I have found myself in the midst of discovering another hero of mine. Shalini Kanyayya is my hero because she elevates, through her own work, trailblazing womxn in the AI industry. “Coded Bias” follows Joy Buolamwini through her investigation of implicit bias in face recognition technology. Joy has a PhD from the MIT Media Lab and has pioneered techniques that are now leading to increased transparency in the use of facial analysis technology globally. Through her journey and research, we connect with different experts in the field, such as Cathy O’Neil, who wrote Weapons of Math Destruction, a book that sounds the alarm on the danger of the math behind algorithms that are widening the inequality gap and undermining democracy. We also become acquainted with Silkie Carlo, the UK director of Big Brother Watch, which is monitoring the trial use of facial recognition technology by the UK police.
Shalini and I discussed how she got to this project, her passion for science-fiction and how it is reflected in her documentary choices, and how her activist approach to filmmaking was influenced by her experiences with the independent film community in New York. Starting on November 11th, you can watch “Coded Bias” virtually at the Metrograph (NYC), and watch the panel at 8 PM ET with Shalini, Joy and Cathy. For information about all upcoming virtual screenings, visit codedbias.com/virtualcinema.
REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?
SHALINI KANTAYYA: I’m a science and science-fiction fanatic. A lot of my work deals with disruptive technologies and how they impact the marginalized. My last film was about small-scale residential solar power, and how it could be helpful to the environment while uplifting working people. With this film, I stumbled upon the work of Joy Buolamwini by watching her TED Talk. I also read Cathy O’Neal’s book, Weapons of Math Destruction, and I saw her TED Talk. Then I stumbled down the rabbit hole of these scholars, journalists, and activists who have been riding on the dark side of Artificial Intelligence. I interviewed Joy and the rest is history.
MARTIN: How did it come to be that Joy would be the focus of the documentary?
KANTAYYA: I interviewed several people and it organically unfolded. I also saw her as someone that was pushing from scientific research, and she was making connections to communities that could be harmed by this technology. That’s where I saw the potential for a story.
MARTIN: Was it a choice to have mostly women as your subjects for the film?
KANTAYYA: It’s actually women who are leading the industry for AI, and leading the fight for ethical uses of AI. I found this to be true through my research. I didn’t set out to make a film that was all women, but then it sort of emerged that way. I only started realizing it after many people began commented on it, like after we screened at Sundance. Everyone asks about it. And I think people are astounded that women talk about the technologies for the future, which should not be a surprise. [laughs] I didn’t realize how honestly revolutionary the idea was to people.
MARTIN: Something I appreciated was that you also took the film out of the US. You brought the subject to a global scale. Can you talk about that?
KANTAYYA: I think the experts, the locations, and who I am as a filmmaker inspire how the film develops. I tend to think very globally, and think very deliberately about who I think of as experts. In this case, I thought it was important because I actually could not capture some of the vérité sequences in the US, where there are no laws. In the UK, there is a more transparent process. They have police who were actually informing human rights observers of their trial of facial recognition. It was a much more transparent process that we could observe as journalists.
I thought China was an important parallel because it felt like a Black Mirror episode with just that: a mirror, a reflection of where we could be in five minutes with no laws. To me, this film provides three perspectives on approaching the data. In China, you have unfettered use of data by a highly authoritarian regime. Then you have the UK, where Europe has taken their own paths to putting data rights into a human rights framework. Although now it’s currently unknown what the data protections will be in the UK since they are leaving Europe, which happened after “Coded Bias” was made. In the US, it is essentially the wild wild west. It is so confusing when our democracy is so fragile, as we’ve seen in the last election. Realizing the amount of power that Artificial Intelligence will have, and how it will basically transform every sector of society in the next few decades, I really hope we have the legislation to protect us.
MARTIN: Do you feel your passion for science-fiction brings a different lens in how you tell your stories?
KANTAYYA: One of the challenges I had as a filmmaker was trying to make something, which is opaque and invisible to us, cinematic, or at least try to at least. I think I pull my subjects from science-fiction. I feel everything that I know about artificial intelligence before making this film came from the mind of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick and others. I think I try to pull from those tropes of science-fiction that are known to us to help us understand AI in the now. Shockingly, and stirringly, and frustratingly as we see in things like “Minority Report,” there are some remarkable reflections.
MARTIN: What do you hope the audience will grasp most of all after watching this film?
KANTAYYA: I hope it will be a game changer in how people think about artificial intelligence now, and think about the power of big tech, like the silent hand of algorithms and how they can encroach on our civil rights. I hope that this is a film that people can engage with, and cause them not to feel like, “Oh my god, this is magic,” or, “This is math, I can’t talk about this.” Technology influences our lives and we’ve seen with the current crisis that we actually need to understand science to meet the problems of the next century. It’s very key. My hope is that the film will also be a tool for science communication.
MARTIN: I see that you are bridging a theme in your documentaries through global stories and science. Can you talk about that?
KANTAYYA: My expression in films as an artist is always a way that I engage in the world, in a form of my activism. I feel there has been education and campaigns around my films. I am of the belief that films can help us empathize with people, desensitize us, and engage us with issues that we wouldn’t normally engage in. This engagement can help us be the spark for social change. This has been a principle that guides my work.
MARTIN: I watched your TED Talk, and you spoke about how coming to New York really shaped your filmmaking. Can you talk about that?
KANTAYYA: I feel so grateful to the independent film community in New York. I came to New York to intern at an institution called Third World Newsreel, and I watched films by and about people of color who used cinema as a form of activism, which spawned from a movement called “The Third Cinema”. The Third Cinema was coined by two Latin American filmmakers who believed that all films are political. They were also rebelling against this idea that cinema was just to be used as a spectator sport. They were making films to engage. During that first summer, I watched everything in their collection that was made by and about people of color who were using film to engage with an audience about social issues.
MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?
KANTAYYA: I feel that the time is now for women and non-conforming filmmakers. It’s a powerful time for us to tell our own stories. In my films I feel like my voice as a filmmaker shifted in whose story got told. It’s my belief that if we have more women storytellers, it will change our culture. And when we master gender parity, it will be because there are more stories by and written about women.
The other thing I would say is…damn, this is not easy, or for the meek of heart. Making films is really hard. It’s challenging to make an independent film to assert your vision to try to wrestle with the elements of happenstance. But to me, it’s also a great honor and I’m perpetually humbled by people who share their stories with me, and I’m grateful for the practice of my craft.
MARTIN: What’s coming up for the film?
KANTAYYA: The film will be available virtually in theaters, so you can support two of my favorite things, independent cinemas in theaters across the country and films that further the conversation on racial and gender bias, as well as the inequality in the use of technologies in the future.
MARTIN: What’s coming up for you?
KANTAYYA: I am currently working on a documentary series, and writing a script for a sci-fi film.