Google alphabet told Reuters this week that it was developing another industry-standard method of distinguishing skin tones, meaning that a growing team of technology researchers and dermatologists said it was not enough to test whether products discriminate against people of color.
The output is a six-color scale known as the Fitzpatrick Skin Type (FST), which dermatologists have used since the 1970s.
Tech companies are now relying on it to differentiate people and measure whether products such as face recognition systems or smartwatch heart rate sensors work equally well across all skin tones.
Critics say FST, which includes four categories of “white” and one “black” and “brown” skin, ignores differences between people of color.
Investigators at the US Department of Homeland Security, during a state-of-the-art technology conference last October, recommended leaving the FST to examine facial recognition because it does not properly represent the range of colors for different people.
Responding to Reuters questions about FST, Google, for the first time and before its peers, said it had been looking for better ways.
“We are working on other, more inclusive, steps that can be useful in improving our products, and we will work with science and medical professionals, as well as teams working with people of color,” the company said, declining to provide details in the effort.
The debate is part of a larger calculation of racism and inequality in the technology industry, where workers are far more white than sectors such as finance.
Ensuring technology works well for all skin colors, as well as age and gender, is considered important as new products, often used by artificial intelligence (AI), expand into sensitive and controlled environments such as health care and law enforcement.
Companies are aware that their products may be at fault for the most under-represented groups in research and data testing.
What worries FST is that its limited amount of black skin can lead to technologies that, for example, work with golden brown skin but fail with red espresso tones.
Many brands offer richer palettes than FST. Crayola last year unveiled 24 leather crayons, and this year’s Mattel dolls Barbie Fashionistas combined with nine tones.
This problem is too far away from Google. When the company announced in February that cameras on some Android phones could measure pulse levels with the finger, it said the average reading would be 1.8 percent damaged regardless of whether users had light or dark skin.
The google company later issued similar guarantees that skin type would not affect the results of the filtering feature in the Meet video conferences, or the upcoming web tool for identifying skin conditions, randomly called Derm Assist.
Those conclusions were taken in a six-tone FST test.
The late Harvard University dermatologist Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick developed this scale in the treatment of personalie ultraviolet radiation for psoriasis, which is a skin condition.
He paired the skin of “white” people like the Roman numerals I to IV by asking how much they grew sunburn or tan after some time in the sun.
Ten years later came the V type of “dark” skin and the “black” VI. The scale is still part of US regulation of sunscreen products, and it remains the standard skin care product for patients with cancer risk and more.
Some dermatologists say that the scale is a poor and overused measure of care, and it is often associated with race and ethnicity.
“A lot of people might think I’m skin type V, which is usually not too hot, but I’m hot,” said Drs. Susan Taylor, a dermatologist at the University of Pennsylvania who founded the Skin of Color Society in 2004 with the aim of promoting research on underprivileged communities.
“Looking at my skin color and saying I’m type V makes me feel bad.”