Happy Dusshera

I stepped out to buy a loaf of bread on Saturday and found a parking apron taken up by a trio busy stringing marigolds into streamers. Of course, the time-keeper in my head told me, “Tomorrow is dusshera.” It wasn’t very easy to track this year, with no lights, no festivities, no night-long dances. But it was hard to forget too, with all the sighing and complaining from friends and family about missing everything this year. I didn’t actually, I’m a happy bear these days. I’m a day or two late, but a happy dusshera to you.

But while lost in uffish contemplation of these photos snapped off quickly with my phone, a monstrous jabberwock raised its head. Do you recognize a subtle bit of structural racism here? Let me explain. A phone camera is no longer the simple light catching device that a camera was forty years ago. The image is mediated by software, and the huge improvement in this decade has been due to the addition of AI to the mix. That tweaks the exposure and colour according to optimizations it has been trained to use. Many of these improvements involve recognizing and enhancing faces. Just check your photos from five years back, and you’ll see how much better faces look in recent photos. I say usually, because it depends on the skin colour.

The AI is trained on data sets selected by Google, and these are largely biased to lighter skin colours. See, for example, a photo taken three years ago, by a six year old phone, in Madrid’s Atocha station. I have taken a random face from the shadows and inset it to show how well the AI has captured that. All I did was to increase the overall illumination in the inset. See the subtlety with which the details and shadows are rendered. Compare that to the inset face (with the same tweak for overall illumination) visible in the photo above that: the AI has rendered the bamboo framework in the background better than the face. This comparison shows that it is not light or darkness that makes a difference; it is algorithmic bias. It took me a bit of work on the featured photo to make the face visible. It is because of this bias that a DSLR or a good bridge camera still remains superior to a smart phone for street photography in India and most of the world.

Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

6 thoughts on “Happy Dusshera”

  1. Sigh… Algorithmic bias. That’s a term. That’s just, forgive me, beyond the pale. But it’s real. It’s so strange. When I was a little girl I thought most people in the world had blue eyes. I don’t even have blue eyes, but my mom and dad had blue eyes. I remember my unquestioned very juvenile (3 or 4 years old) belief that I would grow up to be just like them; they were my models for existence. In fact I was then and remain different. They had black hair. Mine was auburn. They had blue eyes (typical black Irish coloring) mine are green. My brother was blond. They were tall. I am short. The variations in human appearance and the concept of “normal” or “expected” aren’t part of our first experiences when our questions are so absolutely fundamental as we search for “normal” and try to find fixed points in this strange world. I guess it’s failing to grow beyond that that is the problem.

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