Racism In Technology: The Automatic Soap Dispenser That Does Not Recognize Black Skin [VIDEO]


It is never in our interest to be sounding what our critics have described as a “racism bell,” but sometimes, when incidents occur frequently and particularly if it is specific to a group of people, then it is only appropriate that we talk about it so that we can all find a reasonable solution to solve the problem.

As we are all aware, nobody can live a meaningful live without technology in this modern era. Technology has become part of our lives, but there is something happening in technology that needs serious attention. We must all admit that there is white hegemony in both science and technology but that is not an excuse for whites to have more privileges than other racial groups in the field.

In the city of Atlanta, Georgia, an automatic soap dispenser at the Marriott hotel does not recognize black skin. The issue was brought to public attention by an African-American guest of the DragonCon sci-fi and fantasy convention, T.J. Fitzpatrick who visited the washroom and wanted to use the dispenser to clean his hands.

The dispenser was manufactured by a British company called Technical Concepts. According to experts of the device, it uses near-infrared technology, which sends out invisible light from an infrared LED bulb for hands to reflect the light back to a sensor, and the reason the soap doesn’t just foam out all day is because the hand acts to, more or less, bounce back the light and close the circuit.

So when Fitzpatrick stretches his hands for the soap, it wouldn’t sense his hands… but when his white friend, Larry tried after him, the device sensed him.

“I wasn’t offended, but it was so intriguing, like why is it not recognizing me? I tried all the soap dispensers in that restroom, there were maybe 10, and none of them worked. Any time I went into that restroom, I had to have my friend get the soap for me,” Fitzpatrick told Mic after filming the incident.

Fitzpatrick said when he first posted the video on social media, many whites made disparaging comments. Some whites made comments such as, “We all know black people don’t actually wash their hands anyways,” and, “Soap dispensers are for humans, not monkeys or subhumans.”

As usual, racism deniers have tried all sorts of explanations to create a situation where the fundamental issues will be ignored, but in a situation where about 10 soap dispensers will never work for a specific group of people, that is never a mere fault or mistake. It is a systemic problem that needed to be addressed as soon as possible. Even in all the arguments and the counter-arguments, neither the Marriott Hotel nor Technical Concepts have responded to the problem. They have blatantly turned down many interview requests by many media outlets.

This is not the first time technology has caused a controversy as far as racism is concerned, however. In 2010, Gadgetwise reported that the Xbox Kinect did not recognize the faces of dark-skinned gamers. The company later attributed this to a tricky light sensor.

A black man and white woman on YouTube also displayed Hewlett-Packard’s uneven facial recognition software. The camera tracked the woman’s movements but didn’t follow those of the man.

Earlier this year, Google Photos’ auto-labeling system ridiculously identified two black friends who took a photo together as “gorillas.”  The issue went viral on social media. Google kept silent on the issue until people demanded the company to step up its technology to be more sensitive about the words it uses in photos of people.

Also, Flickr’s auto-tagging feature mislabeled an African-American man as “animal” and “ape” before the Flickr team went in to remove the tags, claiming the algorithm was still learning how to recognize images.

Maybe in all these unpleasant situations, we will have to revisit the Guyanese political activist, Walter Rodney who wrote in his book, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” that the black man needs to make his own inventions before he can have equality.

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  1. People generally are more aware of the danger of picking up germs that cause illness and are becoming increasingly reluctant to touch washroom fixtures and fittings.


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