Originally published in The Verge, June 23, 2020
A striking image that only hints at a much bigger problem.
It’s a startling image that illustrates the deep-rooted biases of AI research. Input a low-resolution picture of Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, into an algorithm designed to generate depixelated faces, and the output is a white man.
It’s not just Obama, either. Get the same algorithm to generate high-resolution images of actress Lucy Liu or congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from low-resolution inputs, and the resulting faces look distinctly white. As one popular tweet quoting the Obama example put it: “This image speaks volumes about the dangers of bias in AI.”
But what’s causing these outputs and what do they really tell us about AI bias?
First, we need to know a little a bit about the technology being used here. The program generating these images is an algorithm called PULSE, which uses a technique known as upscaling to process visual data. Upscaling is like the “zoom and enhance” tropes you see in TV and film, but, unlike in Hollywood, real software can’t just generate new data from nothing. In order to turn a low-resolution image into a high-resolution one, the software has to fill in the blanks using machine learning.
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