Dorothy Vaughan Tech Symposium

Today, I gave opening remarks on Capitol Hill at the Dorothy Vaughan Tech Symposium organized by Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.).


The symposium brought together leading experts to talk about the impact of emerging technologies on black women and other marginalized communities - in particular, the threat of “deep fakes”, computer-generated graphics that can be used to falsify images, audio and video, and can easily be deployed as weapons of harassment.

Moderated by Mutale Nkonde of Data & Society, the symposium’s panel discussion featured Dr. Safiya Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Joan Donovan, Director of the Technology & Social Change Project at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, Dr. Brandeis Marshall, Former Department Chair and Associate Professor of Computer Science at Spelman College, and Dr. Mary Ann Franks, Legislative & Tech Policy Director of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

The speakers highlighted examples ranging from the use of fake social media accounts to suppress the African American vote by targeting supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, to the use of deep fakes in pornographic settings to devastate the lives of women, including women of color. Panelists noted that historically underrepresented groups can be targets for disinformation due to their perceived inability to “push back” against online harassment. They also noted how biases embedded in training data for algorithms, the underrepresentation of marginalized communities online, the systemic privilege embedded in search algorithms and other online systems perpetuate bias and inequality. Panelists also engaged on the need for stronger, national legal protections to address the problems of deep fakes, to protect women from harassment and avoid a patchwork of state solutions and jurisdictional fights.

Rep. Clarke spoke at the event and stayed for its duration, engaging in meaningful Q&A with the audience after formal remarks. A full transcript of my remarks are available below:


Good Afternoon.

It is my pleasure to welcome you all to the Dorothy Vaughan Tech Symposium. I am Deloris Wilson, an Inclusive Innovation Fellow at Georgetown Law’s Institute of Technology Law and Policy, as well as Head of Strategy and Operations at BEACON: The D.C. Women Founders Initiative. I work at the intersection of gender, tech, and opportunity - and use my legal and political background to help navigate a rapidly changing technological landscape posing both positive potential and undue harm to underrepresented groups.

I have had the privilege to work within tech companies using advancements in Artificial Intelligence for good. At PushBlack, the nation’s first text-based civic engagement platform for African-Americans, we used Facebook bots to share daily black history and galvanize civic participation during elections. We’ve grown that community from a few hundred to over 3 million due, in large part, to automation. At Alice, I’ve use algorithms to diagnose and direct small business owners to the resources they need. Alice recognizes that business ownership should not be defined by where someone comes from or who they know, and they’ve used artificial intelligence to expand access to opportunity.

But technology is not always used for good. It can also be used to manipulate, exploit and denigrate the most vulnerable. That’s why, at Georgetown, we’re also organizing the Color of Surveillance conference to further discuss how civil rights and liberties can be appropriately protected in this technological age.  And it’s for a similar reason why we’re here today: to spark discussions and mobilize action on emerging technologies that negatively impact Black women and other marginalized groups.

In so doing, we honor Dorothy Vaughan - an African American tech pioneer who forged a new place for women in STEM and should be celebrated for her tremendous contributions to this world.

“To talk about Dorothy Vaughan, we have to go back to the time of flesh and blood computers.” Meaning, the early days - when computations were done by hand. In the late 50’s and early 60’s as we proclaimed a lofty goal to place a man on the moon, Ms. Vaughan forecasted the arrival of machine computing and sought to empower herself and other Black women with the tools needed to keep their current roles and even in more advanced lines of work. Specifically, Ms. Vaughan became an expert FORTRAN programmer at a time when African Americans were banned from accessing such curriculum. She taught others and wrote handbooks; and, when machine computers became the norm - Ms. Vaughan positioned herself and her colleagues for a newly created role as computer programmers.

Through a combination of grit, talent and timing, Ms. Vaughan was essential to the calculations of Project Mercury - the first human spaceflight program which sent Apollo 11 to the moon, among other groundbreaking innovations that changed technology as we know it today. And now, over 60 years since this transition, we approach another technological revolution which not only threatens vulnerable workers through automation (similar to what Ms. Vaughan and her colleagues faced) but also threatens our ability to receive trusted and viable information online, conduct fair elections, and protect our privacy.

Recently, computer scientists have created new audio/video techniques using artificial intelligence, facial mapping and audio augmentation to portray false narratives by some notable faces -- including former President Barack Obama and presidential hopeful, Kamala Harris - just to name a few. The ability to create videos showing events that never happened is especially troublesome, as technology is advancing at such speed which makes even the fakes difficult to detect.

In the age of social media, where headlines are clicked, referenced and believed with little validation, and marginalized groups are targeted by operatives seeking to “test” new developments or discredit our political process due to a perceived inability to fight back, a threat to the authority of video -- which previously stood at such a high regard of factual reliability - could have grave consequences on our ability to receive and assess credible news and factual accounts.

But the rise of “deep fakes” sit atop existing activities of misinformation and misrepresentation, long overdue for regulation. Since the development of the public internet in the late 90s, “online abuse” can and has taken many forms - with most state-level responses now targeting non-consensual pornography, for example. However, the field is vast -- as technology has ingrained itself into multiple facets of our lives and exacerbated existing inequities through both gendered and racialized lenses. Though some accounts assure deep fakes haven’t yet propagandized our political sphere, the Deepfakes Accountability Act seeks is a proactive, rather than reactive, measure of what is to come.

Here are a few issues impacting the Fourth Industrial Revolution that our panelists will uncover in more detail:

  • AI systems perpetuate racial and gender bias because of the implicit values of their human programmers. This bias has implications for misrepresentation in search engines and questions corporate ethics and accountability.

  • Social media provides openings for subcultures to target marginalized groups, incite division or conflict, and prevent us from accessing information beyond an echo chamber, with insufficient moderation by corporations.

  • The rise of “deep fake” videos was precipitated and, arguably, perfected through celebrity pornograpahic videos or non-consenual pornography - where women, and particularly women of color, were the target and/or test case. Now, this same technology is being used to create fake news and malicious hoaxes. We’ll discuss how states have state-enacted legislation against non-consensual pornography can sere as a model for a digital civil rights agenda.

We are now at a time, similar to that of Ms. Dorothy Vaughan’s, where policy makers have to consider the role technology plays in our everyday lives -  particularly in regards to groups who face historical discrimination, inequitable access and bias that has yet to be fully addressed.

D Wilson