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This is the TED Radio Hour. Each week, groundbreaking TED talks. Our job now is to dream big delivered at TED conferences to bring about the future we want to see around the world to understand who we are.
From those talks, we bring you speakers and ideas that will surprise you. You just don't know what you're going to find, challenge you, which we have to ask ourselves, like why is it noteworthy and even change you? I literally feel like I'm a different person. Yes. Do you feel that way? Ideas worth spreading. From Ted and NPR. I'm a new summer roadie, and to mark the achievements, the excellence and accomplishments of black Americans this Black History Month, the team and I want to dedicate this episode to three truly inspiring people whom we've had on the show, people who deserve to be celebrated for their ideas and the work they're doing to protect the history, health and rights of African-Americans.
We want to start with a trip I took to Birmingham, Alabama, exactly one year ago. And we're standing at the 1963 march on Alabama in the heart of downtown.
Spread over just a few small blocks is the Civil Rights Historic District. There's Kelly Ingram Park.
I'm just across the way from there is the 16th Street Baptist Church, September 15th, 1963, bundles of dynamite set by Klansmen on this side of the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four lives.
And one block away from that is the Gaston Motel, the first black owned motel in Alabama.
Most individuals could pass a building like this and have no idea the history that is embodied in these walls, in this brick, in this wood. And they look at a vacant motel that's in a condition like this. And and and couldn't imagine that that Jim Crow ended because of the sacrifice and the community organizing in Birmingham.
This is Brent Legs. He heads the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
And my work is to elevate the significance of African-American history in American history.
And he does that by preserving historic places and buildings like the Angaston. Right now, the motel is boarded up and rundown, but it wasn't always that way. It really looks like your quintessential stereotypical American motel, like a Howard Johnson's that split-Level motel. And people I can imagine in the 50s and 60s hanging out on their balcony, maybe having a smoke. But was it like a fancy like motel is a drive in? Yeah. Was it nice?
You know, it was. So Jet magazine said that it was one of the most luxurious black motels in all of America.
It was also where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed when he was in Birmingham.
And from his motel room, he helped organize sit ins, boycotts and marches that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Right here was room 30, right around the corner right there in the corner on the second floor is where Dr. King was. It was Dr. King. That was his room. It was the largest room and in the motel. And it was like and I can't explain it, but there are shivers, like like I just got goosebumps. Like, there's something really there's something really weird about thinking like, oh, right here where my feet are walking.
Dr. King was walking up these stairs to the second level on the corner where his room was, and he made a plan to change that, to change America like Dr. Martin Luther King.
It happened right there. Thank you very kindly, my very dear friend.
And some of the protest marches literally started from right here coming out of the motel.
Coming out of the motel.
Yeah, as long as we keep moving like we are moving the power structure of Birmingham, we'll have to give in right here on the side of the building near King's Room is where a bomb exploded.
And on May 11, a bomb was detonated at the Black A.G. Gaston Hotel. There was an assassination attempt on King's life. Oh, my lord.
That bombing was one of over 40 bombings targeting the black community in Birmingham from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s. They were scare tactics to keep black people from organizing or moving into white neighborhoods. So what do they do?
How do they even function? There's bombs going off around here, like how do they keep this motel in business? I know it's hard to imagine living in a community where bombs were going off at nighttime in the daytime, that you had no idea whether or not you would be able to go back home to your family because you were involved in activities that that, in your opinion, was helping to make society better. I mean, the resilience of this neighborhood, like just walking around here, it's so cold.
And the the the madness that was happening on a daily basis in terms of people being arrested and bombs going off and hostile interactions with police like. There must have been such a steeliness to and they're there meeting in motels where the who knows what could happen, they could be assassinated at any moment. Yeah, that's what I think is beautiful about this story, is the fearlessness. Of the activists here, in spite of the difficulties and we're going to have a few more difficulties, keep coming through violence and fear, the black community had a resolve and they moved through that fear to shape the consciousness of our nation.
