Behind the Algorithm

“The susceptibility of AI to bias is one of its most visible, acknowledged and harmful features,” writes Professor Helga Nowotny in In AI We Trust (2021, Polity). “Technologies are intrinsically intertwined with conscious or unconscious bias, since they reflect existing inequalities and discriminatory practices in society.” It’s a problem which has made headlines, impacting systems from US police profiling and court sentencing to A Level exam results in the UK. But how are artists responding? Mónica Alcázar-Duarte – an Aesthetica Art Prize finalist – is one such example, making searing work about the relationship between real-world and online bias. The series Second Nature is based on intense research into search engines.

Algorithms are continually learning from search terms and queries inputted by users. This, in turn, influences the images and information we see online. Alcázar-Duarte has meticulously studied how these mechanisms are reinforcing stereotypes, with Second Nature drawing on the lived experiences of over 100 Mexican women. “Rigorous testing of industry AI algorithms, including Google search’s processing, discovered significant biases and the perpetuation of stereotypes around issues of gender, race and geography,” Alcázar-Duarte continues. “Latin women seem to be particularly victimised.”

Behind the Algorithm: Migration, Mexican Women and Digital Bias is a new virtual show from Autograph, the London-based photography gallery dedicated to exploring race, identity, representation, human rights and social justice. Through Alcázar-Duarte’s lens, the exhibition looks at the impact of online discrimination and how digital bias is shaping cultural ‘truths’. Each image is based on recurring themes from Alcázar-Duarte’s research, reflecting the shared experiences of women in Mexico today. The artist places herself in front of a black backdrop, using props and keywords to symbolise the power structures at play.

In an era of social media ‘echo chambers’, political polarisation and fake news, these works encourage internet users to question the accuracy and objectivity of online information. “A web search using the terms Mexicans and Why Mexicans are… returned an overwhelming majority of search results related to drugs, drug use, and the Mexican war on drugs,” Alcázar-Duarte notes. One work is titled How do you stop these people. Another is called From the shadows they keep coming. “The title[s] comes from a fragment of web search results I got in 2019. The search included the terms: Mexican, Mexican women, Mexicans are.

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The Aesthetica Art Prize is open for entries until 31 August, championing creativity in all its forms. Prizes include £10,000, publication and exhibition. Click here to find out more.

Words: Eleanor Sutherland

Image Credits:
1. Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, Divided We Fall from Second Nature, 2019- ongoing. © Mónica Alcázar-Duarte
2. Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, Güerita from Second Nature, 2021. © Mónica Alcázar-Duarte
3.Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, From The Shadows They Keep Coming from Second Nature, 2021. © Mónica Alcázar-Duarte
4. Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, Tierra y Libertad from Second Nature, 2021. © Mónica Alcázar-Duarte