While working on an assignment involving facial-recognition software, the M.I.T. Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini found that the algorithm couldn’t detect her face — until she put on a white mask. As she recounts in the documentary “Coded Bias,” Buolamwini soon discovered that most such artificial-intelligence programs are trained to identify patterns based on data sets that skew light-skinned and male.
“When you think of A.I., it’s forward-looking,” she says. “But A.I. is based on data, and data is a reflection of our history.”
Directed by Shalini Kantayya, “Coded Bias” explores how machine-learning algorithms — now ubiquitous in advertising, hiring, financial services, policing and many other fields — can perpetuate society’s existing race-, class- and gender-based inequities.
The most cleareyed of several recent documentaries about the perils of Big Tech (“The Great Hack,” “The Social Dilemma”), “Coded Bias” tackles its sprawling subject by zeroing in empathetically on the human costs. Using Buolamwini’s journey from her research to a congressional hearing on facial-detection technology as a through line, Kantayya knits together a number of local and international stories with an eye for emotional detail. A teacher in Houston recounts receiving an arbitrarily poor algorithmic evaluation despite years of experience and awards; a plucky watchdog group in London challenges the police use of A.I.-based closed-circuit TV cameras that often misidentify and racially profile pedestrians.
The film moves deftly between pragmatic and larger political critiques, arguing that it’s not just that the tech is faulty; even if it were perfect, it would infringe dangerously on people’s liberties. One segment details China’s efforts to create a “social credit” program that would use face scans to track citizens’ lives and generate scores that control their access to various services.
America’s not much different, warns the futurist and author Amy Webb, one of the movie’s expert talking heads (mostly women, refreshingly). She says that in the United States, social media companies, other corporations and law enforcement agencies surveil people and influence their information and opportunities in similar ways. They’re just not as upfront about it.
Pronouncements like these are dystopian enough that the music and graphics inspired by “2001: A Space Odyssey” that Kantayya layers on top can feel cheesy. Even so, they do lend an aptly heroic air to the film’s activist subjects — particularly Buolamwini, whose efforts have achieved tangible legislative gains. For a documentary about automated technology, “Coded Bias” keeps its focus firmly on people: their failings, their vulnerabilities and their powers for good.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. Watch in virtual cinemas.