Category: inclusion


Notes from the Black In AI 2019 Workshop

In early December, I attended the Black In AI workshop (BAI), part of the NeurIPS AI conference held in Vancouver.

Timnet Gebru and Rediet Abebe founded BAI three years ago to address the near complete lack of Black and African voices at NeurIPS and other AI conferences.

Over that period, the organization has had a tremendous impact: participation has grown to several hundred attendees, it has spawned affiliated conferences like Deep Learning Indaba , it was instrumental in bringing the Eighth International Conference on Learning Representations to Ethiopia in 2020, and it has initiated a range of mentoring and training efforts across the African diaspora.

I spent few hours this year participating as an organizer (some coordination of remote presenters and travel grants). The talks were streamed and recorded here.

There is a lot that I learned by participating and it was an honor to work with the brilliant people who made the conference happen — I wanted to share some of what I’ve been able to think through in hopes that there might be some nuggets of value.

The interesting stuff happens at the margins

When I first started in AI, it was an area that existed on the margin of computer science. Neural networks were on the margin of that margin. I think that there is a lot of freedom and creativity that comes when one is open to just think and experiment — there is also the pressure of proving the viability of your position. You can find real innovation being birthed if you look carefully. When you hear talks put all your assumptions into question, then you know that you’ve probably arrived at the right place.

What I found then at Black In AI was a lot of work questioning basic assumptions of a field which has moved from the margin to the spotlight (literally half of the commercial booths at the NeurIPS were hedge funds).

There are three talks (among many ) that stood out for me in this respect.

Abeba Birhane: Rethinking the Ethical Foundations of AI

I had the privilege of hearing Abeba Birhane who was deservedly awarded the Best Paper.

There is a lot of work on bias in machine learning models — for example Assessing Social and Intersectional Biases in Contextualized Word Representations was presented a few days after Birhane’s talk. A lot of the “solutions” in the fairness literature focus on de-biasing of the training and inference process. But Birhane’s talk called into question the point of de biasing algorithms, probing the intent of these algorithms. Is the point to present decision processes that are unfair as fair? Is the point really to reify structural oppression — to put lipstick on a pig (to borrow the title of one paper) ? She is searching for the voices of the marginalized in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

To take a concrete example, many companies are using the app to rewrite job descriptions to have less gender bias. But maybe identifying the bias is really more an indicator of internal structural patterns of oppression? But how do you get companies to address the internal gender issues that give rise to these biased job descriptions to begin with?


Her talks are recorded. Relational Ethics, starts at 20:30 into the presentation. Her talk at ML for the Developing World: Challenges and Risks starts 38:00 in. There is an accompanying blog post .

Matthew Kinney — Defending Black Twitter from Deepfakes

There was Matthew Kinney’s talk “Creative Red Teaming: Approaches to Addressing Bias and Misuse in Machine Learning” — an approach using deep learning to safeguard internet platforms from misinformation campaigns.

Kinney began looking at the Internet Research Agency‘s disinformation effort when it became apparent that Black Twitter was being targeted as part of voter suppression efforts. Since BAI, we’ve seen similar campaigns launched in support of India’s Citizen Amendment Act and other repressive efforts — these campaigns are likely to be a constant this year, making Kinney’s work all the more critical.

Less you think that the disinformation campaigns are just about the use of video manipulation, Kinney makes the point that misinformation based upon text generators like Open AI’s GPT-2 can be more harmful.


Sara Menker: Data Science for Agriculture

One of the other impactful talks was by Sarah Menker, CEO of Gro Intelligence — a company that does agricultural analytics. I was interested in how the data science team in particular manages rapid response to develop models in response to rapidly changing weather and farming conditions and also how they deal with a team that is split across Kenya and New York.

Sarah Menker’s talk starts 1:48 into the video.

Prominent themes

There were a number oral presentations at BAI are around speech and language processing — particularly the development of technology to support support Amharic, Tigre, Yoruba, and other African languages. I spoke with the founder of a small startup Latan who is working on Tigre translation. Healthcare and agriculture applications featured prominently.


