As a retired chief engineer who has had thousands of engineers and data scientists working for me, I realized that, even though we have a number of traditional engineers, our pipeline is severely clogged.
We simply do not have enough professionals in the data science, machine learning, quantum computing, or autonomous operations industries. We need to unclog it, and we need our HBCU (Historically Black College and University) partners to help us focus on that. Here’s why.
Simply put, conscious and unconscious biases are helping to perpetuate this problem. They create short-sightedness and negatively impact our technology efforts, especially with respect to algorithms. We must change that right away. Yes, there are tons of initiatives trying to move the needle. We need to move faster to sharpen and accelerate this movement, or people of color, especially African Americans, will be left behind yet again. This includes understanding big data, the Internet of Things, and autonomous technologies, to name a few.
When I retired after 40 years of service, I saw a huge gap in this field. I decided to start both for-profit and nonprofit businesses to try to change the face of algorithms and the entire pipeline process of getting more professionals of color in this field. My concern was (and continues to be) that there will be inherent bias throughout the system if there are not enough Black practitioners in this area. I already see a great deal of that happening.
There are worldwide issues, one of the biggest being the misclassification of people of color. Google’s imaging services have had several instances of misclassifying darker-skinned people, most recently incorrectly translating dark-skinned people holding a thermometer as a gun. Lighter-skinned people did not have that same issue. We know what is wrong with that picture.
In July of 2020, many people may remember the Detroit, MI, officer who used facial recognition to unfairly accuse a Black man of a crime he did not commit. This hearkens back to the days before DNA when people were being found guilty without credible proof. This phenomenon has personally impacted even me.
Several years ago, I partnered with some people to buy an apartment in Long Beach, CA. Twelve years later, I received a note from an attorney that asked if I wanted to be a part of a class-action lawsuit based on a biased algorithm. When I wrote down that I was African American, the company charged me more interest on the apartment. The company had to go back 12 years and pay me the difference.
Bias in algorithms exists. We know the impact on the financial industry. There are anomalies and bad data associated with the health care industry. Unfortunately, there are so many more cases of misidentification of people of color. Black people and other people of color need to be more involved in the process.
When I was the chief procurement officer for Boeing, I saved millions of dollars by using predictive analytics and special studies in that area. It greatly improved relationships with our customers and partners. I believe all companies make better decisions when they use data analytics. But there is a dark side of when it is wrong and biased, and we do not have the diversity of thought integrated into that area. We need standards in this area. Data is the new currency, and I am convinced we need to work hard with HBCUs to get the new workforce aligned.
BEYA (Black Engineer of the Year Awards (BEYA) STEM Conference) has been addressing this issue for years, and that is very good news. Yet, we still have so much more work to do to address these issues.
This is not just a United States problem. It is a global issue. When you consider Industry 4.0—the fourth Industrial Revolution—and its focus on automation, you should realize that traditional manufacturing processes are going to change dramatically. From where we live to where we work, every aspect of human existence will be associated with it. What we listen to, our diagnostics, and our power will all be data-driven. This business is a trillion-dollar industry, and I tell all my HBCU mentees to follow the money to see where the industries are heading. Again, we need more Black professionals in this field.
I do see glimmers of hope on the horizon. I am excited that the Atlanta University Center Consortium, the largest consortium of HBCUs, has a new data science center. They partnered with United Health Group and are doing amazing work in that space. I have also decided to barter the rest of my life to continue opening this pipeline with my nonprofit company, Data Analytics. I am hopeful these will prove to be a few steps needed to mark true change and equity for all people in the data sciences.
In 2007, Joan Robinson-Berry received Career Communications Group’s Black Engineer of the Year Achievement Award and was inducted into the CCG Alumni Hall of Fame in 2012.