Joy Buolamwini was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to Ghanaian parents. Her mother was an artist and her father was completing his PhD in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Alberta. She spent her early childhood in Ghana, coming to the United States at the age of four when her father accepted a post at the University of Mississippi. As part of her computer science undergraduate work at Georgia Tech, Buolamwini programmed a social robot to play peek-a-boo, but the robot had trouble recognizing her face. In the end, Buolamwini had to use the face of her white housemate to complete the assignment. Here was the problem with AI-powered facial detection software: it had difficulty recognizing dark-skinned faces. This realization inspired Buolamwini’s mission to create AI that is “equitable and accountable.”
Buolamwini is an expert on bias in computer algorithms — or what she calls the “coded gaze.” Facial detection software is created via machine learning techniques that incorporate training sets composed of different facial examples. However, if the sets aren’t diverse, faces that deviate from “the norm” are much harder to detect. Buolamwini’s research has uncovered racial and gender bias in AI services from companies like Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon. Yet despite these problems, the use of facial detection software is rapidly expanding into every corner of our society, from hiring to law enforcement. “Algorithmic bias, like human bias, results in unfairness. However, algorithms, like viruses, can spread bias on a massive scale at a rapid pace, ” she explains in her TED talk “How I'm Fighting Bias in Algorithms.”
A former U.S. Fulbright scholar to Zambia, Buolamwini holds two master’s degrees: one from the University of Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is a PhD candidate and researcher at MIT’s Media Lab. Throughout her studies, Buolamwini has spearheaded a number of initiatives to fight algorithmic bias and expand opportunities for youth in technology. In 2016, she founded the Algorithmic Justice League, which raises awareness of AI bias and pushes policymakers and industry leaders to take action, including using AI training sets reflecting a more diverse society. In 2018, in partnership with the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, Buolamwini launched the Safe Face Pledge to urge companies to publicly commit to mitigating the abuse of facial analysis technology, including banning the lethal use of such technology.
Buolamwini has presented her research on algorithmic bias at the United Nations and serves on the Global Tech Panel set up by the vice president of the European Commission. Her spoken word visual audit, “AI, Ain’t I a Woman?,” showing AI failures on the faces of iconic women such as Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, has been included in a number of exhibitions. Named to the BBC’s list of “100 inspiring and influential women from around the world” in 2018, Buolamwini was tapped by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” the next year. In 2016, she won one of two grand prizes in the national Search for Hidden Figures contest, which aimed to identify the next generation of women leaders in science, technology, engineering, and math. Buolamwini describes herself like this: “I am a poet of code on a mission to show compassion through computation.”