Keep moving if you can't fly wrong, if you can't run left, if you can't walk. But by all means, keep moving. I've been thinking a lot about my trip to Birmingham, the Gaston Motel, my conversation with Brent, and I just keep thinking history is repeating itself. I think some of the cultural conflicts that we see that's rooted in race and that's rooted in a legacy of slavery has yet to be fully acknowledged. So when we preserve a place like the A.G. Gaston Motel that tells a civil rights story, we are reminded that we still have a long way to go to be inclusive as a country and to respect all of our citizens and their contributions.
Has no no Justice Department. Never in the history of this nation have so many people been arrested. For the cause of freedom and human dignity, and you're tired of being second class citizen. The Birmingham campaign, the march from Selma, the Montgomery bus boycott, the same issues that brought people into the streets then are bringing people into the streets. Now, it's because this country has not faced its past. As long as you stay, Second-Class citizens.
You will never get the thing that you should have. The thing that we are challenged to do is to keep this movement moving. That is power in unity. And there's power in numbers. Yeah.
So, Brent, we are at a moment when race is at the forefront of the national conversation and of course, part of that conversation is about confronting our history, how do you think we can begin to make amends for our country's past atrocities? Making amends means that black Americans are appreciated, that our community is recognized for a 400 plus year contribution, that our history and the physical places where that history is is held are preserved. Making amends means that our nation is making new investments to address years of disinvestment and equity.
I believe that making amends is to understand that the black experience is an American experience.
There is a statistic that I read that really I found kind of shocking that there are nearly 100000 entries in the National Register of Historic Places, but only two percent of those focused on African-American history.
Can you just help us understand how that possibly came to be?
I think in many ways that our National Register of Historic Places, which is the nation's inventory of historic sites that tell an American story, it really is a mirror. A mirror is social issues.
The National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a whole coalition of advocates are working to rectify this inequity and to list more diverse historic places in our national inventory. So the big vision of the action fund is to reconstruct our national identity. And our tagline is tell the full history. And we do that by preserving sites of enslavement, but with a deeper focus on helping to preserve sites of activism, achievement and community.
I mean, that's a humongous goal, reconstructing our national identity. Do you feel like most Americans? Are basing what they think it means to be American on an incomplete story, like what are they missing? That's exactly it. When I travel around the country and I meet with citizens or organizations and and I bring up individuals like Madam C.J. Walker, America's first self-made female millionaire, in 1989, she constructed an elegant, historic residence that stands in Irvington, New York, as a symbol of American entrepreneurship.
And many Americans have no idea that a black woman was the first self-made millionaire. So it's no. Yeah, I did not know that. Yeah, yeah.
So it's important that Americans know this history. Because all Americans should be able to see themselves and their history and their potential and the African-American historic places that surround them. And so where do you stand in terms of removing Confederate memorials? Do you think that's a way of making amends? Our position is that we should not erase our history at the same time, we don't have to revere it. When we come back, we'll hear more from Brent legs on tearing down Confederate monuments.
We're keeping them.
I'm a new Sumathi and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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That's furniture magic. When the survivors of a mass shooting at a newspaper went back to work, everything was different, even email. What if someone's sending us more death threats? Or what if somebody sends me a death threat and I don't see it and then somebody comes and kills all my friends and it's my folks. I didn't read the email. That's this week on the Capital Gazette series from NPR's Embedded.
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR, I'm Anoush Zamora. And on the show today, in honor of Black History Month, we're revisiting some powerful conversations with inspiring black Americans who are working to confront the past so that we can move forward to a better future. And before the break, we were talking to preservationist Brent Legs about whether removing Confederate statues does indeed rectify our past.
Our position is that we should not erase our history at the same time, we don't have to revere it. And I think what's exciting is many communities are bringing together their citizens to say, how can we tell a fuller story about our city and about the citizens that have contributed so much to it.
Yeah, it almost I'm starting to picture it in my mind as almost like a manuscript being edited and like some of the people are going in and crossing things out and removing entire passages.
And then another people are going in and saying, like, actually we should keep that sentence and maybe massage that one and that we're in this sort of iterative process, a creative process of recognizing the way that we have told the story of our nation, in addition to this new recognition that we have to find a new way to explain how we've gotten to this moment where we racism still is alive and well in this country. That is so true. And there is there is power and truth.
