Tech giant Google has been working on a replacement for the industry standard method for classifying skin tones, which a large number of technology researchers and dermatologists said was insufficient for determining whether the products are biased against people of color.
The controversy was triggered by Fitzpatrick Skin Type (FST), a six-color scale used by dermatologists since the 1970s. It is currently used by tech companies to classify people and determine whether items like facial recognition systems or smartwatch heart-rate monitors work equally effectively across skin tones.
According to critics, FST, which includes four grades for “white” pores and skin and one each for “black” and “brown,” ignored diversity among people of color. Researchers from the US Department of Homeland Security, during a federal technology standards conference last October, had advised against using FST for facial recognition evaluation because it fails to account for color variations in a variety of populations.
“We are working on alternative and more inclusive measures that could be useful in the development of our products, and will collaborate with scientific and medical experts, as well as groups working with communities of color,” the company said, declining to offer details on the effort.
The controversy is part of a larger debate about racism and diversity in the tech industry, which has a predominantly white workforce than other industries like finance. Technological inventions or products, often powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) for all skin colors, age, and gender is becoming more important. The concern over FST is that its limited scale for darker skin could lead to technology that, for instance, works for golden brown skin but fails for espresso red tones.
This all started when a dermatologist Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick invented the scale to personalize ultraviolet radiation treatment for psoriasis, an itchy skin condition. He grouped the skin of “white” people as Roman numerals I to IV by asking how much sunburn or tan they developed after certain periods in sun.
A decade later type V came for “brown” skin and VI for “black.” The scale is still part of US regulations for testing sunblock products, and it remains a popular dermatology standard for assessing patients’ cancer risk and more.
Technology companies were unconcerned until recently when Unicode, an industry association overseeing emojis, referred to FST in 2014 as its basis for adopting five skin tones beyond yellow, saying the scale was “without negative associations.” In a study testing AI for detecting deepfakes, Facebook researchers wrote, FST “clearly does not encompass the diversity within brown and black skin tones.”
Microsoft acknowledged FST’s imperfections. Apple said it tests on humans across skin tones using various measures, FST only at times among them and Facebook said it is open to better measures.