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The Download: Joy Buolamwini on AI, and Meta’s beauty filter lawsuit

The Download: Joy Buolamwini on AI, and Meta’s beauty filter lawsuit

AI researcher and activist Joy Buolamwini is best known for a pioneering paper she co-wrote with Timnit Gebru in 2017 which exposed how commercial facial recognition systems often failed to recognize the faces of Black and brown people, especially Black women. Her research and advocacy led companies such as Google, IBM, and Microsoft to improve their software so it would be less biased and back away from selling their technology to law enforcement.

Now, Buolamwini has a new target in sight. She is calling for a radical rethink of how AI systems are built. Buolamwini tells MIT Technology Review that, amid the current AI hype cycle, she sees a very real risk of letting technology companies pen the rules that apply to them— repeating the very mistake that has previously allowed biased and oppressive technology to thrive. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

If you’re interested in Buolamwini’s vision for the future of AI, check out this excerpt from her new book Unmasking AI: My Mission to Protect What Is Human in a World of Machines. In it, she argues that we spend too much time focusing on existential risk from superintelligent AI, and too little on the harms that result from AI here and now. 

Why Meta is getting sued over its beauty filters

Dozens of US states announced they were suing Meta last week, claiming that the company knowingly harms young users. The case is a pretty big deal and will almost certainly have a sweeping impact on the national debate about child safety online.  Potentially, it could lead to policy and platform changes. The case is also poised to stress-test existing privacy law that protects minors’ data. 

Some of its core allegations are that Meta misleads young users about safety features and the pervasiveness of harmful content on platforms, including harm created by beauty filters on Instagram. Tate Ryan-Mosley, our senior tech policy reporter, has dug into what the research says about how these features affect young users—and who is profiting from them. Read the full story.

This story is from The Technocrat, our weekly newsletter covering power and tech in Silicon Valley. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Friday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The White House has issued a new AI executive order 
It’s not yet clear how its broad-brush efforts to rein in AI will be implemented, though. (FT $) 
+ The order is a means of placing the US at the center of AI governance. (WP $)
+ One stipulation requires firms to test AI to make sure it can’t create weapons. (NYT $)

2 The next pandemic could be driven by paramyxoviruses
They spread rapidly, and are found in a wide range of animals, too. (The Atlantic $)
+ What to know about this autumn’s covid vaccines. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Why China’s Foxconn investigation could do more harm than good
Playing hardball with Apple suppliers could force the company to look overseas. (WSJ $)
+ Apple is losing valuable ground to Huawei in the country. (Bloomberg $)

4 Mouse embryos have been grown in space 
Which could hold intriguing implications for human IVF procedures. (New Scientist $)
+ This startup wants to find out if humans can have babies in space. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Like it or not, wearable AI devices are coming
And startups and tech giants alike are tussling to be first to get it right. (The Information $)

6 Inside the decades-long quest to digitize scent
While computers have long been able to replicate sound and vision, understanding smells has proved much trickier. (The Guardian)
+ New research aims to bring odors into virtual worlds. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Boston Dynamics’s robots have personalities now
ChatGPT has a lot to answer for. (Insider $)
+ Thankfully, chatbots can’t understand slang. (The Atlantic $)

8 Beware of the unproven poop tests 💩
Experts say a lot of gut-focused startups are basically peddling pseudoscience. (Bloomberg $)
+ How bugs and chemicals in your poo could give away exactly what you’ve eaten. (MIT Technology Review)

9 A lot of what we believe about our phone batteries isn’t true
There’s no need to let it fully drain before recharging, for one. (Wired $)

10 TikTok can’t get enough of lobsters 🦞
Crustacean fishermen are among the latest wave of beloved internet personalities. (NYT $)

Quote of the day

“Instant messaging has become my religion, it’s become my love language.”

—Sarah Dorsett, chief executive of high-tech baby-monitor company Nanit, explains to the New York Times why she refuses to use email.

The big story

Technology that lets us speak to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?

October 2022

My colleague Charlotte embarked on an experiment during the pandemic: she created digital versions of her parents. They’re voice assistants constructed by the company HereAfter AI, powered by more than four hours of conversations they each had with an interviewer about their lives and memories.

Technology like this, which lets you “talk” to people who’ve died, has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades. But now it’s becoming a reality—and an increasingly accessible one, thanks to advances in AI and voice technology. Read the full story.

—Charlotte Jee

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