IBM quits facial recognition because Black Lives Matter

CEO Arvind Krishna tells Congress it’s time to debate law enforcement reform, including access to AI

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IBM has discontinued its "general-purpose" facial recognition and analysis software.

News that Big Blue has binned the products came in a letter penned by CEO Arvind Krishna and sent to two US senators and three members of the house that references IBM’s past actions to create an inclusive workplace, but lamenting that “the horrible and tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and too many others remind us that the fight against racism is as urgent as ever.”

Krishna therefore offered that IBM will “work with Congress in pursuit of justice and racial equity” and suggested “responsible technology policies” as one measure to advance the cause. His definition of “responsible” is that tech “must not promote discrimination or racial injustice.”

IBM appears to have made a change to walk the talk.

“IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software,” Krishna wrote.

“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. 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.

“Artificial Intelligence is a powerful tool that can help law enforcement keep citizens safe. But vendors and users of Al systems have a shared responsibility to ensure that Al is tested for bias, particularity when used in law enforcement, and that such bias testing is audited and reported.”

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Krishan also called for reform of police – and a database to record police misconduct - and for Congress to consider more programmes that help communities of colour access education opportunities that lead to jobs in tech. He offered two IBM initiatives as fine exemplars of such programmes.

IBM’s anti-surveillance stance marks it out from some rivals, notably Clearview AI.

But The Register would be remiss if we did not point out that IBM’s facial recognition tech has been far from colour-blind in the past. The IT giant was rated the worst performed in a test of three facial recognition software packages. As we reported in early 2018, “IBM struggled the most with darker skin tones. The results report error rates of 0.3 per cent for white males, 7.1 per cent for white females, 12 per cent for black males and 34.7 per for black females.”

Big Blue has also been criticised and sued over its use of Creative-Commons-licenced images for a facial recognition training dataset that it offered as more diverse than previous such collections. ®

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