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Watch: This soap dispenser won’t work for dark-skinned people. Can tech be (inadvertently) racist?

Does the technology industry not understand diversity?

Earlier this week, a Facebook employee in Nigeria shared a video that revealed an unexpected problem, one which perhaps reveals the technology industry’s understanding – or the lack of – diversity.

In the clip, a white man and a dark-skinned man both attempt to use a soap dispenser. While it works normally for the white man, quick and efficient, the darker skinned man has trouble as the machine refuses to dispense soap. After some laughter, a person in the background can be heard saying, “too black!”

The dispenser possibly has an optic sensor to detect a hand when it is placed underneath. While more advanced sensors work well, cheaper ones may present hiccups.

The COO of Basis Science, Bharat Vasan, explained in a piece why these monitors don’t work well for people of colour: “The light has to penetrate through several layers...and so the higher the person is on the Fitzpatrick scale (a measure of skin tone), the more difficult it is for light to bounce back,” he said. “For someone who is very pale in a very brightly-lit setting, the light could get washed out. The skin color issue is something that our technology compensates for. The darker the skin, the brighter the light shines, the lighter (the skin) the less it shines.”

This problem has been observed in wearable fitness trackers and heart-rate monitors too. It looks like skin tone recognition in technology needs an upgrade.

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