Google search for new classification of skin tones to curb bias in products

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Google is developing an alternative to the industry standard method for classifying skin tones, which technology researchers and dermatologists say is inadequate for assessing whether products are biased against people of color.

At issue is a six-color scale known as Fitzpatrick Skin Type (FST), which dermatologists have used since the 1970s. The company said “We are working on alternative, more inclusive, measures that could be useful in the development of our products, and will collaborate with scientific and medical experts, as well as groups working with communities of color,”.

Ensuring technology works well for all skin colors, as well different ages and genders, is assuming greater importance as new products, often powered by artificial intelligence, extend into sensitive and regulated areas such as healthcare and law enforcement. The concern over FST is that its limited scale for darker skin could lead to technology that, for instance, works for golden brown skin but fails for espresso red tones. Numerous types of products offer palettes far richer than FST. Crayola last year launched 24 skin tone crayons, and Mattel Inc’s Barbie Fashionistas dolls this year cover nine tones.

Skin Tones

The late Harvard University dermatologist Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick grouped the skin of “white” people as Roman numerals I to IV by asking how much sunburn or tan they developed after certain periods in sun. A decade later came type V for “brown” skin and VI for “black.” The judgment of the raters is central. Facial recognition software startup AnyVision last year gave celebrity examples to raters: former baseball great Derek Jeter as a type IV, model Tyra Banks a V, and rapper 50 Cent a VI.

Microsoft acknowledged FST’s imperfections. Apple said it tests on humans across skin tones using various measures, FST only at times among them. Garmin said due to wide-ranging testing it believes readings are reliable. Makeup company Mob Beauty and helped Crayola on the new crayons, said he developed 40 shades for foundation, each different from the next by about 3%, or enough for most adults to distinguish.

Color accuracy on electronics suggests tech standards should have 12 to 18 tones, he said, adding, “you can’t just have six.”