Remote Presentations

A number of presenters were not able to make it, mostly due to visa issues (details of this below). The diversity of their talks are indicative of the richness of the research community. Here’s a recording of Simba Nyatsanga’s talk on automatic video captioning

You can access the Black In AI 2019 Youtube channel to view the others.

Visa Privilege

One of the many issues that Black In AI has tackled was transportation exclusion. Many researchers from from Africa, South America, and the Caribbean lack either the institutional or personal resources that would enable a trip to Canada (or other destinations where computing conferences are frequently held). A large part of BAI’s fund raising effort is about putting the resources together to bridge that gap — travel grants for presenters and other attendees also provide airfare and lodging. This makes BAI one of the most economically inclusive workshops.

All that said, an on-going challenge down to the last minute was getting presenters to the conference.

We had nearly 40 presenters denied visas right off. Most of these were reversed once senior IRCC officials reviewed the applications, but for many, it came too late, in some cases the day that the conference was to start. In large part, denials and subsequent reversals seemed to hinge on a political calculus. Senior officials only became involved after pressure from Wired and BBC articles and members of the House of Commons, and various high profile AI researchers.

My analysis is that Canada wants itself perceived as an inclusive country with a progressive visa policy and is planning on building AI as a growth industry. Although these values may not be shared by individual in-consular staff, or maybe even the AI programs used for visa screening. This isn’t much the case in the U.S., where policies are in open opposition to fair visa access to persons from Africa, Islamic countries, and other locations outside of Europe, the U.S, Canada, and Australia.

Despite the reversals, there were other unexpected visa conundrums. Several participants flying through South Africa had to be provided with alternate tickets to deal with not having transit visas for Hong Kong. Several Nigerian presenters were price gouged by Turkish Airlines when trying to get on their flights. That is, they were presented with additional substantial visa fees at the gate. The complaints of stemming from these policies resulted in last week’s suspension of Turkish Airlines in Nigeria. Conference organizers had to scramble to find alternate flights home for those who flew on Turkish Airlines. I give these anecdotes only to highlight the immense privileges that those of us in the U.S., EU, and Canada enjoy in having relatively open and worry free travel.

Planning Distributed conferences

Pulling off the Black in AI workshop itself was the epitome of a distributed team in action. As we began dealing with the problem of managing visa rejections in Brazil and Nigeria, or just managing hotel payments and livestreams highlighted the need for coordination and process. There is a lot of process knowledge that I feel is unique to making such a trans-national, inclusive (language, gender identity, diverging racial categorizations) work. I wondered about the best ways to capture and curate knowledge.

On Having Allies

I was encouraged to see individuals come together in sincere, and supportive ways to bring about a wider view of what global collaboration could be. The coordinated effort by people in Women In AI and LatinX in AI was amazing. The tireless, round the clock efforts by those both famous and invisible, the commitments to encouraging and supporting the emergence of new scholars, developers, artists, thinkers was uplifting in spite of so many other causes for concern. I don’t doubt that there is an AI bubble, or that in a few years the generative networks and transformers will be pedestrian as rice cookers or smoke alarms — less AI than just another kind of device or program. What I think is that getting people together from across the globe, really from across the globe — from across the economic and gender and racial divides — is really how important and unimagined change happens.

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Aspiring towards anti-racism

The Atlantic magazine posted an a day ago article “We’re All Tired of Being Called Racists”. The article presented views of some supporters of the current (as of August 1, 2019) U.S. president at a recent rally. Many were perplexed at being labeled “racist”.

One of those interviewed in the piece insisted that they couldn’t be racist because their children were of mixed race. Yet Strom Thurmond — one of the U.S.’s most virulent segregationists of the 20th century — had an African American daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Eduard Bloch was a Jewish Austrian doctor protected from anti-Semitic terror for a number of years during the 1930’s — a lone act of compassion during the anschluss. There are many cruel contradictions in this landscape.

