Mar 12

Is HP’s Web Camera ‘Racist’?

Recently, a YouTube video was posted claiming that a new web camera on HP‘s Mediasmart laptop computer was “racist” because it recognized white faces but not Black faces. The video quickly went viral, with more than 2 million hits.

Watch the Video: HP computers are racist.

The video, produced by two workers in the sales department at Toppers Camping Center in Texas—Wendy Zamen, white, and Desi Cryer, Black—demonstrated how the camera’s facial-tracking and recognition technology failed when Cryer appeared in front of the camera. When Zamen then tested out the device, the software followed her as she stood and moved in front of it.

The video was posted on December 10, but according to HP’s social-media strategist Mark Budgell, it hadn’t gained popularity on the social-media channels until 10 days later. “It took a while to bubble up,” Budgell tells DiversityInc.

Once it rose to the top of the social-media “conversations,” HP posted its response within 24 to 48 hours. The response was a statement made on its community page, TheNextBench, which includes its blogs and forums. HP stated: “Everything we do is focused on ensuring that we provide a high-quality experience for all our customers, who are ethnically diverse and live and work around the world. That’s why when issues surface, we take them seriously and work hard to understand the root causes.”

The company added: “We are working with our partners to learn more. The technology we use is built on standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose. We believe that the camera might have difficulty ‘seeing’ contrast in conditions where there is insufficient foreground lighting.”

Why did HP choose to respond in this space? Why did the company not put a response on its homepage and/or issue a traditional press release for the mainstream media? DiversityInc asked Tony Welch, HP community manager at TheNextBench.

“Blogs like TheNextBench allow us to respond to consumer concerns very quickly and in a casual but clear way. They also let us host and easily contribute to important conversations in the discussion boards and forums,” says Welch.

He adds: “We use social media as a tool for engaging in dialogue with our customers and hearing their feedback. It gives us real-time insight into what matters most to them and allows us to quickly add our voice into discussions. We keep a conversational tone and try to contribute in a meaningful way. Whether expressed online or elsewhere, we take all customer concerns seriously and try to react quickly.”

HP says it has received mostly positive feedback from its blog audience. The company continues to monitor the ongoing discussion.

In the spirit of open online dialogue, several bloggers and online tech experts have weighed in on the controversial camera; some even conducted their own tests.

Are the charges of racism true and is HP changing the software?

A few computer experts say the software is not racist. Dean Gallea, a white computer-testing engineer from Consumer Reports, conducted a test of the software on the publication’s site, using different lighting to determine whether that was the ultimate cause of the glitch.

PC Magazine‘s networking analyst Samara Lynn, who is Black, responded to the controversy on the magazine’s blog, Gearlog, by explaining how most web cameras and phone cameras work. “There is no conspiracy, no racism on the part of Hewlett-Packard: It’s Science 101. In fact, you can easily find lots of articles from professional photographers about taking digital images of African American skin.”

She adds, “Accusations of racism in this case are as nonsensical as saying it’s discriminatory that blue eyes turn up in flash photos as red much more frequently than darker eyes. Imaging technology is about precision, pixels, resolution, and lighting; not race judgment, thank goodness.”

How soon will we hear from HP about the camera’s software being fixed?

“At this time, we are focused on working with our partners to better understand the issue. We have also reached out to Desi and Wanda. We will provide a follow-up when we have something viable to share,” says Welch.

Is it Racist?
Most cameras are preset to give preference to illuminating light-skinned people. This is what is known as systemic racism — a type of racism that exist because it is built into the system and gives preference without anyone having to do anything overt. If the cameras were routinely set for dark-skin people, no extra lights needed, and gave an “over exposed” look to whites, would this be easier for people to understand?
What Can LISTA Do?
Sometimes corporate managers like to see clear examples of how diversity effects the bottom line… Loss of market share shoud be clear enough to even the most hard to reach… HP use this to your advantage… I see an internal training opportunity to sell the value of diversity (in the meantime – get a more diverse pool of software testers). As a consumer I will say that this one should have jumped out to someone internally long before the software and potentially hardware hit the market..

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