AI testing: Mark Martin of UKBlackTech says if people of colour are not considered, something serious could happen
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A video on YouTube stars a snazzy soap dispenser that automatically squirts out foam by detecting a hand waved beneath its nozzle. It appears to work seamlessly, except on black skin. During the 26-second clip — posted in 2015 — no matter how hard narrator TJ Fitzpatrick tries, all the “smart” soap dispensers in the room refuse to spew out foam on to his dark palms.

“In the testing stage of that hand dispenser, black people weren’t even thought about,” says Mark Martin, co-founder of UKBlackTech, an advocacy group. He tells the dispenser anecdote when explaining why an organisation such as his is needed.

Had the dispenser’s manufacturer included a dark-skinned person in its making and testing, such a blunder would have been spotted.

The problem does not stop there, argues Mr Martin. “If we’re making products around AI [artificial intelligence] and they’re not picking up black people and people of colour, we’re at a really great risk of something serious happening.”

It is not an unfounded fear. AI use is exploding, with the technique involved in everything from issuing loans to guiding penal sentencing. But it can go wrong. Software engineer Jacky Alciné in 2015 spotted the image-recognition algorithm in Google’s Photos app was tagging black people as gorillas.

With so much at stake, UKBlackTech, which started last year, wants to encourage tech companies to employ a more diverse workforce. One of its initiatives is a quarterly roundtable with 16 global groups spanning Facebook to IBM.

“We ask them to share good practice [about recruitment] among each other because what we found was that they were all working in silos and they all thought they had the silver bullet,” adds Mr Martin, a graduate in computing who has taught ICT for 10 years.

But critics argue the lack of diversity in the workplace lies with the quality of the candidates. The tropes whispered point to black recruits taking “soft” A-levels or attending “less prestigious” universities.

Dion McKenzie, who helps place black candidates in tech companies, despairs at such views. “If I’m helping one of my portfolio companies hire someone, we are seeing that applicants that come from a BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] background are not making it even through the screening stage,” he says. “You’ve got to ask yourself, why is that?”

To illustrate the scale of the problem, Mr McKenzie’s Colorintech, which aims to build a “more inclusive digital economy”, has conducted its own research. The non-profit scoured work by the Equality Challenge Unit and found that in the 2013/14 academic year more ethnic minority students studied SET (science, engineering and technology) subjects (48.6 per cent) than white pupils (44.7 per cent).

The talent pool is there but only four per cent of the UK tech industry is from BAME backgrounds, states Colorintech. To tackle the issue the group runs two programmes: “immersion” and “fellowship”. The latter is a paid summer internship with a tech company. In selecting participants, Mr McKenzie, a Stanford alumnus, puts black graduates through “a gruelling selection process”.

“We almost replicate a Google or Facebook recruitment process,” he adds, “[because these students] haven’t been prepped on this process before.”

With the immersion programme, groups of 15 first- and second-year undergraduates are taken to Silicon Valley, where they get to visit tech companies such as Google.

The approach seems to be paying off. A third of the students who have completed Colorintech’s schemes have secured jobs at the companies where they interned or within the Stem field.

Both fledgling groups have plans to broaden their offerings. UKBlackTech wants to see how tech can help people suffering from sickle cell, a life-threatening illness that disproportionally affects black people. Meanwhile Mr McKenzie, who also invests in start-ups, plans a five-week part-time “pre-accelerator” for entrepreneurs from a BAME background. As for Mr Fitzpatrick, of the dispenser video, a white friend appears (literally) to lend a hand to trigger some soap — a solution that today just does not wash.

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