Video of “racist HP computers” reinforces race in America is a black and white issue

Here’s a video that’s gone viral and forced Hewlett-Packard to respond quickly to try and minimize any damage to its brand from people who think that HP is manufacturing racist computers. Like most people who see this video, which pretty much proves that HP computers’ wiz-bang video tracking-facial recognition feature can’t distinguish dark-skinned faces, I’m both amused and appalled.

The video, which was shot by two employees of a computer or electronics store (it’s never mentioned and you can’t tell from the background, though it seems to have been made at work), a white woman and a black man, who show that the software will follow a white person’s face while she moves from side to side and back and forth, but not a black person.

HP’s response was posted Sunday, Dec. 13.

Some of you may have seen or heard of a YouTube video in which the facial-tracking software didn’t work for a customer. We thank Desi, and the people who have seen and commented on his video, for bringing this subject to our attention.

We are working with our partners to learn more. The technology we use is built on standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose. We believe that the camera might have difficulty “seeing” contrast in conditions where there is insufficient foreground lighting.

HP deserves some kudos for dealing with the issue quickly, and for acknowledging the two who made the video. And the company’s reasoning for the technical flaw is believable — the tests below conducted by Laptop Magazine support the theory that darker complexions need better lighting for the tracking feature to work. But As Ken Wheaton asks in an AdAge blog:

That said, HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?!?

I can see two plausible explanations:

1. The company didn’t test this bit of technology at any time on anyone with dark skin.
or
2. The company did test it on various skin types but only tested it using optimal lighting.
Either way, not very bright. I know some tech engineers can be a little dim when it comes to recognizing how equipment will work with actual humans, but aren’t there other stops along the product-development way?

The other question I have, is that no one seems to have tested this feature on anyone except white and black faces. It always saddens me that the conversation about race in America is so often only about the two ends of the spectrum, and not about the many shades of gray (yellow, brown, red — whatever old-world terms you want to use) that fall in between.

I haven’t seen anything on YouTube yet, but has anyone with this feature tested it on Asian faces? How about South Asian faces? OK, so it may be a trifle to harp about this, when the issue is darkness of skin color, not various ethnicities. But I found it interesting that the Laptop mag staff tried the test with a light-skinned black woman, a dark-skinned black man, and a white woman.

My first reaction when I heard about this was, “Wow, I wonder how it would on me.” And I bet I’m not the only Asian who thought this. If I were South Asian, I’d be curious. If I’m of Arabic descent, or Hispanic, I’d want to know.

But nope.

I don’t deny African Americans their right to point out racial inequities too. They’ve certainly suffered because of their skin color throughout our history. But so have other people of color.

Yet, when there’s talk of racism, it’s usually not about people like me. I guess that’s why I, and other Asian American bloggers write so much about racism and Asian stereotypes. Non-Asians might think I’m overly sensitive or politically correct.

But you know what, someone’s got to write about stuff that happens to people like me.

Here is the two-part video posted by staffers at Laptop Magazine conducted their own tests in their office, where K.T. Bradford, a light-skinned black woman, and two co-workers, a dark-skinned black man and a white woman, sat in front of an HP computer. They came up with the same results in a first test:

But the system worked a little better when they tried a second test after adjusting the “backlight” seeting on the computer:

Finally, here’s a Mashable report on a statement by the two friends who created the video.

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One Response to Video of “racist HP computers” reinforces race in America is a black and white issue

  1. Simon Tsui says:

    I never understood the appeal of facial-recognition tracking for webcams. If I wanted to webcam with someone, I’d sit in front of my laptop… and if I want someone to see my face, I’d stay put in front of the camera.

    But still, it’s quite astounding how Hewlett Packard failed to test their face tracking for black people. Based on what the facial recognition’s said algorithm does, I’m sure someone in the QA or Usability department must’ve figured that it might not work for everyone.

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