Edition #54 – Joy Buolamwini answers 7 questions

by | Oct 31, 2023

1. Why are you an author?

As a researcher and an artist, I have used scientific papers and poetry to convey my discoveries and perspective on AI. At this moment in the evolution of AI, I decided to put on the author hat and write a book because far too often the people most impacted by AI systems have the least voice in conversations about AI. I truly believe if you have a face you have a place in conversations about technologies that shape our lives. I became an author to invite more people into urgent conversations and pending choices about the future of AI.

2. Who inspired your literary inspirations?

As a young Ghanaian-American immigrant, I have drawn immense inspiration from Yaa Gyasi the author of Homegoing given our shared background and her impact at a young age. Seeing her shine made me think it was possible for me to follow her example. I am also inspired by Maya Angelou in the way she wove poetry and prose throughout her body of work with raw vulnerability and hard earned truths.

3. What is your writing routine?

I need uninterrupted time for deep focus on book length work, so I generally take off extended time. After the first 20,000 words of Unmasking AI which were done more or less sporadically, I took off 6 weeks and entered a self-imposed writing boot camp. I set a daily word count target and wrote from 9 – 12pm and then 2- 4pm or so. I had no major obligations during writing boot camp other than eating well and sleeping well. Otherwise, I am generally up late or very early in the morning working on an op-ed before or after my normal work schedule.

4. Why did you write this book?

Unmasking AI
By Joy Buolamwini

As someone who was once so enamored with technology and eager to become a robotics engineer, I am an optimist and tech geek at heart. My experiences with biased AI systems, literally forced me to look at topics I did not wish to face like algorithmic discrimination. I wrote the Unmasking AI because I still believe in the promise of AI, and my work with the Algorithmic Justice League has shown me we can change the trajectory of how AI is designed and deployed. I wrote the book for the excoded, people like Porcha Woodruff who was falsely arrested while 8 months pregnant due to faulty facial recognition, so we can put a face to AI harms and also work to create more equitable and accountable technology.

5. What were the biggest obstacles in writing this book?

I started this book in 2020 during a pandemic while I was finishing a PhD. At first I thought the book and PhD would be more or less the same project. Once I began writing, it became clear that the accessible voice I wanted for the book would not serve the requirements for the PhD. So I decided to first finish my doctoral dissertation and then continue this book, which I wrapped up in 2023. By 2023, AI captured headlines and the public imagination like never before, so it became a challenge to write something both timely and timeless with the rapid advancement of AI.

6. Who are the key points of the book?

No one is immune to being excoded, experiencing AI harms, and it can happen in unexpected ways Existential risks already exist with AI systems that kill us slowly through encoding structural violence The tracking of our traces and the plunder of our data is not inevitable, and the poet vs goliath stories in the book shows that strategically sharing lived experience can be an important though overlooked catalyst for change The foundations of ascending AI systems are too often built on stolen data but it is not too late to reset the way AI systems are developed so we have a foundation of fair trade data and ethical AI processes.

7. Where may we find you online?