Racism exists even in computers, evidently.
Twenty two-year-old Richard Lee, a New Zealand student of Asian descent currently studying in Melbourne, Australia, experienced this firsthand, after his passport photo was rejected by the automated facial recognition system at a government website.
Lee was trying to renew his passport so he could return to Australia after he had spent Christmas with his family in New Zealand, but when he tried to submit his picture to the Department of Internal Affair’s online photo checker, he was confronted with an awkward error message.
Apparently, Lee’s eyes appeared closed to the computer — even though they were quite obviously open.
“The photo you want to upload does not meet our criteria because subject’s eyes are closed,” the caption read.
Lee, who was born in Taiwan, contacted the department shortly after to notify them of the problem. The spokesperson told him the “uneven lighting on the face” might have caused the photo to be rejected.
“I tried different ones and no luck, so I rang the office they said it's to do with the shadow in my eyes and uneven lighting in the face,” Lee stated. “So I got a few new ones taken at Australian Post and one of them went through, finally.”
However, one of Lee’s friends posted his picture along with the message on Facebook, where it was met with both shocked and amused reactions.
As for Lee himself, he thought the incident was quite funny. Frankly, he didn't consider the problem to be of a racist nature. "It was a robot. No hard feelings," he said.
"The error message didn't bother me that much, I saw the humor in it and obviously it's a programming error in the recognition software," he added. "Just a bit annoying with the delay and I'd expect to get a staff reply after 3 failed submissions.”
"No hard feelings on my part, I've always had very small eyes and facial recognition technology is relatively new and unsophisticated," Lee told Reuters.
The student, who is also a DJ, posted a humorous Photoshopped image of himself with blown up eyes with the caption, “I hope they accept this one.”
As for the software, a representative from the immigration department claimed it is "one of the most technologically advanced in the world” but rejections were common.
“Up to 20 percent of photos submitted on line are rejected for a large variety of reasons,” they said.
Can a machine be racist? Obviously not, but it certainly seems like the programmers could spare a few moments tweaking the software's decision-making criteria.