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Africa's software engineers urged to check prejudicial content

Africa's software engineers urged to check prejudicial content

As cases of algorithmic bias emerge, resulting from oversight by large tech companies including Microsoft (for its controversial chatbot 'Tay'), computer programmers and software developers have been advised to think deeper about the varied and sometimes unintended use of their programmes.

Terri Burns, Associate Product Manager at Twitter urged African coders and programmers at the annual DevConf in Johannesburg yesterday to be more conscious of algorithmic bias and the impact it has on people's lives.

"As long as we continue to believe that an algorithm is unbiased, we risk reinforcing the status quo in harmful ways. This is really a very difficult and philosophical issue when it comes to being software engineers and it is thinking about how we as people building technology and software products reinforce some of the pre-existing parts of society that maybe we don't necessarily think are the best parts. I believe that some of the best computer programmers are continuously thinking about this question and they are building for communities with this consideration in mind. One needs to be cognisant of implicit bias and how it manifests in code."

Burns says parameters governing access to software, can also be exclusionary and developers need to think about the communities that are, by default, left out of the process.

She recommends diversity among teams of software developers in order to avoid prejudice.

"One thing that can really help to foresee some of the undesired cases is by building diverse teams. Diverse interests and backgrounds pull together much more knowledge and they can build more inclusive and thoughtful software that is useful."

According to Burns prejudice can arise through various channels, including from developers with malicious intent, users who exploit software or as a result of oversight within code that communicates a very different message to what was originally intended.

She believes that irrespective of how it happens, this should not detract from developer focus on the meaning of what they do and how to combat the problem.

"If we let some of the worst parts of ourselves and biases that inhibit what we can do as communities seep into our computers, then what ends up happening is that we have bad computers and people have really bad experiences with technology and that impacts people's perceptions of the world."

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