The Poet of Code

The following is a sponsored post produced by WIRED Brand Lab for Hennessy.


Joy Buolamwini is a poet.

But she isn’t the kind of poet who fills journals with purple prose hoping to some day be published in an obscure literary magazine. Instead, the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League is a self-proclaimed “poet of code” who combines engineering with powerful language and compelling performance to ask urgent social questions of tomorrow’s technology.

In July, Buolamwini was invited by Hennessy to be one of the bright minds visiting company headquarters in Cognac, France, as part of a celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Hennessy V.S.O.P Privilège. And this was a party with a purpose.

Hennessy gathered masters in arts and design, science, technology, music and entertainment, business, aerospace, and the culinary arts for a series of conversations, workshops, and experiences to explore a single question: What is the future of mastery? How does poetry in code relate to the intuition, skill, and tradition flowing through Hennessy’s own distilleries?

Part of the answer is in Buolamwini’s moniker, which juxtaposes the art of poetry with the applied science and research of code. This is also where Hennessy’s mastery lies, in the realm between unquantifiable yet perfect taste—and an expertise in using all technology has in order to offer to iterate and improve.

Buolamwini uses poetry and science in a very distinctive and important way: “I use art alongside rigorous technical research to highlight overlooked ways AI can inadvertently propagate stereotypes of gender and race and other kinds of discrimination,” she says. “Poets give voice to the often unseen, unarticulated, or intentionally dismissed.”

At the Algorithmic Justice League, an activist collective, Buolamwini pulls back the curtain on the biases encoded in computer systems. Case in point: precision medicine, where genetic profiling will soon be used to create highly customized and optimized treatment plans. If the models underlying the algorithms that determine the profiles come primarily from males, Buolamwini explains, the systems may not work as well for women.

None of what Buolamwini is responding to is a science-fiction fantasy (or nightmare) either. Algorithms already help people determine who to hire and whether to grant a loan, and even calculate how much time in prison someone should be sentenced to. And that’s just the beginning.

“Most people creating AI and the data being used do not reflect the vast majority of the world. As a result, there are major blind spots in the technology being created,” Buolamwini says. “Full-spectrum inclusion is about asking who’s missing during the design, development, and deployment of AI systems.”

At the Hennessy session, Buolamwini shares her latest work, a captivating spoken-word piece. “AI, Ain’t I a Woman?” is about her research on how AI systems can incorrectly identify iconic black women.

In many ways, “AI, Ain’t I a Woman?” ties directly back to the experience that sparked Buolamwini’s formation of the Algorithmic Justice League. (As a computer science student at the MIT Media Lab, she created installations based on computer vision systems that track faces. There she observed that the system had difficulty tracking her face … until she donned a white mask.) She also reads from “The Perpetual Line-Up,” a Georgetown Law study on the prevalence of unregulated police face-recognition systems that haven’t been audited for accuracy or bias—and the danger they represent.

“The ability of seemingly neutral systems to propagate undetected and harmful discrimination on the basis of gender, race, or the intersections motivated me to start the Algorithmic Justice League,” she explains. “This happens not just with computer vision systems, as in the case of facial-recognition technology, but in other areas where AI is applied, like in hiring and housing allocation.”

While Buolamwini is constantly confronted with the shortcomings of not only the technology created but also the humans who created it, she remains cautiously optimistic: We must make certain our technology reflects our humanity, she explains.

And that relates directly to the day’s primary focus on the future of mastery, as it connects to Hennessy. Because for Hennessy, algorithms may enhance the brand’s artisanship but they will never replace the role of centuries of human expertise in its creation. So, when Hennessy’s Master Blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde speaks of cognac, he speaks poetically—though he’s informed by the data of the barrel room and the vineyards.

Next, designer and author John Maeda builds on the theme of “full-spectrum inclusion” that Buolamwini just brought up, leading a session on how inclusion and diversity is essential to creative mastery in all fields.

“Inclusion isn’t a human resources problem,” Maeda says. “It’s a design problem.”

Maeda then facilitates a series of exercises and compelling presentations around harnessing “the power of blends” in creative work. How can different groups, individuals, be included most meaningfully?

Rochelle King, VP of Global Product Creative at Netflix, speaks up to say that inclusion is not about counting people or making teams more visibly diverse, but rather empathizing with and harnessing the myriad perspectives that diversity brings.

Or as Buolamwini puts it, “How can we expect to have creative mastery if we fail to employ the talents, perspectives, and ingenuity of the majority of the world?

And with that, we had come full circle, now with a better understanding of the future of mastery. We had learned about the importance of human input and creativity in the broadest sense, and how tech applied without inclusion or empathy cannot succeed. The fullness of human talent and human perspective is essential if mastery is to be achieved.

“We put so much passion and emotion into tasting a sample,” Fillioux de Gironde explains. “Even the most efficient computer can’t analyze that. And that’s why we still need our human senses.”

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Please drink responsibly.

Imported Cognac Hennessy® 40% Alc./Vol. (80°), ©2018 Imported by Moët Hennessy USA, Inc., New York, NY

This content was produced by WIRED Brand Lab in partnership with Hennessy V.S.O.P.