Coded Bias

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/25/20 05:53:03

"Will streaming-services algorithms hide this in self-defense?"
3 stars (Average)

There's been a complaint in recent years, likely justified in many cases, of documentary television series whose multi-episode bloat could probably be condensed into a conventional documentary feature, but I sometimes wonder if the big miniseries is the natural next evolutionary step. Consider "Coded Bias" as an example: It is a good documentary; it raises an interesting issue, makes its points in clear fashion, and will almost certainly be watched primarily by those who already have some interest in the material, learning little beyond a few specific names. It is absolutely a useful thing to get in front of people, but may be even more useful as a deep, multi-episode dive than as an overview.

Director Shalini Kantayya focuses on a number of experts and activists, with Joy Buolamwini at the center. As a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, Buolamwini discovered with dismay that the facial recognition software behind her computer's camera often would not pick up her face until she put on a white mask, and that it wasn't just a trick of lighting: Most of this software was designed and tested by men of European descent with comparatively little thought given to its use by other groups. What started out as a fun project turns into a serious piece of advocacy, inspired in part by author Cathy O'Neil and picked up by Silkie Carlo, a more street-level activist in London.

There are actually multiple facets to the issue that Kantayya explores, from how machine-learning algorithms meant to be objective instead tend to reflect the biases of the data it is trained with, to whether even a well-trained system can be used ethically, to what new questions having computers being able to sort through millions of real-time images raises, each with an example or two that goes with it and enough of a toehold into adjacent issues to hold film together as a whole rather than split it into separate units. It can seem like a lot to compact down to 90 minutes, but Kantayya and the on-screen participants are good at boiling the issues down to easily-grasped ideas that don't start to feel over-simplified with repetition. This is an issue that can be simply stated but not easily solved.

If Kantayya had wanted to make something less compact, she could have; there are plenty of examples here and more coming up every day. It's also helpful that, from the start, her experts aren't presented as detached academics who merely study the problem, but instead have the sort of personal involvement that make Buolamwini, O'Neil, and Carlo active participants in the narratives. Though Kantayya shows how far back the roots of it go, this is too modern an issue for them not to still be actively confronting it and refining their knowledge still, and that makes them more engaging than many "talking heads".

(It is worth noting that almost all of the on-screen experts are women, both because that is so often not the norm in documentaries and because algorithms picking up sexist behaviors figures into the film. I'm mildly curious whether this has just resulted in much of the important work being done by women or if Kantayya is deliberately pushing back on what is considered "default" as she recognizes how this affects the algorithms.)

In terms of filmmaking, she tends to stay modest and grounded even as the film is shot on four continents and necessarily requires some animated visualization at times, tending to pull those scenes closer to the subjects' human interactions rather than going for slick, meme-worthy presentations. If there's a fault in her presentation, it's how willing she sometimes is to completely abstract the idea of the algorithm as something unknowable as opposed to something that can be untangled, or the villain itself rather than being a tool used by people who either over-prioritize efficiency or are happy to hide their own biases behind its supposed objectivity. She'll take half the story from the general to the specific but not the other.

It's nevertheless a good way to learn about an important subject, although as with so many documentaries, I am reasonably sure I wouldn't have watched it if I wasn't already interested but I don't know if it will make its way to people who could probably do with paying more attention to the topic. And, indeed, I wonder about its future prospects in a world where independent and documentary features primarily reside on the streaming services whose algorithms are probably most found wanting on a day-to-day basis.

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