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EXCLUSIVE Google searches for new measure of skin tones to curb bias in products

EXCLUSIVE Google searches for new measure of skin tones to curb bias in products

6/18/2021 12:30:00 PM

EXCLUSIVE Google searches for new measure of skin tones to curb bias in products

Alphabet Inc's (GOOGL.O) Google told Reuters this week it is developing an alternative to the industry standard method for classifying skin tones, which a growing chorus of technology researchers and dermatologists says is inadequate for assessing whether products are biased against people of color.

'STARTING POINT'Thomas Fitzpatrickinvented the scale to personalize ultraviolet radiation treatment for psoriasis, an itchy skin condition. He grouped the skin of "white" people as Roman numerals I to IV by asking how much sunburn or tan they developed after certain periods in sun.

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A decade later came type V for "brown" skin and VI for "black." The scale is still part of U.S. regulations for testing sunblock products, and it remains a popular dermatology standard for assessing patients' cancer risk and more.

Some dermatologists say the scale is a poor and overused measure for care, and often conflated with race and ethnicity."Many people would assume I am skin type V, which rarely to never burns, but I burn," said Dr. Susan Taylor, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist who founded Skin of Color Society in 2004 to promote research on marginalized communities. "To look at my skin hue and say I am type V does me disservice."

Technology companies, until recently, were unconcerned. Unicode, an industry association overseeing emojis, referred to FST in 2014 as its basis for adopting five skin tones beyond yellow,the scale was "without negative associations."A 2018 study titled

"Gender Shades,"which found facial analysis systems more often misgendered people with darker skin, popularized using FST for evaluating AI. The research described FST as a "starting point," but scientists of similar studies that came later told Reuters they used the scale to stay consistent.

"As a first measure for a relatively immature market, it serves its purpose to help us identify red flags," said Inioluwa Deborah Raji, a Mozilla fellow focused on auditing AI. Read more: Reuters Top News »

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