At historically Black colleges and universities, professors and students are working to make computing more responsible
Dr. Jaye Nias recently had a Facebook post removed —something the Atlanta-based computer science professor isn’t used to. “I’ve never been banned on social media,” she explains.
Yet a friend had sent Dr. Nias a screenshot, showing how Facebook had deleted one of her posts due to allegedly violent content. Dr. Nias had written a comment about pursuing an opportunity and used the metaphor “shoot their shot,” a popular idiom referencing basketball. Yet Facebook’s algorithm saw something different: a reference to guns.
“To me, it’s very innocuous terminology — culturally within my community, but also within our society,” Dr. Nias says. “But it’s automatically assumed to be weaponized when I use it.”
Facebook’s decision was frustrating, but not surprising, to Dr. Nias. “There are so many ways that I see my peers censored or removed from social networking participation, and it’s not clear why,” she says. “And I think it has a lot to do with a lack of understanding of vernacular language.”
Several years before Dr. Nias’ experience on Facebook, Dr. Tamara Pearson — also an Atlanta-based educator — was experiencing a similar frustration. Dr. Pearson was teaching eighth-grade mathematics, and the school district was overly-eager to make computer science a core part of every student’s curriculum, positioning it as an opportunity for social mobility and a means to get a good paying job.
“Education is key. That’s where my heart is,” Dr. Pearson says. “But we have to think: What are we preparing students for? Why is the tech industry the Holy Grail of where we want students to go?”
Why is the tech industry the Holy Grail of where we want students to go?
Dr. Tamara Pearson, Spelman College
“The system itself is broken,” Dr. Pearson adds, explaining how so much of the technology in our daily lives — from social media algorithms to facial recognition AI — is used to isolate and subjugate, rather than empower and uplift.
Today, doctors Nias and Pearson have more in common than a healthy skepticism about tech. Both are educators at Spelman College, an historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia. Doctors Nias and Pearson are also part of a larger network of people and organizations — like Atlanta University Center, Mozilla, and others — that are scrutinizing the intersection of society and technology. It’s a group that’s not content with superficial product fixes. Rather, they’re using tools like education and intersectionality to fundamentally change the way technology is taught and built.
A different perspective
At Spelman, Dr. Pearson leads the Center of Excellence for Minority Women in STEM. “Our mission is to elevate not just the voices of Black women at Spelman, but the voices of Black women in general in the STEM fields,” Dr. Pearson explains. (Dr. Pearson herself is a Spelman alumna.)
Dr. Pearson and the Center fuel undergraduate research, and also provide scholarships for postgraduate study. And so a partnership with MozFest, Mozilla’s annual event exploring the relationship between technology and society, seemed a natural fit.
“The partnership originally started as one speaker at MozFest, talking about issues of technology and social justice,” Dr. Pearson said. But amid growing interest and current events — namely, the firing of computer scientist Dr. Timnit Gebru from Google — the initiative quickly gained momentum. That one talk evolved into a full-fledged speaker series centered on Black women in tech titled “The Future is Intersectional.” Atlanta University Center Data Science Initiative and UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, in addition to Spelman and Mozilla, were key organizers.
“The lecture series focuses on highlighting the unique lens Black women bring to the development and utilization of technology in our society,” explains Spelman College’s Jazmyn Burton in an announcement about the series. “It focuses on the vast contributions Black women make to advancements in technology, and addresses the challenges many face in a field where they are both underrepresented and undervalued.”
The lecture series focuses on highlighting the unique lens Black women bring to the development and utilization of technology in our society.
Jazmyn Burton, Spelman College
“Dr. Ruha Benjamin, a Spelman alum, kicked off the series in March,” Dr. Pearson says. “We had 13 speakers in two months.” Speakers included Timnit Gebru, Meredith Broussard, Ifeoma Ozoma, Deborah Raji, and other luminaries.
“It felt like, this is why I do what I do,” Dr. Pearson explains. The series resumed this November, with Spelman student Princess Sampson interviewing recent MacArthur Foundation genius grantee Dr. Safiya Noble. Doctors Pearson and Nias have also launched a Futures is intersectional fellowship program for Spelman students.
