchain, which coincided with the Juneteenth emancipation holiday. The panelists’ message, according to CoinDesk reporter Nathan DiCamillo, was that while crypto can help citizens opt out of “a racist financial system,” for that to happen “Black people and people of color must be part of the development of the technology.”

Calls for diversity like these are often met with retorts such as “bitcoin doesn’t care about the color of your skin” or “blockchains are based on math, not flawed human processes.” It’s a naive perspective. The code for the protocols that dictate each blockchain’s rules, and for the smart contracts and apps built on top of them, are written by people, not by some universal law of nature. And, in the blockchain community even more so than in tech broadly, those people are predominantly white men. 

It’s all about the debt

What a difference two months of COVID-19 makes. 

This week, the International Monetary Fund made an interim update to the quarterly World Economic Outlook Report it originally released in April. The headline item: The IMF now expects a massive, unprecedented 4.9% decline in world economic output for 2020, versus the 3% shrinkage it previously predicted. That’s an additional loss of $1.67 trillion from what the World Bank estimated as the size of the global economy in 2019. You have to go back to the Great Depression for economic malaise on this kind of scale. 

What’s just as striking, and arguably more worrying, was the accompanied forecasts for government debt as a result of this downturn. The IMF now expects net government borrowing in advanced countries to spike to 10.9% of GDP in 2020 from 3% in 2019 and that it will drop back to 5.4% in 2021.

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