Viral Video Of A Racist Soap Dispenser Reveals A Much, Much Bigger Problem

What can a viral video of a “racist” soap dispenser tell you about the world of technology? A surprising amount, apparently.

Chukwuemeka Afigbo, a Nigerian man who works in tech, tweeted a short video of a “racist” automatic soap dispenser that appears to dish out soap to a white person’s hand but not a black person’s. As you can tell by its 130,000+ retweets and the number of laughing emoji reactions it received, it can be seen simply as a funny viral video.

But as Chukwuemeka points out, this highlights a bigger issue. The no-touch soap dispenser most likely uses some kind of light sensor to detect when a hand is beneath the contraption. Apparently, a dark-skinned hand wasn’t light enough to register on the sensor. This simple problem would have been avoided if it had been tested on a variety of skin tones. That, of course, requires people working in the industry from a variety of backgrounds.

There are plenty more examples of this. Soap dispensers, for one, seem to be particularly bad at dealing with different skin tones. In the past, Flickr and Google were both forced to apologize when their automatic image labeling systems were tagging photos of black people with “ape” and “gorilla”.

There was also the story of Joz Wang, a Taiwanese-American, whose Nikon digital camera kept offering up with the message “Did someone blink?”, to which she responded with a blog post titled “No, I did not blink… I’m just Asian!”

A scientific study also brought up the issue of voice recognition applications being far more effective at understanding men’s voices compared to women’s. That was because the software was trained using mainly male voices.

It’s hardly news to say the tech industry has a bad track record when it comes to diversity. Famous recent examples include the supposed “bro culture” of Uber and the disgruntled Google employee who recently released his “anti-diversity manifesto”.

Google’s own statistics reveal its tech departments are just 1 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic, 3 percent mixed-race, 39 percent Asian, and 53 percent white. Statistics on other tech giants paint a similar story.

On the surface, these little screw-ups like the soap dispenser can be viewed as funny, how can a non-sentient piece of tech be racist? But in reality, they show why diversity is so important in the most straightforward sense. Afterall, the company behind the dispenser probably wasn’t being intentionally racist. They were, however, thoughtless.

Companies wanting to widen the diversity of its employees is not just a simple a case of liberal idealism, although that might often be part of it, but addressing a real issue. Technology is used by everyone so it should be a reflection of everyone. If it doesn’t do that, it doesn’t work as well as it could.

Thanks, “racist” soap dispenser – you’ve taught us so much.