The speaker series is just one output of a larger collaboration: the MozFest Trustworthy AI Working Group, a global network of researchers, engineers, and others who are working to make AI more responsible. People and projects within the Working Group, which is convened by Mozilla, meet year-round to swap ideas and code.
“It’s so rare to find people in the AI community focused on ethical AI. Not just conceptually, but actually building it,” explains Temi Popo, Mozilla’s Program Manager for Technical Relationships, who works closely with both Dr. Pearson and Dr. Nias.
It’s so rare to find people in the AI community focused on ethical AI. Not just conceptually, but actually building it.
Temi Popo, Mozilla
The Working Group, which Popo co-chairs, fills this gap. “You can continuously build and critique trustworthy AI,” she explains. Group members include builders like machine learning experts, software engineers, and UX designers, all of whom create prototypes. But membership also includes a civil society contingent: “Researchers, lawyers, and others who can critique what we’re building and make sure that it is actually solving problems for society,” Popo says.
Currently, the Trustworthy AI Group has 15 projects and dozens of members who gather regularly. There are also hundreds of people in the group’s worldwide network. One project in the Working Group is Dr. Nias’ upcoming Black Paper. “We’re going to go through a day in the life of a Black woman,” Dr. Nias explains, with special attention paid to the biases that arise from AI systems.
Dr. Nias likens AI bias to racism in the real world: “We can have racist interactions with people, but there’s also systemic racism, where it’s embedded into systems that continue to marginalize and oppress people.”
The Black Paper will focus on systemic AI bias. “We want to show how some of the more subtle nuances around automation and bias create microaggressions that are frustrating,” Dr. Nias says. “And then use that to open up a dialogue with technology developers.”
While these AI microaggressions may be an unfamiliar concept to some, they are all too familiar to Black women — from facial recognition systems that can’t identify Black faces, to voice assistants that can’t understand Black speech. Dr. Nias says the paper will be released in March 2022, at the next MozFest.
Meanwhile, another Mozilla-Spelman partnership is also underway: The HBCU Collaborative Curriculum. Students at Spelman, and also Hampton University, Virginia State University, and Atlanta University Center Data Science Initiative have access to a 10-week course designed to deepen their knowledge and skills of modern software engineering practices as they prepare to join the workforce. This experiential project-based course features live presentations from Mozilla employees who cover various topic areas including the software engineering lifecycle, inclusive user research, prototyping, accessibility, product marketing, internet health, and design justice. The course is designed and administered by Mike Hoye, Envoy and Senior Staff Project Manager at Mozilla, and invites students to think critically about how their technologies may affect humanity and how to apply ethical computing principles.
Says Hoye: “Software is ultimately a machine made of ideas, and the only way to build just, meaningful and empowering software is to empower people to have a meaningful say in how that software is made. Our aspirations for this program are bigger than teaching students how to code; we want to show them how our values show up in our code, our lives and our communities, and how they can build machines out of their own ideas that change the world for the better."
Adds Jainaba Seckan, Senior Diversity & Inclusion Program Manager, HBCU Partnerships Lead at Mozilla: “As a Spelman College alumna, what I remember vividly from my time as a student was the institution’s constant reminder of service to our fellow human, no matter what path we chose. With programs focused on ethical tech, students are invited to center humans in technology and work in service of the greater good. This unique disposition affords them the opportunity to pursue technical careers without sacrificing character or values — and in fact centers them both — as they pursue their life’s work.”
As doctors Nias and Pearson continue this work, they note that one aspect is especially important: community. “We’re building a community of people who question and challenge and critique tech development from the lens of Black experiences,” Dr. Nias explains.
She continues: “I share our resources with people who are at the university and the grassroots level. Because this community really is amazing.”
“I really do think Black women are going to save this world,” Dr. Pearson adds. “Historically, we help open people’s eyes to what’s really happening — and also come with solutions on how to fix it. And there are a lot of Black women working diligently to highlight the injustices that are brought about through the tech industry.”
Historically, Black women help open people’s eyes to what’s really happening — and also come with solutions on how to fix it.
Dr. Tamara Pearson, Spelman College