IBM quits facial recognition and urges debate on its use by law enforcement

Jun 9, 2020, 7:07 AM
facial recognition...
IBM is canceling its facial recognition programs and calling for an urgent public debate on whether the technology should be used in law enforcement. Credit: Shutterstock via CNN

    (CNN) — IBM is canceling its facial recognition programs and calling for an urgent public debate on whether the technology should be used in law enforcement.

In a letter to Congress on Monday, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna said the company wants to work with lawmakers to advance justice and racial equity through police reform, educational opportunities and the responsible use of technology.

“We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies,” he said, noting that the company no longer offers general purpose facial recognition or analysis software.

“IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values,” he added. Krishna is of Indian origin and IBM’s first CEO of color. His predecessor, Ginni Rometty, was the company’s first female CEO.

An IBM spokesperson told CNN Business on Tuesday that the company will now limit its visual technology to “visual object detection,” which could, for example, help manage manufacturing plants or assist farmers with crop care.

Krishna’s letter follows huge anti-racism protests in America and around the world in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed while in police custody. Several American corporations have expressed solidarity with the protesters and the Black Lives Matter movement. But companies have been called on to take more concrete steps to combat racial injustice, such as hiring and promoting more black executives.

IBM is a market leader in artificial intelligence. IBM Watson, its AI platform for businesses, is used by companies such as General Motors, KPMG and ESPN Fantasy Football. And its fast talking AI machine, Project Debater, featured in a Cambridge University event last year on the dangers of artificial intelligence.

The problem of algorithmic bias in data science has become more pronounced, and there’s evidence that AI-powered algorithms display bias against women and black people. Federal researchers found widespread evidence of racial bias in nearly 200 facial recognition algorithms in an extensive US government study last year, highlighting the technology’s potential for misuse.

“Artificial Intelligence is a powerful tool that can help law enforcement keep citizens safe. But vendors and users of Al systems have a shared responsibility to ensure that Al is tested for bias, particularly when used in law enforcement, and that such bias testing is audited and reported,” Krishna said.

IBM has previously cautioned against blanket bans on facial recognition technology, advocating instead for “precision regulation” that would ensure it protects human rights.

National policy should encourage the use of technology that brings greater transparency and accountability to policing, such as body cameras, Krishna added.

He welcomed the Justice in Policing Act, a bill put forward by Democrats Monday aimed at cracking down on police brutality. The proposed legislation includes the creation of a National Police Misconduct Registry, a measure supported by Krishna, who said that Congress should adopt policies that encourage or compel states to review and update their use-of-force policies.

Addressing the need to expand educational and economic opportunities for communities of color, Krishna urged Congress to consider increasing the reach of Pell Grants and Pathways in Technology (P-TECH).

The P-TECH program, developed by IBM in 2011, enables students to earn both a high school diploma and associate’s degree in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) without incurring student debt. It has a focus on students of color in areas of the United States that are poorly served by education.

Eligibility for Pell Grants should be expanded, including for incarcerated individuals, beyond traditional four-year degree programs, Krishna said.

“Pell Grants are an important pathway for students of color to go to college. But there are virtually no Federal funds available for non-college skills training or job certification programs for in-demand New Collar jobs,” he explained.

“New Collar” jobs refer to those in fields such as cybersecurity and cloud computing. IBM sees an “urgent demand” for these skills, Krishna said.

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IBM quits facial recognition and urges debate on its use by law enforcement