IBM closes down its facial recognition technology business in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests citing fears it could be used by police for mass surveillance and racial profiling

  •  IBM CEO Arvind Krishna has said it will stop offering facial recognition software 
  •  In a letter to congress the tech firm’s boss warned of violations of human rights
  •  The decision follows the death of black man George Floyd in the US last month 

US tech company IBM has revealed it will no longer offer facial recognition or analysis software, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests worldwide.  

The firm said it will stop offering facial recognition software and opposes any use of such technology for purposes of mass surveillance and racial profiling.

In a letter to US Congress, the hardware maker’s new chief executive office, Arvind Krishna, called for new efforts to pursue justice and racial equity.

He also urged policy-makers to consider a ‘national dialogue’ on how law enforcement agencies should ethically be using facial recognition tech. 

IBM’s announcement comes after public protests over the death of a black man, George Floyd, under police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. 

It also follows long-term criticism of the inherent racial and gender bias of facial recognition systems used as surveillance tools. 

Critics believe the artificial intelligence powering these systems is less likely to distinguish between two men of colour than two Caucasian faces.   

IBM’s decision was made over a period of months, according to Reuters, and may also have been triggered by a lack of revenue from their facial recognition tech.  

Arvind Krishna speaks on stage in New York City. The CEO of IBM said his company opposes the use of facial recognition tech for mass surveillance

Krishna, who has been CEO of the company just over two months, also called for new federal rules to hold police more accountable for misconduct following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. 

‘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 and principles of trust and transparency,’ he was quoted as saying in the letter to Congress by CNBC.

‘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.

‘Technology can increase transparency and help police protect communities but must not promote discrimination or racial injustice.’ 

Thousands of Americans who hit the streets to protest the death of George Floyd may have come face-to-face with law enforcement who look more like the armed forces than local police

Krishna acknowledged that AI is a ‘powerful tool that can help law enforcement keep citizens safe’, but developers and users have a responsibility to ensure it’s tested for racial and gender bias. 

The letter was addressed to sponsors and co-sponsors of a sweeping police reform bill unveiled by Democrats on Monday, CNBC added. 

Government officials across the country have proposed reforms to address police brutality and racial injustice aimed at boosting oversight of law enforcement agencies. 

IBM did not explain the timing of its decision to exit facial recognition development, although CNBC reported that the company’s facial recognition business did not generate significant revenue. 

IBM has been trying to revitalise its business to become a leader in cloud technology. Cloud computing, in which services are delivered over the internet from remote computers, has become a growing portion of IBM’s revenue

The company will no longer market, sell or update the products but will support clients as needed, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.

IBM is no longer developing, creating, researching or selling facial recognition products as an API or any other form. 

IBM’s visual technology will be limited only to visual object detection, not for facial analysis and identification, the person added. 

In the UK, the decision will affect work at the company’s secretive research and development centre in Hursley, just outside of Winchester. 

Last year IBM released a large and diverse dataset called Diversity in Faces (DiF) to ‘advance the study of fairness and accuracy’ in facial recognition technology

IBM said only last year that it would be ‘harnessing the power of science’ to create more fair and accurate AI systems.

In a blog post, the company revealed its new dataset of a million faces, called Diversity in Faces (DiF), to advance the study of fairness and accuracy in facial recognition tech. 

It said DiF was the first of its kind available to the global research community, making use of publicly available images. 

But IBM has been focused on trying to revitalise its business to become a leader in cloud computing, in which services are delivered over the internet from remote computers. 

Krishna, who joined IMB in 1990, had been IBM’s senior vice president for cloud computing and cognitive software. 

Krishna took over the chief executive role in April 2020, replacing Ginni Rometty, the first and only female CEO in IBM’s century-long history.   

He will now focus on growing IBM’s cloud services, as it looks to catch up to Microsoft and Amazon, according to CNBC.     

HOW DO RESEARCHERS DETERMINE IF AN AI IS ‘RACIST’?

In a 2018 study titled Gender Shades, a team of researchers discovered that popular facial recognition services from Microsoft, IBM and Face++ can discriminate based on gender and race.

The data set was made up of 1,270 photos of parliamentarians from three African nations and three Nordic countries where women held positions.

The faces were selected to represent a broad range of human skin tones, using a labelling system developed by dermatologists, called the Fitzpatrick scale.

All three services worked better on white, male faces and had the highest error rates on dark-skinned males and females.

Microsoft was unable to detect darker-skinned females 21% of the time, while IBM and Face++ wouldn’t work on darker-skinned females in roughly 35% of cases.   

In a 2018 study titled Gender Shades, a team of researchers discovered that popular facial recognition services from Microsoft, IBM and Face++ can discriminate based on gender and race 

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