And even for the Confederate memorials that stand, if we are brave enough to tell the truth for why they exist, that is empowering to communities and it begins to help to reconcile our racist past. And I think in many ways it begins to help diverse citizens relate to one another better if you do preserve and maintain all of these sites.
How far does that actually go in terms of healing this country?
I think it goes a long way. I think it's an opportunity for all Americans to be educated, to reflect on their understanding of history, on the injustices faced by black people in our country, and most importantly, honor all of the contributions that African Americans have made to this amazing democracy that we call America. We are talking about moments where Americans will, when they're walking down the street and they see a historic marker or they take a moment to walk inside a historic space and learn and interact with that history, we can create millions of cultural moments for Americans to learn something new about our own history and to walk away more empowered than they were before they were connected with that history.
What do you think all those millions of moments can add up to, please? Yeah, I would say all these moments add up to. Healing and a man's education respect. Acknowledgement. And I think all of those words equal reconciliation. Brent Legs is the executive director of the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. He has helped raise over twenty three million dollars to put towards preservation of places important to African-American history. On the show today, remembering black history and looking towards the future, last fall, we did an episode about our relationship with water, and for some people, that relationship is with the water they drink.
But for others, it's the water that surrounds them.
The bayou is green and lush and all of the things that equal bountiful life.
But it is also watery and muddy. You can smell everything you can smell when something has died.
You can smell when something is newly bloomed. The swamp is very noisy, it's never quiet, full of everything, but if you had to live there your whole life, you would have everything you needed.
This is Collette Keshawn Battle. She was born and raised in southern Louisiana and grew up in the middle of all of those smells and sounds.
Yeah, I grew up in Bayou Liberty, just north of New Orleans, in the bayou. I lived in the house where my mother was born that my grandfather built. I lived on the land that has been in my family for generations, even before it was America. Collette is an attorney.
She practiced law for years, but these days she's taken on another role.
I'm a climate activist now, not a title I would have given myself, not a title I would have preferred. But I'll take it.
Whatever works, she'll take it because she feels like she doesn't have a choice. Rising sea levels and stronger storms are constantly threatening the land that Collette's family has lived on for generations.
I work at the community level to make sure that black folks and poor folks and native folks are part of this climate movement.
For Collette, that means bringing her neighbors into the policy conversations, sharing the science around global warming and making sure that they contribute their knowledge to because this community understands the ebb and flow of the water better than anyone.
Our livelihood and our life was absolutely with water every day. And in the spring, which most folks understand this hurricane season, that is where we really had to start paying attention. So you would hear people talking about how much rain they got, how far that the flooding go up.
But it was it wasn't a panic. It was more informational.
And I can remember as a child during hurricanes, the hurricane has like three portions to it.
It's the sort of outer wall, the eye and then the next squall. And as a kid, when the eye would pass. So that was always when you would have several hours of open, clear sky, clear air and you could go check on things. And I remember it being so much fun to go out in the eye of the storm to go check on folks. Isn't that crazy? You get in and we call them Pierro in a flat bottomed boat.
You get in a Pirone, go down the street, make sure folks were OK. It was just enough time to go make sure no one had a tree in their roof or needed help. And then you would go back in and you would wait for that other band to go across. And it wasn't a terrible existence. It was just one way you had to have traditional knowledge coupled with your reality in order to survive.
Nature was somewhat predictable, but all that changed in 2005 when those weather patterns shifted. The real moment of noticing that change was Katrina, the water became unrecognizable as the storm ripped through and then scattered Collette's community. I mean, they were all over and we finally just got a number to folks to call in. At one time, we got to hear what was going on or what had happened or what folks had left. And we start with our Vuh, with our old people.
And the first words out of their mouths were the water has never been this high. And that is when I started learning about the loss of our barrier islands due to oil and gas drilling. And so the things that protected us weren't there anymore. And the sea level is higher. And so the drastic and dramatic changes was noticeable and evident to everyone. And at the time, you weren't home, right? You had left Louisiana, you were practicing law in DC, but then you dropped everything and changed your career.
It was a crack in the universe to come home and see the destruction of Katrina. And it was in that moment that I said I was never leaving home again. You see that kind of destruction and your life will change whether you want it to or not. That was my moment of career change. I was going to have to take a much different advocacy role, not standing in front of a court pointing to particular pieces of of law, but instead standing in front of my community and convince them of what I knew deep in my heart, which was that climate change was going to come after all of us and that it was going to take what we love the most, which is where we're from.
