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Joy Buolamwini wins national contest for her work fighting bias in machine learning

Media Lab graduate student selected from over 7,300 entrants, awarded $50,000 scholarship in contest inspired by the film "Hidden Figures."
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After MIT grad student Joy Buolamwini (left) met author Margot Lee Shetterly at an MIT preview screening of "Hidden Figures," she was inspired to enter the Search for Hidden Figures contest. She ended up winning one of two grand prizes, which includes a $50,000 scholarship, for her work on biases in computer algorithms.
Caption:
After MIT grad student Joy Buolamwini (left) met author Margot Lee Shetterly at an MIT preview screening of "Hidden Figures," she was inspired to enter the Search for Hidden Figures contest. She ended up winning one of two grand prizes, which includes a $50,000 scholarship, for her work on biases in computer algorithms.
Credits:
Photo courtesy of Joy Buolamwini.
Joy Buolamwini gives her TEDxBeaconStreet presentation, "Code4Rights, Code4All," in which she describes her quest to code programs that address algorithmic racial prejudice.
Caption:
Joy Buolamwini gives her TEDxBeaconStreet presentation, "Code4Rights, Code4All," in which she describes her quest to code programs that address algorithmic racial prejudice.
Credits:
Photo: John Werner
"By being visible in STEM, I hope to inspire the next generation of stargazers," says Media Lab grad student Joy Buolamwini, who debuted her “InCoding Manifesto” video and talked about the Algorithmic Justice League at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in November.
Caption:
"By being visible in STEM, I hope to inspire the next generation of stargazers," says Media Lab grad student Joy Buolamwini, who debuted her “InCoding Manifesto” video and talked about the Algorithmic Justice League at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in November.
Credits:
Photo: Lenny Martinez

When Joy Buolamwini, an MIT master's candidate in media arts and sciences, sits in front a mirror, she sees a black woman in her 20s. But when her photo is run through recognition software, it does not recognize her face. A seemingly neutral machine programmed with algorithms-codified processes simply fails to detect her features. Buolamwini is, she says, "on the wrong side of computational decisions" that can lead to exclusionary and discriminatory practices and behaviors in society.

That phenomenon, which Buolamwini calls the “coded gaze,"  is what motivated her late last year to launch the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL) to highlight such bias through provocative media and interactive exhibitions; to provide space for people to voice concerns and experiences with coded discrimination; and to develop practices for accountability during the design, development, and deployment phases of coded systems.

That work is what contributed to the Media Lab student earning the grand prize in the professional category of The Search for Hidden Figures. The nationwide contest, created by PepsiCo and 21st Century Fox in partnership with the New York Academy of Sciences, is named for a recently released film that tells the real-life story of three African-American women at NASA whose math brilliance helped launch the United States into the space race in the early 1960s.

MIT grad student Joy Buolamwini was tapped as one of two grand-prize winners in the national Search for Hidden Figures contest, which aimed to celebrate "the next generation of girls and women who will lead the way in STEM."

"I'm honored to receive this recognition, and I'll use the prize to continue my mission to show compassion through computation," says Buolamwini, who was born in Canada, then lived in Ghana and, at the age of four, moved to Oxford, Mississippi. She’s a two-time recipient of an Astronaut Scholarship in a program established by NASA’s Mercury 7 crew members, including late astronaut John Glenn, who are depicted in the film "Hidden Figures."

The film had a big impact on Buolamwini when she saw a special MIT sneak preview in early December: "I witnessed the power of storytelling to change cultural perceptions by highlighting hidden truths. After the screening where I met Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote the book on which the film is based, I left inspired to tell my story, and applied for the contest. Being selected as a grand prize winner provides affirmation that pursuing STEM is worth celebrating. And it's an important reminder to share the stories of discriminatory experiences that necessitate the Algorithmic Justice League as well as the uplifting stories of people who come together to create a world where technology can work for all of us and drive social change."

The Search for Hidden Figures contest attracted 7,300 submissions from students across the United States. As one of two grand prize winners, Buolamwini receives a $50,000 scholarship, a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, plus access to New York Academy of Sciences training materials and programs in STEM. She plans to use the prize resources to develop what she calls "bias busting" tools to help defeat bias in machine learning.

That is the focus of her current research at the MIT Media Lab, where Buolamwini is in the Civic Media group pursuing a master's degree with an eye toward a PhD. "The Media Lab serves as a unifying thread in my journey in STEM. Until I saw the lab on TV, I didn't realize there was a place dedicated to exploring the future of humanity and technology by allowing us to indulge our imaginations by continuously asking, 'What if?'"

Before coming to the Media Lab, Buolamwini earned a BS in computer science as a Stamps President's Scholar at Georgia Tech and a master's in learning and technology as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. As part of her Rhodes Scholar Service Year, Buolamwini launched Code4Rights to guide young people in partnering with local organizations to develop meaningful technology for their communities. In that year, she also built upon a computer science learning initiative she’d created during her Fulbright fellowship in Lusaka, Zambia, to empower young people to become creators of technology. And, as an entrepreneur, she co-founded a startup hair care technology company and now advises an MIT-connected "smart" clothing startup aimed at transforming women’s health. She's also an experienced public speaker, most recently at TEDx Beacon Street, the White House, the Vatican, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

From an early age, Buolamwini felt encouraged to aim high in STEM: "I went after my dreams, and now I continue to push myself beyond present barriers to create a more inclusive future. Inclusive participation matters. And, by being visible in STEM, I hope to inspire the next generation of stargazers."

Press Mentions

NPR

Graduate student Joy Buolamwini's speaks with Jennifer 8. Lee about her research on bias and facial recognition, and how she combines technology and art in her work.  “We need more poets in tech, and we need more people of color in tech,” says Buolamwini. “The reason I call myself a poet is because poets illuminate the uncomfortable, and they make us feel what we otherwise not might see.”

NPR

Graduate student Joy Buolamwini is featured on NPR’s TED Radio Hour explaining the racial bias of facial recognition software and how these problems can be rectified. “The minimum thing we can do is actually check for the performance of these systems across groups that we already know have historically been disenfranchised,” says Buolanwini.

Bloomberg Businessweek

Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Arianne Cohen profiles graduate student Joy Buolamwini, who founded the algorithmic Justice League in an effort to make people more aware of the biases embedded in AI systems. “We’re using facial analysis as an exemplar to show how we can include more inclusive training data in the first place,” says Buolamwini of her work. 

Guardian

Graduate student Joy Buolamwini speaks with Guardian reporter Ian Tucker about her work fighting algorithmic biases. Buolamwini explains that she is, “trying to identify bias, to point out cases where bias can occur so people can know what to look out for, but also develop tools where the creators of systems can check for a bias in their design.”

BBC News

BBC News reporter Zoe Kleinman writes that graduate student Joy Buolamwini has developed an initiative aimed at tackling algorithmic bias. "If we are limited when it comes to being inclusive that's going to be reflected in the robots we develop or the tech that's incorporated within the robots,” says Buolamwini.

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