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Algorithm Tyranny

Last week I renewed my driver license at the local New Jersey DMV. I was instructed to remove my glasses. Then I was ordered not to smile.

When I was young, I enjoyed looking grim and menacing for official photographs. As I got older, frowning poses looked like death, at least for me. My mother always used to say, “Smile for pictures, Stevie. You look better.”

No matter. At the NJ DMV no smiling is allowed. The explanation? The state is trying out some new facial recognition software, which supposedly works better if everyone has the same expression. Having a nice picture on a driver license is no small thing, especially since I have to show the damned thing every time I get onto an airplane or walk into a building, even to use the men’s room.

I am far from the only victim of algorithm tyranny. I just saw an article of a fellow bald man who tried to take a passport picture in a drugstore photo machine. No matter how he positioned himself in the booth, the camera cut off the top one-eighth of his head. The explanation? This automatic camera worked on an algorithm that ended the picture so many inches above any recognizable hair. Since he had no hair on his head, this poor man’s reference point was his eyebrows.

An even more offensive example of algorithms gone awry was the recent episode of Google’s “automatic image labeling” project. Google engineers developed software that would categorize millions of human beings based on their facial features. Unfortunately, a fair number of African Americans were classified as gorillas. Google denied any racism, but apologized for racial insensitivity. As usual, no one was at fault, only the computer.

Always blame the computer.

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