back to article Silicon Valley doesn't care about poor people: Top AI models kinda suck at ID'ing household stuff in hard-up nations

Off-the-shelf object-recognition systems struggle, relatively speaking, to identify common items in hard-up homes in countries across Africa, Asia, and South America. The same software performs better at identifying stuff in richer households in Europe and North America. Though initially shocking, and then not so much when you …

  1. earl grey Silver badge
    Facepalm

    see if they can tell

    which finger i'm holding up for them.

    1. Jamesit
      Happy

      Re: see if they can tell

      That's not a finger that's a thumb.

      1. Great Bu

        Re: see if they can tell

        That's not a thumb, it's a space station !

  2. martinusher Silver badge

    I'm sure humans wouldn't be that much better

    When you go into a radically different society then a lot of 'common household objects' are different to the ones we're used to (and they're often used a bit differently). We wetware types can make intelligent guesses about what we think stuff is because we don't have any nagging probabilities telling us we're wrong. We'll also get corrected by the locals. Software, OTOH, isn't really smart, its just like a bureaucrat with a really big Code of Practice book.

    The truth is that rich people in poor countries don't live like the rest of their compatriots, they live like Americans -- or, at least, how they think most Americans live. So obviously made-in-'merka image recognition software will work. But you'll also find that there are a lot of really poor people in the US and their modes of living might surprise both middle class (white) humans and software. It actually wouldn't hurt for people to get out and about a bit more....

    1. Kernel Silver badge

      Re: I'm sure humans wouldn't be that much better

      It might also be due to the fact that a lot of people have better things to do than rush around taking photos of household items, regardless of where they fit in the socio-economic spectrum (or their skin colour for that matter, I'm going to give you a down vote for mentioning that) - as an example, I'm paid well above average in NZ, I'd even be considered to be paid above average in the US, I own several vehicles, a large house and a beach house with no debt financing on either of them, etc., but I still don't feel the urge to take photos of my soap dish and send them in to some database.

      Somehow, there just seems to be more important things to do in life and I suspect I'm not alone in this.

      1. Isn't it obvious?

        Re: I'm sure humans wouldn't be that much better

        It hadn't occurred to me until you mentioned it, but how representative are their sample images anyway? Even the pump soap dispenser in the sample image is nicely isolated on the sink instead of crammed in between the toothbrush holder and a bottle of lotion.

        Do they have images tagged "sink" that include towels/rags hanging on the edge? "Faucet" images that have dishrags hanging off of them? "Towel" images where 3 hand towels of different colours and sizes are crammed together on a small rail?

        Even if you somehow provide enough incentive for people to submit "real world" example images for your training set, how much do you want to bet they tidy up a bit beforehand? And if they're scraping their samples from the web, well, nobody is posting anything remotely realistic there...

      2. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: I'm sure humans wouldn't be that much better

        regardless of where they fit in the socio-economic spectrum (or their skin colour for that matter, I'm going to give you a down vote for mentioning that)

        Well, there are the problems then as some of my friends are "of color" shall we say and there are objects in their homes that I'd be hard pressed to identify without knowing the people. Facial recognition also has issues with non-whites due to the data bases and who compiled them.

        1. Kernel Silver badge

          Re: I'm sure humans wouldn't be that much better

          "Well, there are the problems then as some of my friends are "of color" shall we say and there are objects in their homes that I'd be hard pressed to identify without knowing the people."

          Wow! - are you really saying that you go so far out of your way to be "friends" with people who have a different skin colour to you, that there are basic domestic items in their homes that you don't recognize - and this would not apply to some of your "friends" who are of the same skin colour, but a different cultural background eg., Amish?

          Apart from coming across as being somewhat condescending, that does suggest a woeful degree of ignorance on your part.

          Ok, I'll agree that many people might have something pertaining to their particular cultural background hanging on a wall or scattered around for either functional or decorative purposes, and I might not know exactly what their traditional name for that item is, but I can still recognise what is essentially a knife, a drum, a wall hanging, a harness for a horse and buggy, etc. I might even not know the names of the traditional foods they might eat, or what those foods are made from, but even if seen in isolation I doubt very much I'd ever get confused between food and a bar of soap.

    2. Claverhouse Bronze badge

      Re: I'm sure humans wouldn't be that much better

      The truth is that rich people in poor countries don't live like the rest of their compatriots, they live like Americans -- or, at least, how they think most Americans live.

      Actually, although the richest of Americans have more disposable wealth, as do many Pacific Rim Asians [ yet the upper stratas in Europe also have astounding lifestyles, but less perceived ] it's rich Americans who ape European styles, and are criticised for it by their down-to-earth, more common-man, thick-as-two-planks, plain fellow Americans --- rather than the rich elsewhere copying Yanks.

      Which is natural as the USA, until the founding nations become much less represented in the 22nd century, will have just been an off-shoot of European culture.

    3. VikiAi Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: I'm sure humans wouldn't be that much better

      So, the AI doesn't recognise the function of the 3 seashells!

    4. tmTM

      Re: I'm sure humans wouldn't be that much better

      Aye, parts of Rotherham haven't seen a bar of soap for decades now.

