Black people have a superpower

So chrome! So shiny! Soap dispensers work for him 100% of the time!

So chrome! So shiny! Soap dispensers work for him 100% of the time!

It’s invisibility! Various technological gadgets, like soap dispensers and facial recognition software, don’t detect them, because they were never properly tested with diverse users.

On the one hand, this is disgraceful — it tells us that biases in the tech sector lead to blind spots. On the other hand, when SkyNet takes over and decides to exterminate the population, it’s only going to shoot the white people.


  1. Grumpy Cthulhu (just woke up) says

    Prophecy came true. The episode Racial Sensitivity from Better Off Ted (s01e04) dealt with exactly this as the basis for one of the funniest episodes of any show I’ve ever seen. Never thought it would become reality, though.

  2. says

    Wait, I thought they already had the superpower to hulk up and shrug it off while charging at you when you shoot bullets at them. That and invisibility? I bet they can fly too. Well, really, the only ethnic group that can’t fly is Arabs, because the TSA stops them.

  3. rael says

    As SOON as I saw that I just came to see if someone had mentioned the Better Off Ted episode which was – like most of its episodes – phenomenal. I think the best /line/ in that episode was Linda walking up to Ted and saying “Okay, I’m being totally serious, this isn’t a joke, five black guys and a white guy get in an elevator…”

    But the best moment was the separate water fountains. The look exchanged by Ted and Lem was some seriously good comedy acting.

    Oh screw it, here’s that moment, (cropped, but you can watch the whole episode if you want)

  4. Gregory Greenwood says

    At least Skynet won’t be killing all humans, that is a step in the right direction. Now all we need to do is reprogram the Terminators to leave innocent White people alone and only kill the racists and other bigots – then we’re golden.

    We could start by using most of the Republican Presidential candidate lineup to help calibrate the machines. Once they start shooting at Donald Trump we will know we are getting close…

  5. Pen says

    Yup… this was very sadly true of the devices they installed to turn the water on and off automatically in our swimming pool’s showers. Not that they were actually racist, per se, don’t cha know. I mean, if you were a black woman in a white swimsuit, you were fine, whereas a white woman in a black swimsuit was just as screwed when it came to showering as a black man. These peculiar devices have since been replaced by manual buttons which actually work.

  6. JoeBuddha says

    As an SDET and card-carrying geek, I’m reminded of a voice recognition project related to me by a fellow tester. They came up with a product that had truly amazing reliability. However, when introduced, it did horribly. Turns out all testing was done using text-to-speech software. It could recognize computer generated speech just fine. Human? Not so much.

  7. blf says

    Is this analogous to voice recognition and the Scottish accent?

    Not in any significant sense, no: There are many many more people with darker-toned skin than there are with Scottish accents. Having a (relatively) rare strong(?) accent with “fails” to work is more understandable than a failure to work for a significant percentage of people. And someone with a strong accent can either train the device, or modify their speech when speaking to the device; skin colouring is not-so-easily or selectively modified. (And that is not to say you should have to modify your speech, only that the option exists (although I assume there are some people for which that is impractical or impossible).)

    Another thing this points out if the lack of a “backup strategy”. The soap dispenser (apparently) can only be operating by triggering the detector. But why isn’t there a button (e.g.) also? The detector may malfunction due to technological factors (electronics failure, dirty lens, …) but that would seem to have also not been taken into account. (Which is another difference with voice-detection: There is a backup in that case, the keyboard / keypad / stylus / whatever…)

    I also smell the smell of bean-counters here. Testing, buttons, and the like are “expensive” (which often seems to mean nothing more than more-than-zero “cost” in time or money expended). The people who move beans around on abacuses often object, albeit competent (read: rare) executive / manager knows when to ignore them.

    (Interestingly, this might have a very loose connection to me, or more accurately, to the company I work for, BigDumbieCo. One of the company’s claimed specialties is sensor chips, and we can’t rule one that these soap dispensers use a BigDumbieCo sensor. I’ll have to pull a datasheet and look to see what sort of limitations, testing, etc., is listed…)

  8. blf says

    JoeBudda@8, Amusing, but seems-implausible. For no-one to have noticed the voice-recognition software was poor at actual human voices, that suggests it was never “used”, by the developers, executive / managers, marketing, and similar people. And that does not describe anyone in the “computing” industry I’ve ever met…

    However, what might make it plausible is if no-one realized it was “failing” far more often than the claimed failure rate (aided, perhaps, by a misunderstood or simply bullshite definition of what constituted a “failure”). And that, sadly, is possible, even for the developers. It never ceases to amaze me what developers (including myself!), testers, and so on somehow overlook.