Strict definitions of what racism is and isn’t aren’t fluid enough deal with the capacities that we each have for compassion and prejudice. Showing compassion for a daughter when enacting so many repressive laws doesn’t seem an acceptable bar. Yet, don’t we all deserve a path to redemption.

It seems so much easier and just to think in terms of allow all of us to escape binary traps, to aspire to, and ultimately attain some better version of ourselves and our society.

I think that this quote from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is spot on when he writes:

No one becomes ‘not racist,’ despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be antiracist on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country’s racist heritage. We need to read books that force us to confront our self-serving beliefs and make us aware that ‘I’m not racist’ is a slogan of denial.

We can each actively aspire to be the anti-racist. Some first steps could include:

If all else fails, think in terms of how the children of one hundred years from now will judge you, and then work backwards.


Black In AI paper submission deadline extended

The Black in AI is a workshop that centers the work of Black AI researchers and practitioners from across the globe. The paper submission deadline for the 2019 workshop has been extended to August 7. This is it’s third year.

I’d encourage submission even (especially!!) if your research and ideas are still coming together. There are a limited number of travel grants available which you can apply for here. You don’t have to have an accepted paper to apply for the travel grant.

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Black In AI workshop call for papers

If you are a student, researcher, or professor at a Historically Black College or University and work actively in data science, machine learning, or artificial intelligence, please consider submitting a paper to the 2019 Black in AI workshop. The deadline is now August 7 — I’d encourage submission even (especially!!) if your research and ideas are still coming together. There are also travel grants available and I’ll post that application soon.

The workshop occurs during the 2019 neurlps conference (this is probably the most attending conference on deep learning and other AI architectures). The specific goal of the workshop is to encourage involvement of people from Africa and the African diaspora in the AI field, and to promote research that benefits (and does no harm to) the global Black community.

Paper submission extended deadline: Tue August 7, 2019 11:00 PM UTC

Submit at:

The site will start accepting submissions on July 7th.

No extensions will be offered for submissions.

We invite submissions for the Third Black in AI Workshop (co-located with NeurIPS). We welcome research work in artificial intelligence, computational neuroscience, and its applications. These include, but are not limited to, deep learning,  knowledge reasoning, machine learning, multi-agent systems, statistical reasoning, theory, computer vision, natural language processing, robotics, as well as applications of AI to other domains such as health and education, and submissions concerning fairness, ethics, and transparency in AI. 

Papers may introduce new theory, methodology, applications or product demonstrations. 

We also welcome position papers that synthesize existing work, identify future directions, or inform on neglected/abandoned areas where AI could be impactful. Examples are work on AI & Arts, AI & Policy, etc.

Submission will fall into one of these 4 tracks:

  1. Machine learning Algorithms
  2. Applications of AI 
  3. Position papers
  4. Product demonstrations

Work may be previously published, completed, or ongoing. The workshop will not publish proceedings. We encourage all Black researchers in areas related to AI to submit their work. They need not to be first author of the work.

Formatting instructions

All submissions must be in PDF format. Submissions are limited to two content pages, including all figures and tables. An additional page containing only references is allowed. Submissions should be in a single column, typeset using 11-point or larger fonts and have at least 1-inch margin all around. Submissions that do not follow these guidelines risk being rejected without consideration of their merits. 

Double-blinded reviews

Submissions will be peer-reviewed by at least 2 reviewers, in addition to an area chair. The reviewing process will be double-blinded at the level of the reviewers. As an author, you are responsible for anonymizing your submission. In particular, you should not include author names, author affiliations, or acknowledgements in your submission and you should avoid providing any other identifying information.

Travel grants

Use this link to apply for travel grants to the conference. They are available for eligible attendees, and should be submitted by  Wed July 31, 2019 11:00 PM UTC at the latest (Note that this is one day after the paper submission deadline).

Content guidelines

Submissions must state the research problem, motivation, and contribution. Submissions must be self-contained and include all figures, tables, and references. 

