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Coded Bias: New PBS Documentary Explores Gender & Racial Bias in AI

Joy Buolamwini-Algorithms-Artificial Intelligence-Bias in AI

An upcoming PBS documentary dives deep into the controversy surrounding bias in artificial intelligence (AI).

Coded Bias explores MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini’s shocking discovery that facial recognition does not see women and dark-skinned faces accurately. The 90-minute film covers her push for U.S. government legislation against bias in algorithms that are becoming increasingly prevalent in modern-day society.

Directed by award-winning filmmaker Shalini Kantayya, Coded Bias will premiere on PBS and PBS video app on March 22.

Kantayya tells the story of dynamic women leading the fight for the ethical use of AI. She profiles data scientists, mathematicians, ethicists, and everyday citizens from around the world who have been impacted by these disruptive technologies and are fighting to shed light on the impact of unconscious bias in artificial intelligence.

The documentary contextualizes Buolamwini’s findings and her journey to creating the Algorithmic Justice League by taking viewers around our increasingly technology-reliant world. That’s everywhere from Houston, Texas, where teachers are evaluated using algorithms to across the pond in London, U.K., where police are piloting the use of facial recognition technology.

Described as “terrifying” by the Chicago Reader and a “chilling plunge into Orwellian reality” by the Hollywood Reporter, the film explores how Buolamwini was first exposed to this issue when facial recognition software only detected her while wearing a white mask.

Coded Bias asks two key questions: what is the impact of artificial intelligence’s increasing role in governing our liberties? And what are the consequences for people stuck in the crosshairs due to their race, color, and gender?

Homogeneous Group Of Men Defined AI

The film weaves the history of a small homogeneous group of men who defined artificial intelligence and forged the culture of Silicon Valley. It concludes that automated decision-making has unprecedented power to disseminate bias at scale.

Coded Bias illustrates the profound ways in which algorithms have come to shape people’s lives, with very little oversight from public and elected officials,” said Kantayya. “It’s my hope that the film pushes audiences toward a greater awareness about how these disruptive technologies impact issues of equality and equity and that it, in turn, encourages more people to speak up and hold the companies behind them accountable.”

In 2018, Buolamwini discovered that most facial recognition software is inaccurate when detecting women’s and darker-skinned faces. The self-proclaimed poet in code created a viral spoken word video titled “AI, Aint I a woman?” which highlighted this issue using prominent figures like Ida B Wells, Michelle Obama, and Serena Williams.


The Critics’ Choice Award-nominated film features mainly women discussing these issues and how to best go about solving them. This is an unintentional, but plausible occurrence considering women of color are disproportionately affected by these biases within technology.

“My film is mostly women, but it was not intentional when I began the film,” Kantayya said to NPR. “What I found was there was this group of mathematicians and data scientists who were incredibly astute, well researched, but at the same time had this commitment to their humanity. Many had a double identity: were a woman, were of color. And that allowed them to see this issue from an entirely different perspective.”

Coded Bias premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival receiving a nomination for Best Science Documentary at the Critics’ Choice Award and NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding documentary.

Photos Courtesy of Coded Bias



    Nick Telman
    Nick Telman
    Nick Telman is a contributing writer for UrbanGeekz