Thursday, June 01, 2017

How To Make Computers Work For People Like You

Years ago I was giving a career talk in Roxbury (a heavily minority neighborhood in Boston) to a group of students. At the end a young African American woman asked me why I, a middle aged white male was interested in seeing more people like her in computer science. A fair question for sure. My reply was basically that I worked for a company, Microsoft, that wanted to have customers of all types. While I have a pretty good idea of what middle age white men want, young African American women probably have different wants and needs that I don’t know so well. So to serve the needs of diverse customers we really need diverse people in the field.

While that is true now and was then I have sense learned that things are worse than I knew without diversity. Take this article - Algorithms aren’t racist. Your skin is just too dark. – for example. If I am living in an all white world I might never notice this sort of built in bias – intentional or otherwise. It reminds me of other stories I have heard during my career.

A company I worked for created color CRTs where the default colors were red and blue. The developers had no idea how common red/blue color blindness is. And there is thee famous story of the developers who were so proud of the handwriting recognition of the Apple Newton. Until they gave it to Steve Jobs to try. It turns out they hadn’t tested it with left handed people – like Jobs – and it could not read his handwriting. There are more examples out there but you get the idea.

A reason to increase diversity in computer science is so that computers work better for more people. It’s a diverse world out there and we can’t have computers that only work for white and Asian males. Especially not if they are all cookie cutter examples of a few narrow types.

The best way to have a future that is built for you is to build it yourself. With computers becoming more and more central to daily life we need that diversity building out future.

No comments: