There’s a cartoon version of you on your phone screen. It smiles, says hello, and invites your friend to a party. It’s cute, and on the surface, it seems innocent — playful even. It’s called a Memoji, and it’s been available to some iPhone users since Sept. 17.
On the surface, Memoji is a cheerful message to send to your friends and family. It allows you to pair your voice with an animated image of yourself to send Pixar-like videos of up to 30 seconds.
The feature currently works on iPhone X and later models, as well as the latest models of the iPad Pro. The technology supporting the creation of Memoji and its counterpart Animoji, which features animals, robots, and mythical creatures, is the same technology behind Face ID.
It’s cool technology. I’m not denying that. But it’s also dangerous technology — technology that can easily be used to mimic minorities and people of color. By giving users the ability to match any voice to any cartoon face of any race — including any skin color and/or religious garment — Apple has made it easy for anyone to create 30-second racist videos.
I’ll be honest. This isn’t a problem people are actively reporting. There’s no evidence online of white supremacists donning digital blackface to mimic racial groups, or of anyone mimicking a race using the technology for that matter. It’s also not an issue I’m able to fully comprehend. My privilege as a white male means that I’ve never experienced the same effects of racism. Despite these facts, this technology is still an issue that has roots in the technology industry as a whole.
Sexual harassment and racial stereotyping permeate the tech industry as well as the technology it creates. One in 10 women in tech experience sexual harassment, and nearly one in four people of color experience stereotyping. In fact, 78 percent of employees surveyed in the tech industry said they experienced “some form of unfair behavior or treatment,” according to a study conducted by the Kapor Center for Social Impact and the Harris Poll.
Discriminatory workplace environments are only a small portion of the issue of racism and exclusivity in the tech industry. A lot of the technology being developed by companies other than Apple is racist as well.
For example, the facial recognition systems of Microsoft, IBM, and Face++ were easily able to identify the sex of white men and white women, but guessed the sex of dark-skinned women incorrectly almost half of the time. And in 2016, when Microsoft released its chatbot Tay onto Twitter, it was shut down after only 16 hours due to a large quantity of sexist and pro-Hitler messages.
There isn’t an easy solution to the Memoji problem. The publicization of the frightening potential of this technology could lead to its proliferation. The insertion of a feature that detects race into the iPhone could lead to racial profiling. Questionnaires regarding a user’s race at the first opening of an Apple product could also be problematic, as basic census questions are unable to determine a person’s physical appearance.
In fact, all of these ideas would almost certainly lead to further problems. However, it is still highly important to examine the cause of this oversight.
That Apple failed to consider the negative applications of their technology is indicative of a lack of diversity at Apple and other similar technology companies.
In November 2017, Apple released a diversity report that shows just how serious this problem is. Apple’s report is hopeful. It takes an optimistic approach and focuses on growth. Yet, no matter how much Apple emphasizes diversity online, their numbers tell a different story.
Only 36 percent of employees under thirty at Apple are women. According to Apple’s website, only 31 percent of employees under thirty are “underrepresented minorities” in the United States.
At leadership levels and throughout the company as a whole, women and people of color are ridiculously underrepresented. Of the 115 executives or senior officials in the company, 77 are white men. Only 19 are people of color, and of those 19, only six are women.
Any oversight (like the Memoji one), no matter how small, is unacceptable for a company as large as Apple — especially when recent reports indicate there are over 700 million iPhones in use across the world.
Apple is trying to become more diverse, but they need to try harder. For a company that’s worth almost $1 trillion, Apple should be pouring its resources into diversifying its workforce.
With a more diverse environment, Apple could gain valuable points of view. These different perspectives could be what prevent new issues surrounding race with Apple products from arising. They might even be what keep Apple ahead of its competition.
Eamon Morris PZ ’22 is from Orange, CA. He spends more time drinking coffee than he does sleeping.