Google searches for new measure of skin tones to curb bias in beauty products

Alphabet Inc’s Google is developing alternatives to the current standard for classifying skin tones which to dermatologists and researchers say is inadequate for assessing whether products are biased against minorities.

The current six-color scale known as the Fitzpatrick Skin Type (FST) has been used by dermatologists since the 1970s. This same technology is now used by tech companies to categorize people and measure whether certain products such as smartwatch sensors and facial recognition systems perform equally across all skin tones. The technology in question which include four categories for ‘white skin’ and just one for each ‘brown’ and ‘black’ skin tones raise questions on lack of diversity among people of color.

In a federal technology standards conference last October, the United States Department of Homeland Security suggested that using FST for facial recognition did not accurately represent color range in diverse populations. Google, in response to Reuters, has been working to find more effective measures. “We are working on alternative, more inclusive, measures that could be useful in the development of our products,” the company said, “and will collaborate with scientific and medical experts, as well as groups working with communities of color.”

This is not the first time that Google has addressed this. In February, the company announced that cameras on Android phones that could measure pulse rates by fingertip, it said that there was on average an error of 1.8% regardless of skin tone. Google also made similar claims that skin type would not affect the results of backgrounds on video chats, or a new tool that identifies skin conditions.

The FST was invented by the late Harvard University dermatologist Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick. The scale was originally used to personalize ultraviolet radiation treatment for psoriasis. He grouped the ‘white’ skin with Roman numerals I to IV by asking how much sunburn or tan one would develop after certain periods of sun exposure.

It was not until ten years later that type V for ‘brown’ and VI ‘black’ were added to the scale. This scale is used to test sunblock products, however, many dermatologists argue that the scale is outdated and an inadequate representation of darker skin tones. “Many people would assume I am skin type V, which rarely to never burns, but I burn,” said Dr. Susan Taylor, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist [Reuters].


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