    Even so, I tend to think that amusing story is more of a “technogook legend” rather than an actual incident. (Of course, I could be wrong.)

  9. Kristof says

    And I thought “Better Off Ted” (season 1, Episode 4, “Racial Sensitivity”) was supposed to be a comedy…

  10. unclefrogy says

    I am not a POC but I always have trouble with these “automatic” systems I have trouble with faucets. flushing urinals and paper towel dispensers. faucets that despense water for such a short time that I can’t get my hands into the stream before it stops and paper towel dispensing so small a towel that it can barely be used,
    So why are these devices being installed? I think the bug here that we the users complaining about is the feature.
    The water faucet that turns off in a very short time saves money / water, small paper towels safes paper towels /money, That they are not very sensitive saves development costs and more resources that they are dispensing.
    They were developed not for the users convenience but to control and reduce the cost for the commercial establishments, hotels, restaurants and work places schools that are their primary customers. they obviously do not care very much about the users
    uncle frogy

  11. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    all the automatic flush urinals I’ve ever encountered always had the backup button flush on top of the valve. why not on faucets too? [rhetorically] There is also the magic “touch” faucets being marketed now. Why not install those with a little timer to turn off. So, touch, wash, 2 minutes, off. what’s the problm?

    ack, we not here to fix the existing IR faucet thingies, but to berate them for faulty QA procedures.
    Agreed, they limited their test population too narrowly to model the population expected to use the device. With all the internetz outrage, maybe they’ll adjust their QA procedure to be more expansive. fingers crossed.

  12. opposablethumbs says

    Is this analogous to voice recognition and the Scottish accent?

    blf, that was a Rab C. Nesbit reference (or rather, a reference to a sketch featuring the actor who played him (Gregor Fisher) – can’t remember the sketch series (apologies) (of course you may have known this …))

  13. doublereed says

    Huh. I’ve seen some b/w infrared photography and that wouldn’t pick up skin pigment at all. Dark skin and light skin looked the same. However tattoos would show up as dark which created neat effects. But I guess there’s several ways you can use infrared.

    I wish I had a link or something because the photography looks amazing, but I can’t seem to find it.

  14. rael says

    @11) Kristof

    Part of the comedy of that episode being that the writers assumed only a hyperbolic, socially ignorant and utterly evil corporation could ever utilize a product with such a horrible fault and EVEN THEN it was only internally in the building.

  15. blf says

    There is a real problem with strong(?) or “unusual” accents, bilingual situations, and almost all languages except so-called “tier 1” languages. The extent to which a strong(?) Scottish accent is a problem is a matter of some confusion since it has been perhaps the nominal example of a comedy situation. Native-speaker humans have a lifetime’s worth of experience, cultural background, and a powerful soggy pattern-matcher (the brain) to draw on to work out, or at least make plausible guess at, what another person who is, for some reason(s), not terribly comprehensible is trying to say. Plus, typically, an ability to interact with the other person. And, hopefully, a backup: Writing, miming, …

  16. komarov says

    Re: Doublereed #15:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but IR-phtography still uses ambient (IR-)light. So the camera picks up a range of wavelengths – whatever is there – and does so with much higher resolution and sensitivity than a regular sensor would.

    The faucet IR-sensor in the article has its own light source and probably filters out most light at wavelengths other than that of the source, including ambient infrared. It has to or the sensor could be tripped unintentionally by all sorts of things. So if the source beam isn’t reflected properly it won’t be detected.
    From a technical perspective this is an obvious limitation for photocells and other optical sensors. From a broader engineering perspective it shows the designers made some very basic assumptions about what human skin is like optically, which turned out to be wrong. Better luck next time, eh?*
    If someone really wanted to use an optical sensor they’d be better off with an actual photocell which triggers when a continuous beam is disrupted. It’s just as cheap and a lot more robust. That is assuming the bathrooms are cleaned regularly…

    *For what it’s worth, I think the the face recognition / tracking issues discussed in the same article are much more complicated so it is perhaps understandable why those systems would fall short. What isn’t understandable is that these systems made it through testing and onto the market.

