First premiering at the Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim in January 2020, Coded Bias became available on Netflix on April 5th, 2021. A year after its arrival on streaming platforms, the award-winning documentary is still incredibly relevant to our understanding of how technology reflects society’s biases– here’s what it covers and why you should watch it.

What is the Coded Bias documentary?

Coded Bias explores how algorithms are biased against specific demographics.

The story told by Coded Bias begins with Ghanian–American computer scientist and Ph.D. candidate at MIT’s media lab Joy Buolamwini’s discovery that the facial recognition technology utilized by law enforcement holds biases against the faces of minorities. When Buolamwini was doing a class project, she noted how the camera failed to recognize her face unless she wore a white mask. Data sets used for facial recognition often consist of mainly white male faces— the faces of Black people are left out, causing algorithms to be less familiar with what they look like and subsequently fail to identify or distinguish them.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Coded Bias shines a light on the often-overlooked issue of algorithmic bias

What Buolamwini had begun to research and notice is called algorithmic bias, which is defined as the ways in which automated computer systems are programmed to favor certain traits over others. Though often unintentional, these algorithms may perpetuate harmful stereotypes or otherwise aid in the oppression and erasure of minority groups. The key idea behind Coded Bias is that perceiving artificial intelligence and algorithms as unbiased machines is inaccurate, as Buolamwini uncovers how programmed, hidden biases impact society.

Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash

Algorithmic bias had gotten some media attention in the past, such as in 2015 when Google Photos was called out for labeling Black people as gorillas. The deep dive into the subject seen in Coded Bias offers more insight on how and why racially–charged errors like that one can occur, even in “advanced” algorithms.

The documentary features interviews with experts in the field of technology and research

Featured perspectives include prolific mathematician Cathy O’Neil, data journalist Merideth Broussard, a political science professor and researcher Virginia Eubanks, and many more credible voices and trailblazers in tech. Each professional offers a complex perspective on the implications and mechanics of algorithmic bias present in online databases and platforms.

Coded Bias is an important contribution to the field of social justice

Coded Bias is so important because computer algorithms are increasingly replacing human workers due to the fact that they are seen as unbiased. However, these systems hold the biases of the people who make them— and the tech industry is overwhelmingly male and white. Fighting for social justice and equality needs to include the issue of algorithmic bias, especially as algorithms become more widely used and integral to daily life.

What are some of the topics discussed in Coded Bias?

The role of technology in society

Algorithms are relied upon in areas such as social media or search engines and out in the real world, such as the usage of facial recognition by law enforcement. Our dependence on these systems, which seem so automatic and intuitive, causes biases to be perpetuated in places we don't expect, like our search engines and photo-taking apps.

The impact of algorithms on our lives

It’s no question that algorithms are convenient, especially as so much data is available. Coded Bias isn’t asking us to stop using algorithms altogether, the documentary is imploring us to think more about how we can make these algorithms work better for every type of person.

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

American bias and discrimination

The algorithmic bias seen in Coded Bias is not coincidental or accidental— it reflects the treatment of Black people or other people of color as “less than” throughout American society. Algorithms are biased because people within the tech industry and the rest of the population hold biases, whether they know it or not. Coded Bias’s discussion of this crucial fact highlights the role that biases play in every aspect of our lives, and what needs to be done to rectify the harm they can cause.

What are some of the criticisms of the documentary?

Coded Bias holds a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 51 reviews. Critic reviews praise the documentary’s quick pace, engaging material, advancement of racial justice, and social commentary. Criticism of the documentary overall seems to be few and far between, emphasizing that Coded Bias is well worth the watch.

Who created the documentary?

Coded Bias was directed by Shalini Katayya, an Indian–American filmmaker, public speaker, and activist who has also directed documentaries about clean energy, fictional short films that comment on social issues, and much more. Her debut documentary Catching the Sun explored the growth of the clean solar energy industry and was executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. Katayya is an advocate for racial justice, environmental justice, and sexual assault awareness. She and her work have received recognition from the New York Times, the Sundance Film Festival, the Critic’s Choice Awards, and the prestigious Fullbright Scholars program.

Where can I watch Coded Bias?

As of April 2022, Coded Bias remains available for streaming only on Netflix.