When Joy Buolamwini (Civic Media) was 9 years old, she saw a TV documentary about Kismet, the MIT-built social robot that could interact face-to-face. To the young would-be scientist, the technology was magic. She was mesmerized and resolved to understand it.
But in 2010, while an undergraduate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Buolamwini hit an algorithmic obstacle. “For a social robot to socialize with a human, it has to be able to detect that human’s face,” she says. The robot she was experimenting with for class could detect her roommate’s light-skinned face, but not Buolamwini’s. The next year, at a lab in Hong Kong, it happened again. “I thought to myself, You know, I assumed this issue would’ve been solved by now,” she says.