In racist technology wars, HP closes on Veridian Dynamics

In Episode 4 of Better off Ted (a fantastic show that you really need to tune into now before it, like so many other shows that make the mistake of being intelligent, gets axed), Veridian Dynamics encounters a small problem. It has installed new motion sensors in the building that turn the lights on and off as employees enter and leave the room. They already had a sensor system, but this one is better, somehow. The official ABC synopsis sets the stage:

Meanwhile, Lem and Phil have their usual morning quarrel, this time over coffee and microscopic organisms. (Trust us, folks—it’s hardly as sexy as it sounds.) When Phil leaves to get a cup of joe, everything in the lab suddenly shuts off. Lem is confounded by this, even more so when everything springs back to life upon Phil’s return.

As it turns out, the problem is that Phil is white, Lem is black, and the sensors apparently respond to light reflecting off the skin. Which means that Veridian has managed to create racist technology.

The company’s efforts to address the problem lead to all kinds of hilarity (simply reinstalling the old tech, which worked just fine, doesn’t occur to anyone). They hire white people to follow black employees around, for instance, but that creates HR issues (these new positions are rather explicitly not open to black applicants). It all crescendos in one of the most outrageous, fall-off-the-couch funny moments in television history (seriously, I laughed until I hurt).

Hilarious concept, if a bit unrealistic, right?

Except that once again, life imitates television: it was recently revealed that HP, evidently the Veridian Dynamics of the computer technology world, has invented racist webcams.

In a video posted on December 10th, a black male and a white female show how an HP computer’s facial-tracking software fails to recognize the black man’s movements. Yeah, you know where this is headed. When the woman, Wanda, enters the frame, the camera follows her wherever she goes. But when the man, Desi, enters, the camera won’t respond to any of his movements at all. His only comment? “I’m going on record, and I’m saying it,” he says. “Hewlett-Packard computers are racist.”

We applaud the good humor of the narrator here, but the whole episode raises an obvious question: doesn’t HP, you know, test its products before release? Even Veridian engages in rigorous product testing (granted, they tend to use their own employees as unwitting guinea pigs, but still)…

2 replies »

  1. In the new, techno-national-security state we’ll all wish we were black. Joke’s on us, crackers.