Ethical AI and Smart Lock Systems

I recently sat down with a group to discuss the pros and cons of emerging technologies from my perspective as both anthropologist and ethical technologist; specifically, smart lock systems. For those who may be unfamiliar with smart lock systems, they are a relatively new technological advancement that uses image and facial recognition software to enable users entry to businesses and residences thereby eliminating physical keys; this technology is believed to increase safety and ease of accessibility. 

No more misplaced and lost keys, costly locksmith services, and the ease of allowing temporary and/or limited access to vendors, guests, and service providers. These are the pros and admittedly, they are cost-efficient, time-saving, and an added convenience for some – perhaps, many.

There is a misconception that AI is godlike, infallible even; but AI is a product of wholly fallible human design. Coded into the complex algorithms are the same biases we deal with in our day to day human experiences. Laypersons are more apt to buy into a science they don’t fully understand and this leaves an already over-policed, vulnerable faction of the population at a heightened risk of unprecedented, unmitigated harm.

Within the past month, a Black sixteen year old was seriously wounded after being shot by a White homeowner for ringing his doorbell in error. It is not only reasonable to suspect, but to assert the homeowner reacted with such heightened hostility towards the error and minor inconvenience due to his own preconceived notions about race.

What, then, do we do when there is a discrepancy between the human-coded smartlock technology algorithms and the humans seeking safe, equitable access? Do those for whom these products and processes are designed and marketed–directly and indirectly (communities, community leadership, and support agencies) have the digital literacy to adequately advocate for and exercise safe and appropriate agency for themselves and their constituents?

In my work, I consult and/or partner with companies to ensure they are building intentionally and equitably at every stage of the process, and these safety measures are iteratively built into the design process as praxis.

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