AI can help in the fight against racism

By | 3 minute read | February 1, 2022

In my role as Open Source Community Manager for the Call for Code for Racial Justice, I oversee a community of developers, data scientists, designers and general problem-solvers all looking to use technology to fight for racial justice. Just like any role, there are challenges I must deal with on a daily basis, but the one thing that has pleasantly surprised me since I started almost a year ago has been the interest and enthusiasm from people all around the world and from different backgrounds who are invested in advancing racial equity using data and artificial intelligence (AI).

The Call for Code for Racial Justice is an initiative external to IBM, so the people I deal with come from big and small organizations from around the globe — yet they all share this common belief and that drives them to volunteer their free time to build tech for social good.

What is this community building to fight racial injustice?

We currently have seven projects in the Call for Code for Racial Justice. These were originally incubated by the Black community inside of IBM as a response to the racial injustice highlighted through the #BlackLivesMatter campaign in 2020. When looking across these projects, you can see that there are certain areas where technology has the greatest opportunity to fight racial bias in society:

  • Accessing information: When information is dense and difficult to consume, it tends to be hard for people to come together and use it in an effective way. This often happens in the government and policy space, where information can have a significant impact on our lives — especially for underserved communities. Policy related to schools, roads, availability of local shops and resources can often be written in legalese that is hard for people to comprehend. AI can help rectify this. The Legit-Info project utilized Watson Natural Language Understanding to identify titles, summaries, locations and impacts. The results can then be further curated to improve readability and make these meaningful to all members in a community.
  • Identifying racial bias: Racial bias can creep into all kinds of places — from a police write-up of a crime to technical documentation on a software tool. In some cases, this may be explicit and driven by the bias of the individual writing the document, but in just as many cases, this may be implicit and the result of societal norms carried over from the past. TakeTwo is an API-based tool that can take a document as its input and highlight potential racial bias based on a trained machine learning model. Looking for insights in data is another way to identify racial bias — the Open Sentencing project looks specifically at incarceration rates based on racial demographics to help defense lawyers make the case for black defendants who often face tougher sentences for the same crimes as those committed by people of other races.

Why get involved in building AI solutions to fight racism?

In the case of these open-source projects, community involvement is as important as the technology itself. In a recent survey of community members, many were motivated to get involved in the Call for Code for Racial Justice by a desire to make a social impact. Others were interested in networking and connecting with those sharing similar interests. The development of skills is also a big component — working with industry-leading technology and building skills that they can take into other areas of their lives.

For myself, starting as a contributor and progressing to Community Manager, I’ve experienced all these benefits, but there is another factor that is important when it comes to technology helping with social justice. After earning a post-graduate degree in Mechanical Engineering, I started my career as a product manager for AI products. One thing that has become clear as I have progressed through my career is the need to have the right people in the room when making all kinds of decisions. We need to ensure the AI systems we build are trustworthy. Beyond that, whether it’s the policies that impact communities, the products we build and how we market them or, indeed, almost any facet of our lives, we need proper representation and diversity of thought if we are to realize the dream of creating a more just society. AI has a growing role to play in the fight for social justice, but we can’t rely on it alone.

Get involved with the Call for Code for Racial Justice Projects

We are always looking for new participants in the Call for Code for Racial Justice Projects — find out more about how you can get involved.

Learn more about how IBM promotes ethical AI, and if you want to make sure you are building AI apps with built-in trust, check out these resources.