Money Reimagined: Crypto’s Diversity Problem

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Please consider using a different web browser for better experience. Please enable JavaScript in your browser for a better site experience. Money Reimagined: Crypto’s Diversity Problem Jun 26, 2020 at 16:49 UTC Updated Jun 26, 2020 at 18:20 UTC opinion Michael J. Casey Money Reimagined: Crypto’s Diversity Problem A few years ago, when MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini was leading an interactive digital art project, she found the facial recognition technology it employed was far better at recognizing her lighter-skinned MIT colleagues. The discovery sent Buolamwini on a mission. She founded the Algorithmic Justice League and started doing research that builds awareness about biases in software algorithms. One paper she co-authored with Timnit Gebru , the technical co-lead of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team at Google, found facial-analysis software had an error rate of 34.7% for dark-skinned women versus just 0.8% for light-skinned men. Facial recognition is the tip of the iceberg. Biases are inherently present in all forms of artificial intelligence algorithms, those digital machines that increasingly run our world. You’re reading Money Reimagined , a weekly look at the technological, economic and social events and trends that are redefining our relationship with money and transforming the global financial system. You can subscribe to this and all of CoinDesk’s newsletters here . Over the years, an extreme lack of diversity in computer engineering has left white men with a disproportionately large influence over all software design. Unconscious bias – now, finally, a topic of great discussion across the United States – means they end up creating products to serve the needs of people like them, not necessarily those of others. This is a vital issue for the algorithm-dependent cryptocurrency and blockchain industry. If this technology is to have a broad impact on the world, it must engage a wide population. If bitcoin , for example, is to become a global currency, if it is to become a monetary standard accepted by people of vastly different backgrounds, it must be accessible and valuable for a full cross-section of those groups. And if distributed ledger technologies end up providing the data architecture in “smart cities” or enabling our health systems to manage privacy-protected data for fighting pandemics, we better make sure these platforms don’t discriminate against one group or another. Diversifying the dev teams The need for diversity in this industry was the central theme in a virtual symposium held last Friday by Cleve Mesidor, founder of the National Policy Network of Women of Color in Blockchain, which coincided with the Juneteenth emancipation holiday. The panelists’ message, according to CoinDesk reporter Nathan DiCamillo , was that while crypto can help citizens opt out of “a racist financial system,” for that to happen “Black people and people of color must be part of the development of the technology.” Calls for diversity like these are often met with retorts such as “bitcoin doesn’t care about the color of your skin” or “blockchains are based on math, not flawed human processes.” It’s a naive perspective. The code for the protocols that dictate each blockchain’s rules, and for the smart contracts and apps built on top of them, are written by people, not by some universal law of nature. And, in the blockchain community even more so than in tech broadly, those people are predominantly white men. Source: Clay Banks/Unsplash Don’t think, either, that blockchain technology is protected against bias by its preference for open-source development. A codebase can be fully accessible but if there isn’t a sufficiently wide group of skilled people reviewing and contributing to it, biases will persist. It’s true, this technology has the potential to help people overturn some of society’s ingrained, structural injustices. As investor and active #BlackLivesMatter supporter Mike Novogratz says, “ Crypto is about systems change.” But a decentralized system is only as inclusive as the platform on which it is built. There’s nothing intrinsically fair about a blockchain. Action plans A key problem is the digital divide. Impoverished communities of color worldwide have significantly reduced access to the information tools needed to participate in blockchain and crypto development. Addressing these imbalances is vital for crypto adoption. While it’s exciting to see usage rates grow in places like Nigeria and Venezuela during the COVID-19 crisis, we must also recognize the painful circumstances leading these people to bitcoin and stablecoins: economic breakdown, severe dollar shortages and failed public health systems. And in the grand scheme of things, those newly increased numbers are a tiny proportion of the total developing world population. We have a long way to go before we bridge the crypto divide. A natural starting point is education. While a number of interest groups have sprung up to suppor...