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IBM ditches facial recognition tech citing racial justice reform

You can’t see me – John Cena

facial recognition cameras monitoring surveillance
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The IBM Model 5150 is legend to a lot of us old folks, tottering around smash talking iPads-as-computers and telling grand stories about floppy disks. The point is that when it comes to computing, IBM is a household name. In recent years, the name you’ve heard most often associated with IBM is Watson. Watson is IBM’s AI system, used for a billion things. One thing it won’t be used for anymore is facial recognition technology.

In a letter to congress, addressed to Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Representatives Karen Bass (D-CA), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) IBM’s CEO Arvind Krishna called out the use of facial recognition technology as being racially biased and suggested reforms needed in order to consider the responsible use of such technology by law enforcement. Plainly, the letter states that “IBM has sunset its general purpose facial recognition and analysis software products”.

The accuracy of AI facial recognition is suspect, to say the least. If it’s not suspect, then it’s shady as fuck. For each advance in AI facial recognition systems, society comes closer to stripping away whatever personal freedoms we have left. Facial recognition software has not only shown racial biases but age and ethnicity as well. It’s basically at this point, just a giant civil rights violation mudslide poised to destroy our village of personal privacy.

“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,” said Krishna in the letter. “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.”

Krishna suggested a few ways IBM could work with Congress to achieve racial equity, as it pertains to policy:

  • Police reform – new federal rules should hold police more accountable for misconduct.
  • Responsible technology policies – technology can increase transparency and help police protect communities but must not promote discrimination or racial injustice.
  • Expanding opportunity – training and education for in-demand skills is key to expanding economic opportunity for communities of color.

On that last point, Krishna offered up P-TECH (IBM’s school model where students can earn their high school and AA degree in STEM simultaneously without incurring debt) and a strong nudge that Pell Grant availability should be expanded to include non-college skills training and job certification programs.

So the one company we might be able to trust with facial recognition technology is stepping out of the ring. That paves the way for Amazon, a company that has no idea how many police departments are using its facial recognition software, Rekognition, to dominate the market. Let us not forget Facebook’s facial recognition tech, which comes from a company that is about as trustworthy as asking a cat not to sit on your keyboard.

Amazon peddles in consumerism. Facebook peddles in lies. These are the companies that are going to be creating the eventual, perpetual surveillance state. This should frighten lawmakers, which is why the IBM stance should be taken seriously by those addressed in the letter. IBM has been at the forefront of computing, AI, and any associated technology since the beginning. It’s a big deal that IBM feels reform is needed before facial recognition tech should be widely used.

But if the government has shown us anything, it’s that it generally does what is best for those set to profit from a decision, rather than what is best for the interests of the people. IBM is right in asking for reform in policing and racial equity, it’s what the country is fighting for right now. But at the same time, there are shittier, less morally centered companies more than willing to step up and deliver products that with the blessing of lawmakers will strip our freedoms away like a bloody band-aid.

Do you applaud IBM for doing this or do you think we’re all doomed anyways? Have any thoughts on this? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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A tech writer on the internet for over 15 years for outlets such as Forbes, Wired, TNW, and others, Curtis is exhausted, burnt out and happy to just write buying guides and the occasional review for KnowTechie, the best tech blog your mom never told you about. Ephemeral existence for ephemeral times. Please send pitches and grainy pictures of the inside of your elbow to kevin@knowtechie.com

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