Solving societal bias with innovative engineering2 March 2021

Engineering makes a difference in places you wouldn’t always expect. One of the biggest problems in facial recognition systems is bias in the artificial intelligences (AIs) behind them. Incredibly powerful AIs tend to be designed to do a single task, such as predict which of your friends’ posts you will want to see or to identify you in a photo, but an AI can only be as good as the data it is trained on.

Give a new AI a million photos of kittens and it might be able to learn what a kitten looks like from every conceivable angle and identify one in a photo. But AIs designed to recognise and identify human faces have generally been trained using databases containing predominantly white people and far fewer people of other ethnicities. This has led to an inherent bias in the programmes, and a great variety in reliability in identifying people from different backgrounds. This can cause a multitude of problems.

Fortunately, there are people and organisations working to address this imbalance. Take Charlette N’Guessan, for example. This 26-year-old from Cote D’Ivoire and her team have come up with software that uses a phone or computer’s built-in camera and, and in contrast to global AI systems, has been developed specifically to identify Africans. Her initial aim was to solve cybercrime and identify fraud for Ghanaian banks, but like any good feat of engineering, there’s potential for its applications in addressing societal bias globally.

Back in September, it won her the prestigious 2020 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation from the Royal Academy of Engineering, making her the first ever woman to win the Africa Prize.

Given that Gong’s mission statement is “to help purposeful organisations communicate their positive impact”, we are proud to be able to showcase the Africa Grants work of our client, The Royal Academy of Engineering.

And it seems apt to highlight it as World Engineering Day on 4th March celebrates the role of engineers and engineering in delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and encouraging more young people to become engineers – especially women, in a bid for greater sector diversity and inclusion.

The Academy nurtures talented engineers by training, supporting, mentoring and funding innovators, researchers and leaders, helping over 7500 professionals enhance their leadership skills. In Africa, its Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation supports 16 African entrepreneurs by accelerating their businesses, with a final prize of £25,000. Its Higher Education Partnerships in Sub-Saharan Africa (HEP SSA) programme aims to address the engineering skills shortage and showcase engineering’s role in driving economic development in the region. Similarly, its GCRF Africa Catalyst programme aims to support professional engineering bodies in sub-Saharan Africa so that they can share best practice and strengthen local engineering capacity.

By 2025, the Royal Academy of Engineering will have helped a million young people – from every background – to explore a career in engineering. They’re investing £180m in engineering talent, innovation and policy advice over the next five years.

We look forward to showcasing the stories of the impact made by Africa’s engineers, as they innovate towards a more sustainable, brighter future.