HP a Racist?
If you haven't seen the video on youtube yet, it's worth a look.
If this is legit, it's brutal, and Hewlett-Packard, the world's largest personal computer maker, has some major explaining to do.
What's the hub-bub?
"Black Desi" and his friend "White Wanda" purport to show that HP's MediaSmart facial tracking software works fine with Caucasian faces, but can't track the movements of an African American.
Says Desi, "I think my 'blackness' is interfering with my computer's ability to follow me." He goes on: "As soon as White Wanda appears, the camera moves. Black Desi gets in there. Nope! No face recognition anymore, buddy!" And then: "I'm going on the record and I'm saying it. Hewlett-Packard computers are racist."
Talk about "viral." The video went up a few weeks ago, starting on Facebook, and then making the rounds until it landed on YouTube where it has now been viewed more than 350,000 times, with 2,200 comments. Not the kind of thing that's good for a company so steeped in being a good corporate citizen.
What does HP have to say about all this?
Quite a bit actually.
If you head to the company's official corporate blog, an HP official writes, "Some of you may have seen or heard of a YouTube video (link included, which is surprising) in which the facial-tracking software didn't work for a customer. We thank Desi, and the people who have seen and commented on his video, for bringing this subject to our attention.
"We are working with our partners to learn more."
The official, Tony "Frosty Welch" is the lead social media strategist for HP's Personal Systems Group and the community manager for the site.
He writes that the algorithms on which the tech is based are pretty standard, measuring the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose. He adds that the camera Desi is using might have difficulty seeing contrast where there is "insufficient foreground lighting."
While that may or may be the case, this is pretty tragic on a key level not readily apparent. I don't think it's that big a deal that the software doesn't work as well with darker skin individuals. Technology is quirky. It works because of how it works. You can absolutely see all the features on "White Wanda's" face very easily, and using the same lighting, when Desi slides in, you can make out his features almost as well. That's the point. "Almost." It's a shame that the technology works the way it does, needing brighter lights for darker situations than for lighter ones. But say that. Disclose it. A subtle reference to "foreground lighting" in a user manual would have diffused all of this.
Meantime, the real shame is that HP apparently either forgot to mention that, or more troubling, PERHAPS has no African American members on their MediaSmart development team, or no dark-complexioned members of their broader partner ranks who could have discovered this way before it grabbed 350,000 viewers on YouTube. Is it a lack of diversity? Or simply an unfortunate oversight and a rush to judgment without really understanding the technology? HP is paying the price for the new world order of instant news, and a new kind of "power to the people," thanks to the internet.
I suspect the truth in all this lies somewhere in the middle, with HP in the process of learning some very valuable lessons, the most important of which — aside from sensitivity, is the power of getting out in front of a story like this one. A lesson can be learned by viewers as well. It's easy to play the race card; doubling down for the truth might be the harder bet in this day and age, but it also comes with a bigger payoff.
By the way, four messages left for HP have yet to be returned.
Update: A spokesperson for HP emailed CNBC the following comment:
"HP has been informed of a potential issue with facial-tracking software. Consistent with other webcams, proper foreground lighting is required for the product to effectively track any person and their movements. As with all our products, we continue to explore refinements which help to optimize their use." (attributable to HP)
Also, you might also look at the Consumer Reports videowhere the subject is discussed.
Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com