A couple of years after Katrina, Collette and her community realized that hurricanes of this magnitude were here to stay, and that might mean that they needed to go.
She picks up the story from the TED stage.
It was about two years after Hurricane Katrina that I first saw the Louisiana flood maps.
These flood maps are used to show land lost in the past and land lost. That is to come. On this particular day at a community meeting, I volunteered to interact with the graphics on the wall and in an instant my life changed for the second time in two years. The graphics showed massive land loss, but more specifically, the graphics showed the disappearance of my community and many other communities before the end of the century.
I was standing there with other members of South Louisiana's communities, black, native, poor.
We thought we were just bound by temporary disaster recovery, but we found that we were now bound by the impossible task of ensuring that our communities would not be erased due to climate change.
I just assumed it would always be their land, trees, bayous.
I just assumed that it would be there, as it had been for thousands of years. I was wrong. Now, Collette, I mean, it's so upsetting and knowing what you know now, like what happens if there is another Katrina? How does it work?
Where do people go? There is another Katrina on the way. We can't start from any other premise.
The mass displacement that comes with a hurricane like Katrina is unbelievable. The first wave is people who are, I would say in the working class, folks who have a car and the ability to leave.
Yeah, there's another wave of displacement that comes with sort of mandatory evacuation.
So whatever a city has to get the poorest people out and those folks are often given one way tickets to a place they've never heard of.
And the third round of displacement is probably the most heartbreaking for me, which is if you are a parent with a small child or an elderly person with a condition, you now have to go somewhere safe and you end up shifting your residence not because you want to, but because the structures and conditions that you need to have your life aren't here. There were no hospitals. There were no schools. And so you can't fault people for leaving. But when those that third group of people leave, they leave for a very long time, if not for good.
But it's not like these things aren't foreseeable. Right?
I mean, how prepared are government agencies like FEMA for a future with more natural disasters, which means more climate migration?
Well, this is interesting and it's the right question. What do we have in place for climate change? And I was honored to be invited to the White House to a conversation with FEMA.
And to be clear, this was during the Obama administration, right? Yeah.
Specifically about our preparedness and resiliency. But the FEMA administrator said, I understand what you're saying, but the FEMA regulations aren't meant for the most vulnerable communities.
The disaster process of this country are meant for the middle class, what they're meant for the middle class. If you think about it, it sounds strange, right? Your heart like that can't be true, except the truth of it is, is that all of the laws in this country are meant for the middle class at best.
There is a large swath of people who are never included. This was an honest comment from the head of FEMA. This is what you realize when you recognize that the structures that are in place right now are absolutely not meant for me. And so if we're going to survive this, we're going to have to figure some things out for ourselves while we go through the process of saving our democracy and shifting our laws and structures.
By the end of the next century, it's predicted that more than 180 million people will be displaced due to climate change.
And in south Louisiana, those who can afford to do so are already moving.
They're moving because south Louisiana is losing land at one of the fastest rates on the planet.
We must start preparing for global migration today.
This will cause rounds of climate gentrification, climate gentrification that happens in anticipation of sea level rise is what we're seeing in places like Miami, where communities that were kept from the waterfront are now being priced out of the high ground where they were placed originally as people move away from the coast. And climate migration is just one small part, but it's going to have ripple effects in both coastal cities and cities in the interior. So what do we do? We must reframe our understanding of the problem.
Climate change is not the problem. Climate change is the most horrible symptom of an economic system that has been built for a few to extract every precious value out of this planet and its people.
To survive this next phase of our human existence, we will need to restructure our social and economic systems to develop our collective resilience.
Galette, I mean, on a day to day basis, what does that look like for you? How do you keep up this energy?
Yeah, you know, I have over the last couple of years called into my life a more spiritual approach to my work. So it's an honor now. It used to be a duty and now I see it as an honor. This work will make me hate the water or even fear it. And that is absolutely not who I am or where I come from.
