The brazen arrest and murder of African-American George Floyd by a US police officer has sparked outrage and introspection across America and the globe these past few weeks. His last words—“I can’t breathe”—was heard the world over. Fellow Americans continue to take to the streets, flouting calls for social distancing in a clear signal of their priorities as a nation: Fix racial injustice, pandemic be damned. In response, many companies have since pledged their support for police reform and racial equity, including IBM, which has announced that it will no longer offer, develop, and research facial recognition technology.
Facial recognition software has improved much over the years thanks to artificial intelligence, offering distinct advantages in terms of safety, security, and convenience. Because there is little regulation among the private vendors providing it, however, there are concerns that the technology is vulnerable to inheriting (and further cementing) humans’ racial, ethnic, and gender biases. This, as well as infringe on people’s right to privacy. For these reasons, critics believe the tool may prove unreliable for law enforcement and ripe for wrongful surveillance, profiling, and abuse.
In a letter addressed to US Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, and Representatives Karen Bass, Hakeem Jeffries, and Jerrold Nadler, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna outlined policy proposals to promote racial equality. He also announced that his company has sunset its general purpose facial recognition and analysis products.
Here are some salient parts from Krishna’s letter:
“In September 1953, IBM took a bold stand in favor of equal opportunity. Thomas J. Watson, Jr., then president of IBM, wrote to all employees:
“. . .Each of the citizens of this country has an equal right to live and work in America. It is the policy of this organization to hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job, regardless of race, color or creed.”
Watson backed up this statement with action, refusing to enforce Jim Crow laws at IBM facilities. Yet nearly seven decades later, the horrible and tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and too many others remind us that the fight against racism is as urgent as ever.”
The letter continued with an offer from IBM to work with Congress in pursuit of justice and racial equity, particularly in policy areas such as police reform through new federal misconduct rules, as well as expanding opportunities through training and education for in-demand skills. It also advocated for technology policies that responsibly protect communities:
“IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software. IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency. We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.
Artificial Intelligence is a powerful tool that can help law enforcement keep citizens safe. But vendors and users of Al systems have a shared responsibility to ensure that Al is tested for bias, particularity when used in law enforcement, and that such bias testing is audited and reported.”
“The symbolic nature of this is important,” said Mutale Nkonde, a research fellow at Harvard and Stanford universities who directs the nonprofit AI For the People. Nkonde believes IBM shutting down a business “under the guise of advancing anti-racist business practices” shows that it can be done and makes it “socially unacceptable for companies who tweet Black Lives Matter to do so while contracting with the police.”