AI and the Souls of Black Folk

The impact of AI on communities of color — particularly through job displacement and policing — is now undeniable. Given that HBCUs have historically been on the forefront of technology education for the Black community, I am proposing to build a list of current activities (courses, research, seminars, clubs, etc.) at the HBCUs relevant to AI and its wider implications. If you’d like to contribute to the list, I’ll eagerly accept your input! To understand some of my motivations, keep reading.

We’ve now reached the point where the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) upon everyday life is undeniable. Everyone takes Siri for granted, your local Walmart can hook you up with a drone that does object recognition, and the introduction of self-driving cars now seems inevitable.

The title of my post is inspired both by W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic The Souls of Black Folk — a collection of essays on the state of African Americans at the start of the 20th century — and by Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine which chronicles the development of a computer architecture at the end of the 20th century. I think that at the start of the 21st century, a critical look at how African Americans are impacted by immense technological change is needed. The title tries to capture my central question:

What is the impact of AI and related technologies on the lives of Black folk, and how can we organically shape a future for these technologies that enhances opportunity rather than reifies oppression?

To be honest, I am deeply concerned about the potential AI has for disruptive and devastating impact on communities of color. The Obama administration released a sobering assessment of the  economic impact of AI — it forecasts that changes in the transportation sector alone (trucking and delivery) will mean the elimination of occupations which Black and Brown folk have relied upon for entry into the middle class. Those findings are likely to generalize to other occupations. The prevalence of predictive policing and algorithmic sentencing raise serious concerns about equality and self-determination — especially when mass incarceration and other racial disparities in criminal justice are taken into account.

In theory, a modern democracy should allow impacted communities to raise concerns about a technology and then foster the deliberative processes necessary to fairly address those concerns. In theory, the open source movement provides a model through which communities can identify and develop technologies that serve their particular needs.

You might respond that “technology is colorblind, science is colorblind, it shouldn’t matter whether there are any Black folk involved at all in the development of and policy making around AI technology“. I think in this case particularly, it matters a great deal. AI, looking back over its history, is itself an endeavor that grapples with the question of what it means to be human — it is an endeavor that demands broad societal input. 

Aside from President Obama’s initiative, I see very little presence of the disenfranchised in discussions on the future course of AI. For example, OpenAI is a research institute of sorts formed with the express purpose of “discovering and enacting the path to safe artificial general intelligence“. Despite lofty claims OpenAI seems to have the traditional Silicon Valley underrepresentation.

So all that said, what is the simplest concrete contribution I can make?

I have spent most of my career in AI. I grew up in Atlanta, attended Morehouse College and Georgia Tech through the Atlanta University Center’s Dual Degree Program, and went on later to complete a doctorate in computer science at the University of Chicago focusing on robot planning and learning. Along the way I studied and worked with other Black people doing advanced computing, witnessed Black people found successful technology startups and saw Black women and men lead successful academic careers in these fields. On the one hand, the diversity (exclusion?) figures we see from Facebook and Google seem at odds with  that experience. On the other hand, it jibes with the experience of being “the one and only” in many places I’ve worked or studied at. I wanted to begin to quantify and understand the dimensions and particulars of exclusion — things just don’t seem to add up, so perhaps we are looking in the wrong places and asking the wrong questions when we conclude there are no Black folk doing AI?

The Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) provided the fertile intellectual soil in which Du Bois’s ideas sprouted and grew. So I thought my first concrete step would be to take inspiration from Tracy Chou’s Women in Software Engineering and put together a set of Google spreadsheets that document how HBCUs are looking at AI.

I created the spreadsheet AI at HBCUs. Please give it a look. Right now it is an aspirational document in that it tries to gather up any kind of activity at the HBCUs related to AI, Machine Learning, or Data Science. Hopefully it can be the basis of other kinds of summary statistics, update posts,  or active development efforts.

I’ve split the document into a number of sheets:

Sheet Name



Name and address information for US HBCUs based on information obtained from IPEDS


Information on AI related courses taught at the institution. Any department.


Information on grants received by the HBCU for AI related work


Publications on AI related topics.


Student related clubs. For example a robotics club, drone club, a group formed for Kaggle competitions, etc.

Workshops and Seminars

Has the institution hosted any seminars or workshops? Links to videos would be great.


Any Saturday events for grade schoolers? Teach-ins for community organizers?

Graduate Placements

Any numbers on the graduates who’ve gone on to careers, graduate school or internships in AI related fields.

Here’s how I think this could work. If you are a  faculty or a student at a HBCU, you can for the time being send an email to me with information on courses, seminars, research, clubs, outreach programs or other related activity at your institution. I’ll manually post your information to the relevant sheet. If there’s enough interest, I can just set this up to allow direct update (through pull requests or direct editing of the relevant sheet). I’m open to suggestions on formatting, information gathering, and overall focus.

Let’s get the discussion started!

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