It would even make me hate this place. Right, and hate people. And that is also not who I'm from. We are not a people who who are energized by hatred. I come from people who were energized by joy and we're real, real loud, just like that swamp, you know, all those crickets and all that. You can you can hear us. You can smell us. You can you can come join us any time. That's who I come from.
And I was losing it. And so I have been on a spiritual journey. We're running as Sacred Waters pilgrimage right now with black and native women to heal the relationships of native and black folks with each other and to heal the relationship of humanity with our water, with our earth.
We are literally doing a pilgrimage down the Mississippi River for the next seven months to make sure that we advance this, not using legislation, not even using technology, using traditional ecological knowledge and cultural traditions to advance our relationships with one another and our understanding of this planet and the water that she holds, which is our life, the sacred waters pilgrimage.
What what exactly happens on this? Can you tell me more about it? So we pray black and native women and to spirit folks are invited to join the pilgrimage and we come together and we develop a collective ceremony using African tradition and native traditions.
We started Juneteenth at the headwaters in Minnesota. Interestingly enough, the state where George Floyd was killed, this was planned last year. In July, by the way, the water called us to that place. Wow. And so the prayers that were offered were not just that we heal our relationship with this earth, but it was that we humans heal our relationship with one another.
And that is a place full of pain. You can feel it as soon as you arrive. And so we come together, we pray, we sing, we honor each other.
We have courageous conversations about our histories with one another and what colonizing forces had black folks do to native folks and what colonizing forces had native folks do to black folks. And we ask for reconciliation and forgiveness because we know that if the the victims of the original sins of this country can get together and form a united front, we can actually change this country.
That's Colette Pichon Battle.
She's the executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy in Louisiana. You can see her full talk at Ted. Com. On the show today, we're revisiting powerful conversations with black Americans who have big ideas on how to confront our past and build a better future. I'm a new samadhi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Oh, hey, everyone, just a quick thanks to our sponsor, Microsoft teams, Microsoft teams is helping Priority Bicycle's reinvent the way they work.
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He was one of the most consequential architects of the civil rights movement, but you may never have heard of him for our Black History Month special series, Bayard Rustin, who made nonviolence part of the fight for civil rights and organized the march on Washington.
Listen now to the Throughline podcast from NPR. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR, I'm a New Jersey morality in this hour, we have been honoring Black History Month with some of our favorite interviews from the past year, conversations about history and climate justice. And this next speaker is from our show about deception and misinformation, explaining how data and algorithms can warp our reality and discriminate to we can deceive ourselves into thinking they're not doing harm or we can fool ourselves into thinking because it's based on numbers that it is somehow neutral.
A.I. is creeping into our lives.
And even though the promises that is going to be more efficient, it's going to be better. If what's happening is we're automating inequality through weapons of mass destruction and we have algorithms of oppression. This promise is not actually true and certainly not true for everybody.
Weapons of mass destruction, algorithms of oppression, which basically means bias and human error, can be encoded into algorithms leading to inequality to keep them in check. The Algorithmic Justice League to the rescue.
My name is Joy Bluhm Winnie. I'm the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, where we use research and art to create a world with more equitable and accountable A.I..
You might have heard of the male gaze or the white gaze or the post-colonial gaze to that lexicon, I add the coded gaze and we want to make sure people are even aware of it because you can't fight the power you don't see.
You don't know about.
Joy hunts down the flaws in the technology that's running every part of our lives from deciding what we see on Instagram to how we might be sentenced for a crime.
What happens when somebody is harmed by a system you created? You know what happens if you're harmed? Where do you go when we want that kind of place to be the algorithmic justice league so you can seek redress for algorithmic harms?
You are a lot of things. You're a poet. You're a computer scientist. You are a superhero. Like kind of hard to put into a box. Can you just explain why you created the Algorithmic Justice League? Yes.
So the algorithmic justice league is a bit of an accident. When I was in graduate school, I was working on an art project that used some computer vision technology to track my face.
I camera. I've got a face. Can you see my face? It's at least that was the idea. You can see her face.
What about my face?
And when I try to get it to work on my face, I found that putting a white mask on my dark skin.
Well, it's got a mask is what I needed in order to have the system pick me up. And so that led to questions about weight.
Are machines neutral? Why do I need to change myself to be seen by a machine?
