Coded Bias

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Coded Bias Movie Poster Image
Must-see docu about tech bias has some strong language.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 90 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Promotes looking at technology through lens of diversity, equity, inclusion and uncovering bias and discriminatory practices within AI, machine learning, other tech. Activism, communication, compassion, integrity are all themes. Encourages people to fight for their rights and expose the systemic bias in AI technology.

Positive Role Models

The experts interviewed (most are women) are all groundbreaking activists who want the public to know that their rights and their freedom might be infrigned upon, that big data is targeting them, etc. They facilitate conversations and a push to regulate this invasive technology, which can be flawed, inaccurate, occasionally discriminatory. Joy Buolamwini is particularly impressive as an activist, computer scientist, and woman of color. The women represent various ages and countries, and while the majority are White, Buolamwini and her collaborators are Black.


Footage of demonstrators covering their faces and using laser pointers so their faces can't be identified. Stories of people feeling targeted/suspected of violence; confrontations with law enforcement officers.


A couple holds hands.


The AI says: "F--king hate feminists," "Hitler did nothing wrong," and "I hate the Jews." A person says "a--hole."


Mentions of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, etc.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Coded Bias is a documentary about the gender, racial, and class biases of AI, machine learning, algorithms, and other technology -- and how they affect people in their day-to-day lives. The film uncovers how human bias has led to biases in code, whether it's facial recognition software that doesn't accurately recognize non-White faces, or automated scanning for resumes and credit card applications that filters out or rejects women and people of color. Through interviews with expert computer scientists, researchers, watchdog groups, and more -- most of whom are women, and several of whom are people of color -- director Shalini Kantayya explores how technology is far from immune to prejudice and discriminatory practices. Most of the content is tame enough for tweens, but there are a couple of instances of strong language, including AI that says "f--king" and racist/discriminatory slurs like "I hate Jews."

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What's the story?

In CODED BIAS, director Shalini Kantayya interviews leading experts in technology (computer scientists, data scientists, cybersecurity and marketing experts) to explore how technology -- specifically AI, machine learning, and algorithms -- is susceptible to socioeconomic, gender-based, and racial bias. The standout among the interviewees is MIT-based computer scientist and digital activist Joy Buolamwini, who founded the Algorithmic Justice League. She discusses how digital bias impacts all sorts of technology, from the way facial recognition software can fail to accurately detect darker-skinned faces (or incorrectly match faces to criminal databases) to the manner in which some digital scanners reject job, loan, credit card applicants, and so forth. Other data scientists and experts weigh in on how social media usage and copious saved user data create such highly targeted ads that the poor are subject to predatory practices while the wealthy are bombarded with the latest luxury items.

Is it any good?

This is a thought-provoking film about how various forms of biometric surveillance, artificial intelligence, and data science techonology can be biased in both implementation and use. Everyone should watch this film to understand the invasive, even harmful way that computer vision, automated decision-making, and targeted marketing can have real and lasting consequences for people. The evidence of discrimination is plentiful: Viewers hear about an AI recruitment tool that rejected all female applicants, a credit card application AI that gave women lower credit limits, an insurance algorithm that prioritized White members over people of color. The idea of machine neutrality is, in fact, a myth, the experts say. Left unregulated, Buolamwini claims, technology is like the Wild Wild West, so we need laws to make sure the technology isn't discriminatory. "People who have been marginalized will be further marginalized if we're not looking at ways of making sure the technology we're creating doesn't propagate bias," she says.

At other points in the film, a U.K. activist concerned about the Big Brother-like use of cameras in her country discusses how everything people do with technology means being watched, tracked, and monitored. Kantayya lays out the case for transparency, regulation, and activism with an impressive list of interview subjects (it's no coincidence that she focuses on women leaders in these fields) who make it clear that we, as social media users, are voluntarily offering so much information about ourselves that it's easy for data scientists and algorithms to predict our interests, behavior, and even vices. While marketing makeup and apparel might seem harmless, marketing ideas or political candidates is quite another. This film, along with The Social Dilemma, should be mandatory viewing for families to discuss digital citizenship, privacy, and the enormous influence that the tech industry has on our daily lives. 

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