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Dean's blog: Coded Bias prompts more inclusive science in society

Coded Bias
Rebecca Jones, Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry with College of Science Dean Fernando MIralles-Wilhelm

Last week I attended the on-campus screening of a documentary called Coded Bias, a story released in 2020 inspired by Joy Buolamwini, a researcher whose MIT Media Lab project uncovered findings leading her to explore racial bias in artificial intelligence (AI), specifically within facial recognition algorithms and their use in day-to-day life. (The film is now available on Netflix as well as in the Mason University library). The film offers thought provoking examples of what scientists and policy makers might consider as we strive to best and fairly integrate technology into society. Buolamwini's efforts, including subsequent research and policy advocacy, inspire intellectual curiosity and action. Watch the trailer.

The College of Science is a proud sponsor of these events, which support our priorities noted in our draft Inclusive Excellence Plan to create a more aware, inclusive, and thriving science and research community at Mason. 

In the documentary, in addition to explaining her findings, the audience also learns of Buolamwini’s interactions with residents in an apartment complex tapping facial recognition for the comings and goings of tenants, as well as how China and the UK collect and deploy citizen data.

Although our schedules are jammed these days, I'm glad I took the time to attend as it really got me thinking...imagine the ripple effects this bias within the facial recognition code could have across a number of industries and organizations who rely on it for proper identification, matching, and subsequent action. And what can we at Mason do to help these organizations better understand the technology and optimize its use within a social justice framework? 

Following the showing, Mason researchers in the space, including Computational and Data Sciences Assistant Professor, Ron Mahabir, Computer Science Assistant Professor, Brittany Johnson-Matthews; and Mason's IDIA Executive Director, Kammy Sanghera, encouraged a spirited discussion with an audience of faculty, staff and students who shared questions and concerns after viewing the film.

Thank you to Mason Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor, Rebecca Jones for leading the effort to bring this Coded Bias discussion to Mason; and to the Mason pod of 500 Women Scientists, and Mason's Sigma Xi chapter for co-sponsoring this event with us. 

Coded Bias
(L-R) Computer Science Assistant Professor, Brittany Johnson-Matthews; Computational and Data Sciences Assistant Professor, Ron Mahabir; Chemistry Professor Rebecca Jones, and Mason's IDIA Executive Director, Kammy Sanghera.

If you weren't able to attend this discussion, but the topic of bias in science is important to you—don't worry. This is just the beginning. The college is also co-sponsoring a similar viewing and discussion format for Picture a Scientist on Thursday, November 4. The movie highlights the journeys of three female scientists who share the inequities they've faced while advocating for Women in STEM. 

As part of Mason's Visiting Filmmaker Series, an in-person Mason audience will collectively screen the film starting at 7 p.m. and then Aurali Dade, Mason's Associate Vice President for Research, Innovation and Operations, will moderate an open to the community virtually viewable discussion with the filmmakers. This event requires pre-registration through Mason 360 (for in-person) or Zoom (for hybrid post-screening discussion). Learn more about the event.

We are also actively searching for the college's Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to serve as a leader, advisor, advocate, and catalyst for change. I hope to share updates on that search by the Celebration of Success this December.

I strongly support efforts like this to increase awareness and foster discussion about these important topics within our Mason science community and encourage all of us to plug in to these events. Have ideas for other discussions and research related to these topics? Bring them forward. We must ALL engage, not just those who identify with the subjects of these stories, for our culture to truly evolve.