And if this is using techniques that are being used in other areas of our lives, whether it's health or education, transportation, the criminal justice system, what does it mean if different kinds of mistakes are being made? And also even if these systems do work? Well, let's say you are able to track a face perfectly. What does that mean for surveillance? What does it mean for democracy, First Amendment rights? You know, joy continues from the TED stage.
Across the US, police departments are starting to use facial recognition software in their crime fighting arsenal. Georgetown Law published a report showing that one in two adults in the US, that's one hundred and seventeen million people have their faces and facial recognition networks.
Police departments can currently look at these networks unregulated, using algorithms that have not been audited for accuracy.
Machine learning is being used for facial recognition, but it's also extending beyond the realm of computer vision. So who gets hired or fired?
Do you get that loan? Do you get insurance or are you admitted into the college that you wanted to get into? Do you and I pay the same price for the same product purchased on the same platform?
Law enforcement is also starting to use machine learning for predictive policing.
Some judges use machine generated arrest scores to determine how long an individual is going to spend in prison.
So we really have to think about these decisions. Are they fair? And we've seen that algorithmic bias doesn't necessarily always lead to fair outcomes. When I think about algorithmic bias and people ask me, well, what do you mean, machines are biased?
It's just numbers, it's just data. I talk about machine learning and it's a question of, well, what is the machine learning from? Well, what is the machine learning from?
Like, what's the information that it's taking in?
So an example of this. What I found was that for face detection, the ways in which systems were being trained involve collecting large data sets of images of human faces. And when you look at those data sets, I found that many of them were pale and male. Right. You might have a data set that seventy five percent male faces, over 80 percent lighter skin faces. And so what it means is the machine is learning a representation of the world that is skewed.
And so what you might have thought should be a neutral process is actually reflecting the biases that it has been trained on. And sometimes what you're seeing is a skewed representation. But other times what machines are picking up on are our own societal biases that are actually true to the data.
For example, Amazon was building a hiring tool.
You need a job. Somebody in their life needs a job. Right? You want to get hired and to get hired, you upload your resume and your cover letter. That's the goal. It starts off well.
But before a human looks at your resume, it gets vetted by algorithms written by software engineers.
So we start off with an intent for efficiency. We have many more applications than any human could go through. Let's create a system that can do it more efficiently than we can and how to build that better system?
Well, we're going to gather data of resumes and we're going to sort those resumes by the ones that represented candidates we hired or did well. Your target is who you think will be a good long term employee.
And now the system gets trained on the data and the system is learning from prior data. So I like to say the past dwells within our algorithms. You don't have to have the census hiring manager in front of you. Now you have a black box that's serving as the gatekeeper.
But what it's learning are the patterns of what success has looked like in the past. So if we're defining success by how it's looked like in the past and the past has been one where men were given opportunity, white people were given opportunity, and you don't necessarily fit that profile, even though you might think you're creating this objective system. It's going through resumes. Right? This is where we run into problems. So here's what happened with Amazon's hiring tool.
What happened was, as the model was being built and it was being tested, what they found was a gender bias where resumes that contained the word women or women's or even all women's colleges. Right. So indication of being a woman were categorically being ranked lower than those that didn't and try as they might. They were not able to remove that gender bias. So they ended up scratching the system.
They scratch the system and that's a big win, but one win compared to thousands of platforms that use skewed algorithms that could warp reality, it has not been the case that we've had universal equality or absolute equality, in the words of Frederick Douglass.
And I especially worry about this when we think about techno benevolence in the space of health care.
Right. We're looking at, let's say, a breakthrough that comes in, talking about skin care, skin cancer. Oh, we now have a system, right. That can classify skin cancer as well as the top dermatologist. A study might say, a headline might read.
And then when you look at it like, oh, well, actually, when you look at the data set, it was for lighter skinned individuals, then you might argue, well, you know, lighter skinned people are more likely to get skin cancer. And when I was looking into this, it actually darker skinned people who get skin cancer. Usually it's detected in stage four because they're all of these assumptions. You're not even going to get it in the first place.