Here are a set of good sample papers from 2017: sample papers 

Questions? Contact us at

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Cuba as a prayer to inclusion

As the current administration of the U.S. continues to place restrictions on travel to Cuba, my heart aches, and my mind goes to back to amazing days that we spent in Havana and Trinidad last summer.

A year later, impressions remain with me. Walking the streets of Habana and Trinidad, one is left optimistic on what inclusion could be. As we traveled across half the island, and from one end of Habana to the other, I was struct by the absence of the “Black ghettos” — the all too familiar racial segregation that is imprinted on each and every U.S. city that I have ever visited.

I was struct by the fact that the resources, though humble, were shared by all across gender and color. People of different hues and ages did Tai Chi in the park. Occasional people on the street made sarcastic comments on the Castros or Trump, the bureaucratic inefficiencies, the resources constrained by the embargo.

But the generosities were unparalleled. The warmth is still in my heart.

Along the roads, I was struct by the absence of police. Or rather it was the absence of omnipresent force — of the signals that lethal violence is around the corner, trained on Black bodies. The occasional officer, there to mitigate traffic issues, no military grade automatic weapons, that’s what I needed for a vacation.

Seeing people with access to a basic burial, children able to attend a dance class without their parents having to defer due to money, people with access to a simple loaf of bread regardless of the meager cash on hand.

We saw families coming together to say their goodbyes.

I cannot unsee inclusion, I cannot unsee the basic respect for basic human dignity. I cannot unsee humanity in practice.

I hope that you visit soon.


Solace from New Zealand

The bravery of New Zealand in confronting pain and loss, in embracing its Muslim community, in confronting white supremacy is like an opening for humanity to move forward.

This photo.

This moment of a worshipper at Kilbirnie Masjid embracing New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is the essence of all that we need to start.

That the divisions between Islam, Zoroastrianism, the Jain faith, Judaism, the Sikh faith, Hinduism, the Bahai faith, Yoruba spirituality, and yes Christianity in its many forms — they are illusory veils that separate us from each other. We can transcend veils.

That we need an end to violence.

That its time for more women to lead, because the corruption of patriarchy is hopefully now laid bare.

That the color of your skin, or the languages you speak, don’t make you any less human and deserving of love, humanity, compassion, equality.

That would be a Surrender to peace.

Here is the thought experiment that I can’t get out of my head — what if a country of 300+ million on the North American continent were to ban male presidents — just for a decade — and see what that does for the collective mental and emotional? What if it were to embrace its Muslim community, open its doors to the oppressed as it claims to, recognize the humanity of its original inhabits, and of all of its spectrum of citizens. That would be an amazing balm to the world.

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Avondale Estates is having a backlash

Martin Luther King feared fully expected that there would be a backlash as basic human rights for African Americans expanded. There were historic precedents for this such as the reversal of post-Civil War Reconstruction-era freedoms during the last decades of the 19th century and the rise of segregationist laws throughout the southern US during the 1950s. Ta-Nahesi Coates speaks eloquently on the last incarnation of this in his Atlantic piece The First White President.

I am witnessing the evolution of this fourth backlash wave play out where I live, just east of Atlanta. Yesterday, my family and I witnessed the incident which is the featured image of this post. A White police officer handcuffs, and humiliates a young Black man about 15 feet from us through the window of a shop were we frequently have a relaxed brunch. The shop, I should mention is owned by a Black woman, also a resident of Avondale Estates. I should have stood with my young Brother and recorded the incident — sadly I know that life will give me other opportunities. To witness is a powerful comfort and statement. The young man showed calm and grace, as many of us have learned to do in such situations (I’ve been there).

Avondale Estates, a little east of Atlanta until recently had de-facto housing segregation through special real estate covenants. The history of housing segregation in Georgia, and the Atlanta area is both fascinating and frightening. If you zoom in on the Avondale Estates area, you’ll notice interesting racial disparities. There’s more information in this 50-year look back at the fair housing act.

Avondale Estates and the small towns to it’s north and east have been notorious for the disproportionate amount of revenue garnered from African Americans being stopped for minor traffic violations.


