How Native Americans Are Trying to Debug A.I.’s Biases

Alex V. Cipolle in The New York Times: “In September 2021, Native American technology students in high school and college gathered at a conference in Phoenix and were asked to create photo tags — word associations, essentially — for a series of images.

One image showed ceremonial sage in a seashell; another, a black-and-white photograph circa 1884, showed hundreds of Native American children lined up in uniform outside the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, one of the most prominent boarding schools run by the American government during the 19th and 20th centuries.

For the ceremonial sage, the students chose the words “sweetgrass,” “sage,” “sacred,” “medicine,” “protection” and “prayers.” They gave the photo of the boarding school tags with a different tone: “genocide,” “tragedy,” “cultural elimination,” “resiliency” and “Native children.”

The exercise was for the workshop Teaching Heritage to Artificial Intelligence Through Storytelling at the annual conference for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. The students were creating metadata that could train a photo recognition algorithm to understand the cultural meaning of an image.

The workshop presenters — Chamisa Edmo, a technologist and citizen of the Navajo Nation, who is also Blackfeet and Shoshone-Bannock; Tracy Monteith, a senior Microsoft engineer and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; and the journalist Davar Ardalan — then compared these answers with those produced by a major image recognition app.

For the ceremonial sage, the app’s top tag was “plant,” but other tags included “ice cream” and “dessert.” The app tagged the school image with “human,” “crowd,” “audience” and “smile” — the last a particularly odd descriptor, given that few of the children are smiling.

The image recognition app botched its task, Mr. Monteith said, because it didn’t have proper training data. Ms. Edmo explained that tagging results are often “outlandish” and “offensive,” recalling how one app identified a Native American person wearing regalia as a bird. And yet similar image recognition apps have identified with ease a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, Ms. Ardalan noted as an example, because of the abundance of data on the topic….(More)”.