  17. treefrogdundee says

    Well that’s a relief. And here I thought it was my lack of an eternal soul (or so I’ve been repeatedly told) that was causing the confusion.

  18. mikey says

    I regularly get a taste of this “superpower” at work. I routinely wear black nitrile gloves, and they render my mitts invisible to the IR automatic soap dispensers. I have to bare my (white guy) wrist to the sensor, then quickly shift my gloved hand under the soap stream when I hear it activate.

  19. dianne says

    Weirdly enough, I have the same problem, despite having rather whitish skin. It regularly takes me 3 or 4 tries to get the soap dispenser to work. Careful examination of my skin makes me suspect that there’s some other problem than color at work in me.

  20. carlie says

    All those sensors are good if they work as intended. Far too many people don’t flush public toilets, and it’s nice to not have towel dispensers that are all wet from everyone’s wet hands touching them. Problem is they so often don’t work as intended. Besides making the sensors more sensitive and adding a clearly marked manual override, it would be nice to have the sensors clearly visible as well (those faucet ones are THE WORST, I can’t even see where I’m supposed to be waving my hands).

  21. komarov says

    Re: Dianne, #23:

    I think that optical sensors are perfectly wonderful as long as you know exactly what to expect. Generally that doesn’t seem to apply to humans.

    Since yesterday I’ve been wondering if paper towels or something similar might work as a reflective surface since those are usually white. Only I have no idea how well paper reflects IR and expect someone with this problem already tried it. The only other thing to do (short of bringing an IR laser) would be to get as close to the sensor as possible – if you know where is.

    Being invisible is one of the supposed advantages of IR- and UV-based sensors but carlie is spot on: it’s a bloody nuisance not knowing where sensor is. A tiny laser dot wouldn’t be much more helpful but some bright markers or even a white LED to mark highlight the sensor would be nice.

  22. Who Him says

    Fairly confident that when Skynet gets programmed by white people to kill, it will be used against brown people first.

  23. The Evil Twin says

    I don’t know if this is related, but I was one of the Logistics people at Sasquan (World SF con in Spokane). During move-in/move-out I spent most of the day wearing of of those bright yellow safety vests. Anytime I went into the bathroom everything went nuts- the sinks all ran and the urnals flushed like mad. Took the vest off, they acted normal. The soap dispensers were manual, though.

  24. komarov says

    Yes, that may very well have been because of your vest. Warning vests, bicycles, cars etc. use retroreflectors which are special in that they reflect all the incoming light straight back in the direction where it came from. So whenever you crossed the light beam from a sensor it would have seen a very bright reflection from your vest and trip whatever it was connected to.

    Other surfaces including skin and regular clothing scatter the reflected light all over the place so the sensor doesn’t actually see much of the reflection. The detector probably has to be quite sensitive to work even at short range. The light source in an optical sensor is also designed to be much brighter than strictly necessary. This is to ensure it doesn’t become too weak as soon as a bit of dirt settles on the lens.

    I guess that means the sensors are really easy to set off if you have a proper reflector. Anyone struggling with these things might want put a small retroreflector on their key ring. That and yell at the management whenever they can because it’s silly having to MacGyver your way through the bathroom.

    I’m not sure what retroreflectors attached to one’s face will do to face recognition / tracking systems but it might be fun to try out. It would certainly make for a very futuristic look. Just be sure to mount a bright light behind your camera and ignore the spots floating across your vision…

  25. Dark Jaguar says

    I hate bathroom detectors anyway. Toilets flushing at all the wrong times and repeatedly, and the “time” you get to both wash and dry your hands is laughably useless. Just… just give us back our buttons. What’s wrong with buttons? Also, air drying is and has always been a joke. Paper towels! Just use paper towels! We SOLVED this problem already!

    Facial recognition… It’s true, there’s a lot of cases where the makers just haven’t branched out enough to correct for the white assumption. There are also other reasons. Contrast is sometimes to blame, such as my old DSi camera (a rather poor camera to start with) which struggled with faces that matched the wall or curtain behind them.