Georgia cities — especially Stone Mountain and Clarkston lead the nation in the fining of Black people

I wish we knew more, but like it’s voting transparency, information on racism in policing in Georgia is hard to come by.

Although one of my close friends (also African American) purchased a home in Avondale Estates in the ’90s, anecdotally (just from informal conversation), the number racialized policing and other incidents around exclusion have continued to grow.

I’ll detail one particular issue I’ve encountered. In Avondale, several times when walking while Black, my family and I have encountered on several occasions the question “Do you live around here?” Word of caution and advice for any (non-Black) person with the bad home training to ask this question. The 14th amendment of the Constitution of the United States is generally understood as guaranteeing access to the public roads to any US citizen, “green card” holder, or basically any human being regardless of what they look like. Dear White People, it’s not your militia/Klan duty to keep American or Avondale Estates or any other space in this country White. There’s my peculiar rant.

What can done? A few suggestions:

  • Check out the hash tag #StopRacialProfilingAvondaleEstatesGA
  • When you see these incidents going down, use your phone and record.
  • Start demanding accountability from your police officers, city and county representatives.
  • Talk to your children about race, about racial profiling, about racialized violence.

Let’s end the police state together.



Gayatri interviews Yuyi Morales at Decatur Book Festival

My partner Dr Gayatri Sethi is interviewing celebrated writer and illustrator Yuyi Morales today at the Decatur Book Festival today, Saturday, September 1 from 1:00 to 1:30. They’ll be discussing Morales’ new book Dreamers.

Isn’t it time you talked to your children about what is going on at the border? Dreamers talks about Morales’s own 1994 journey from Xalapa, Mexico to the US. with her child. It is such a beautifully illustrated book, and a profound story with so many layers.

If you’re in looking to add a highlight to your long weekend, please come through!

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AI at HBCUs Fall 2018

If you teach/study computer science at a Historically Black College or University, or know of someone who does, please check out and pass along the site

I put it up a year or so ago to document the work being done at those institutions to increase the impact and participation of the African Diaspora in shaping the way that AI technologies are developed and used. As this recent report by the ACLU points out, yes algorithmic racism is still a thing.

If you know of important initiatives, interesting classes, or discussions going on at HBCUs around this issue, please feel empowered to check out the repository and send a pull request. Or drop a comment below.

I was encouraged to see that the Neural Information Processing conference (one of the most attended AI conferences) is taking steps towards inclusion. They keep promising to change their name.




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Investing in empowerment

Dr King spent his last precious hours advocating for the economic rights of African American sanitation workers in Memphis. In his broader vision, this was one arm of a struggle for justice for the poor and powerless that spanned divides of gender and race.

I recently met Ryan Harrison at the Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and
Transparency  and he shared his amazing post on socially responsible or as he puts it solidarity based investing.

The post, at least for me, presents a new way of thinking about “return on investment”. In other words, the “return” is the uplift and empowerment of our communities in ways that seek to build equity for all instead of maximal profits for a few.

In our brief conversation, Ryan schooled me on bail bonds funds as one example. Since many people can’t afford the bond for minor traffic violations and misdemeanors, they end up having to do jail time, miss work, lose jobs, and thus end up in a downward poverty spiral. Since it’s not supposed to be a crime to be Black, Brown and Poor, non-profit funds such as the Bronx Freedom Fund were setup to provide a route of this particular trap. An investment in the bail bond fund is a direct investment in the economic viability of a given community — like the South Bronx.

As Ryan points out, the move away from the traditional 401k/IRA can be gradual — say 10% of your investment funds allocated to solidarity investments. It is the start of the journey that matters.

The options for where to put your solidarity dollars range from grant based investing (like bail bond funds or in local food cooperatives like the one in the featured image by Steven) to direct lending programs (like Canopy Coop in Boston) to more traditional equity investments like the Shared Capital Cooperative .

Gayatri Sethi (my life partner) is working on a education platform called Alt-College that’s based on this solidarity model.

Do you have any suggestions on efforts to invest in? Strategies that you have put into place for socially conscious investing? Please share!