So these assumptions can have meaningful consequences. Have you seen any examples of artificial intelligence being used in voting or politics? Yes. So Channel four News just did this massive investigation showing that the 2016 Trump campaign targeted three point five million African-Americans in the United States, labeled them as deterrents in an attempt to actually keep people from showing up to the polls. They used targeted ads. Yes. And we know we know from Facebook's own research, right.
That you can influence voter turnout based on the kinds of posts that are put on their platform. And they did this in battleground states. And so in this way, we're seeing predictive modeling and targeting. Right.
Being used as a tool of voter suppression, which has always been the case to disenfranchise. Right. You might say black lives don't matter, but it's clear black votes matter because of so much effort used to rob people of what blood was spilt for, you know, for generations. So it should be the case. Right, that any sorts of algorithmic tools that are intended to be used again have to be verified for non-discrimination before it's even adopted. So as a black woman technologist, you know, there are not that many of you, frankly, why not, you know, go work at Google or Amazon and make these changes to the algorithms directly.
Why act as sort of a watchdog?
Well, I think there are multiple ways to be involved in the ecosystem.
But I do think this question you pose is really important because it can be an assumption that by changing who's in the room, which is an important and needs to happen, we're going to then change the outcome and the outputs of these systems. So I like to remind people that most software developers, engineers, computer scientists, you don't build everything from scratch. Right? You you get reusable parts. And so if there's bias within those reusable parts or large scale bias biasing the data sets that have become standard practice or the status quo.
Right. Changing the people who are involved in the system without changing the system itself is still going to reproduce algorithmic bias and algorithmic harms.
So how do we build systems that are more fair, like if there's no data for the artificial intelligence to sort of process to to start to pump out recommendations, then then how do we even change that? Yeah, well, it's a question of what tools do you use towards what objectives. So the first thing is seeing if this is the appropriate tool. Not every tool, not every decision needs to be run through A.I. And oftentimes you also need to make sure you're being intentional.
And so the concrete changes you would need to make systematically for even who gets into the job pool in general, it means you do have to change society to change what A.I. is learning.
What do you say to people who might be listening and thinking like, you know, you let's let's take take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
We in many ways, things are way better than they were thanks to technology, because, you know, here we are in a pandemic and anyone can work from anywhere because we have the Internet and we have Zoome and all of these platforms, quality and access is on the whole improved. Why? Let's let's not, like, be Debbie Downer about it.
Yeah. I mean, I always ask who can afford to say that? Because I can tell you the kids who are sitting in McDonald's parking lot so they can access the Internet to be able to attend school remotely, that has never been their reality. And so oftentimes, if you are able to say technology on the whole has done well, it probably means you're in a fairly privileged position.
There's still a huge digital divide even there billions of people who don't have access to the Internet.
I mean, I was born in Canada. I moved to Ghana and then grew up in the US. I had very Western assumptions, you know, about what tech could do and very much excited to use the tech skills I'd gained as an undergrad at Georgia Tech, you know, to use tech for good tech for the benefit of humanity. And so when I critique tech. It's really coming from a place of having been enamored with it and wanting it to live up to its promises.
I don't think it's being a Debbie Downer to show ways in which we can improve. So the promise of something we've created can actually be realized.
I think that's even a more optimistic approach than to believe in a wishful thinking.
That is not true.
You know, one thing that you've said that I find so I love this idea that you say there's a difference between potential and reality and that we must separate those two ideas. Yes.
So it's so easy to fixate on our aspirations of what could be. And I think in some ways is this hope that we can transcend our own humanity, write our own failures.
And so, yes, even if we haven't gotten society quite right, ideally we can build technology that better than we are. But we then have to look at that fact that technology reflects who we are, it doesn't transcend who we are. And so I think it's important that when we think about technology, we ask, what's the promise? What's the reality? And not only what's that gap, but who does it work for?
Who does that benefit, who does it harm and why?
And also how do we then step up and stand up to those harms?
That's Joy Whilom Wienie, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League. You can watch her full talk at Ted Dotcom. Thank you so much for listening to our show this week, celebrating Black History Month to learn more about the people who were on it. And for more powerful stories and ideas from black speakers, check out our Black History Month playlist at Ted Unpeg. And of course, to see hundreds more TED talks, check out Ted Dotcom or the TED app.
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