Dr. Safiya Noble (Courtesy Photo)

Dr. Safiya Noble, race and media expert at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), says her work for the past 15 years involves the study of racist and sexist algorithmic discrimination online.

Whitehouse.gov describes algorithmic discrimination as occurring when automated systems contribute to unjustified differential treatment or impacts disfavoring people based on their race, color, ethnicity, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions, gender identity, intersex status, and sexual orientation), religion, age, national origin, disability, veteran status, genetic information, or any other classification protected by law.

Noble’s research focuses on the artificial intelligence (AI) powering online search engines, which are a precursor to generative AI tools such as ChatGPT.

According to several online sources, generative AI tools create new and original content, chat responses, designs, synthetic data or even deepfakes. It’s particularly valuable in creative fields and for novel problem-solving, as it can autonomously generate many types of new outputs.

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“I study the ways in which these systems are trained on racist and sexist stereotypes,” said Noble, “and how the output of those systems is dangerous in society, both for minoritized populations, but also really for the general public, who often is subject to lots of propaganda or misinformation when they use these kinds of tools.”

Noble says these tools can be used to research a particular entertainer or project during the decision-making process, such as determining who gets hired or whether a project moves to the development stage.  Often these tools rely on incorrect information or stereotypes that disadvantage minoritized groups.

“So many people are going to search engines or ChatGPT now to ask questions about people, and these stereotypes… [were] just naturalized, it seems normal,” said Noble. “When you use these tools, you’re not even thinking about whether this is legitimate or whether this is stereotyping.”

She continued, “Now if you fast forward and you start to look at how the entertainment industry is wanting to use these tools in lieu of set designers, creatives, stylists, and actors, what you see is that these tools are incapable of generating certain types of images.”

Noble says these AI tools recently have been criticized because the training data used to instruct these systems are pulling from all over the internet, and there is little control over the accuracy or fairness of the information provided by some sources.

“So, anyone, listen, who has been on the internet knows the internet is racist, knows there is lots of sexism online, there’s lots of homophobia, discriminatory ideas about all kinds of people of color, mostly, sexual and religious minorities, too,” said Noble.

Groups like Black people, she adds, have been in a never-ending war against Hollywood to not depict people of color in derogatory, sexist, and racist ways.

“Here we have these new tools reproducing the things people have been struggling around for a hundred years,” said Noble.

Noble says creativity is a very human endeavor of self-expression, and there is dignity in the art people produce, especially amongst Black creatives and performers.  People of color do not want to lose their ability to create work that is beautiful, meaningful, and inspiring, she adds.

“You cannot replace people with machines and expect to have the same kind of incredible impact, and quality of life in our societies,” said Noble. “So, we want to resist everywhere these tools are being foisted upon us and think smart and critically about where they should be limited, and where they can be useful.”

Noble also says the United States has been slow to regulate AI and other harmful technology, especially “deepfakes.”

TechTarget.com defines deepfake AI as a type of artificial intelligence used to create convincing images, audio, and video hoaxes. The term describes both the technology and the resulting bogus content. Deepfakes often transform existing source content where one person is swapped for another.

“Celebrities really seem to be targets of deepfakes, as well as politicians, but also everyday people, and we have a very serious problem in the United States with things like revenge porn,” said Noble. “Part of the reason that happens so often in the United States is because the U.S. is safe harbor for some of the worst kinds of technology, and tech companies and websites.”

Noble says Congress needs to enact legislation that will protect the public.  She adds that when it comes to people who want to justify the usage or misusage of AI with technological progress, it was the same logic used to enslave African peoples and the occupation of indigenous peoples’ lands.

In a recent article featured in the Hollywood Reporter, media mogul Tyler Perry expresses his own concerns surrounding AI. In the interview he says he put a $800M studio expansion on hold after seeing a demonstration of artificial intelligence research organization OpenAI’s Sora, which can generate text-to-video.

“It makes me worry so much about all of the people in the business,” Perry told The Hollywood Reporter. “Because as I was looking at it, I immediately started thinking of everyone in the industry who would be affected by this, including actors and grip and electric and transportation and sound and editors, and looking at this, I’m thinking this will touch every corner of our industry.”

Perry says in the article that he feels no pressure to use the technology but sees the advantages it brings to the table.

The Hollywood Reporter also quoted this statement from Perry, “So I’ve got two sides here to this thing. For me, I’m looking at my business and the bottom line, but I’m also very concerned about all the people that I have trained and bought up in this industry. I’m concerned about what will happen to them.”

Noble responded to Perry’s quote, “I think the question for the owners, and the people who hold all the power in Hollywood, like Tyler Perry and others who are even more powerful than him really need to ask themselves some hard questions about, ‘do we need to maximize shareholder profits at all costs?’”

She continued, “At the cost of the very people we are employing in this very industry. I think the answer of course is clear, we don’t.”

Noble says the powers that be in entertainment should ask themselves, “How much money do we really need?”

“If the values were not just about profits at all costs, but instead about how many people’s lives we can improve, not only with the films we make or the shows we make that bring people so much joy, but how many people can we pay with good paying jobs — that should be the marker of success,” concluded Noble.