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Is the algorithm for How-Old.net Racially Biased?

So, at TMC (Twitter Math Camp) I had the privilege of attending two separate talks that got me wondering. First was Grace Chen’s absolutely phenomenal Keynote, “The Politics(?) of Mathematics Teaching”. In it, she mentioned that the age of black children is often overestimated by 5 years.

Later, Bob Lochel shared the hilarious website how-old.net  Upload/take a picture and it will estimate the age of people in the photo. The whole room had a great time playing with this. I personally (actually 32 years old) received everything from 26-42 as an age, depending on the picture.

Recalling Grace’s talk, I thought I might investigate. My boyfriend’s niece is Haitian and has very dark skin. She’s absurdly adorable and 5 years old. My nephew is white and has very light skin. He is ALSO absurdly adorable and 5 years old. 

Sure enough, how-old.net did a good job with my nephew and greatly overestimated the age of my niece.

This matters. Although it’s a silly website, by overestimating the age of black children, and seeing white children as more innocent, we perpetuate racism. I can’t say it better than Robin Bernstein did in his article, so go read that. (Pointed out to me, naturally, by Grace Chen.)

Knowing I needed more data points, I started entering a ton of photos and recording the information. If you would like to help out, head over to how-old.net and add the data to this quick google form! I’ll update the graph. Below are the current results.

On the x-axis are the people’s actual ages in the photos. On the y-axis is the age shown on how-old.net. The diagonal line shows x=y (or if how-old.net got it right). It’s color coded by race. What do you notice? What do you wonder? Anything else we should investigate? (Add in comments!)

For what it’s worth, Emma Veach also happened to find this gem on the same day!