  3. Claverhouse Bronze badge

    Whilst such things are something every home must have, and it is a tragedy that some are denied such a basic human right as to identify things in front of them, it's possible that dwellers in shanty-towns aren't installing these systems for other reasons.

  4. Nick Kew Silver badge

    My soap (in the UK) looks much more like the one attributed to Nepal in that picture. Can't stand those bottled ones: even if they don't stink of perfume, I find them impossible to rinse off (though that wouldn't be such a problem with the harder water much of Blighty - especially the rich bits - has).

    More seriously, I expect you're comparing standardised consumer goods owned by rich people with home-made stuff in poorer countries. I wonder how it'd fare with frugal make-do-and-mend folks in rich countries?

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      The best soap should have a pH below 6, which rules out the standard stuff, which leaves my skin dry and prone to breaking (I have to use rubber gloves for the washing up). Unfortunately, most of the liquid soaps also have all kinds of shit that you don't need along with the perfume that many consumers insist upon.

      In many situations water is sufficient to remove whatever is on the skin. Where it is not, I do find the pH 5.5 soaps okay but have also used olive oil to remove oil and grease: will be absorbed quite quickly or can also be washed off reasoably easily.

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      I was also a bit puzzled by the liquid soap thing. Is it really that common in the UK? I've only ever really noticed it in office/public loos. A bottle of liquid soap just for hand washing appears to not only be significantly more expensive than a bar of soap, but provides for far, far fewer washes. Is that extra cost really worth the tiny little increase in convenience?

      In a public or office setting, there's the possibility of cross-contamination with strangers, but in the family home, you are all sharing your germs in so many ways already (which is beneficial in so many ways) that the one benefit of liquid soap is negated.

      Not to mention all that waste plastic from the bottles, the mixed plastics due to the pump part and that few people probably bother to separate the pump from the bottle or flush the pump clean before putting it in the recycling bin, hence "contaminated" and unrecyclable.

      1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

        Liquid soap is very common in Germany, probably because it's less messy than bars of soap. Fortunately, you can get refills in thin polythene containers. But then, seeing as one bottle lasts me more than a year i'm not that bothered about the plastic bit. As you note, recycling isn't that easy and currently not really financially viable. So most of the waste plastic here is also burnt as in combined plants, and the waste is less than one might imagine.

      2. holmegm

        Not sure that bars really provide for so many more washes. One squirt does a wash; the bottles last for a long time. The generics are pretty cheap too, not to mention you can get large refill bottles.

  5. Allan George Dyer Silver badge
    Terminator

    Confused...

    While "pots and pans" can be used for food storage, they are not a refrigerator, so why expect an AI or person to classify them as one when they are being used to store food?

    Then there's the difference between a "bed" and a "guest bed"... any guesses? (does Rule 43 apply?)

    Personally, I'm now developing a strategy of storing spare batteries in the library and sleeping in a hammock so the robots run out of power and can't find me to murder me in my sleep.

  6. Dr Scrum Master
    Paris Hilton

    Not a Model

    Meanwhile, this so-called AI does not demonstrate what I understood to be intelligence. These image recognition engines basically model textures and have absolutely no understanding (one of the crucial parts of intelligence) of what they're supposedly recognising.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Not a Model

      There is no AI.

      "models have to see thousands or even millions of examples of things before they can identify objects effectively,"

      A human child, with actual intelligence, can generally do the above from a single image or example.

  7. revenant Bronze badge

    It isn't 'Rich vs Poor'

    Surely it's just an illustration of the consequences of hand-feeding a learning machine : it will only learn what the developers provide it. Consequently it will only know what they know (or think is worth knowing) and so be biased towards their culture and level of ignorance of other cultures.

    It's a problem that will only be resolved when they give the things legs (or wheels) and passports and let them travel and learn what the world is really like outside the lab.

    1. Cuddles Silver badge

      Re: It isn't 'Rich vs Poor'

      "Surely it's just an illustration of the consequences of hand-feeding a learning machine : it will only learn what the developers provide it. Consequently it will only know what they know (or think is worth knowing) and so be biased towards their culture and level of ignorance of other cultures."

      Exactly what I was thinking. Nothing shown here appears to have anything to do with money. Presumably the system would be just as bad at recognising a bar of soap here in the UK, and if anything it's richer middle class types who are more likely to use it instead of pointless disposable bottles. It's simply that the system was developed in one of the richest parts of the world, so it's almost impossible for things it doesn't recognise not to be correlated with lower income. It once again exposes the problem with poorly trained recognition systems that are unable to handle things the developers didn't think of, but it doesn't say anything about Silicon Valley's attitude to poor people.

      Of course, it also seems to expose just how terrible these systems are even when supposedly working. In the example shown in the article, only two managed to recognise a bottle of soap, and one of those still thought it was more likely to be a gas tank. They might have been even worse for the Nepali photo, but all except Tencent were completely useless for both photos. Given the point is to recognise the contents of images without human intervention, what this really shows is not that there's bias based on money or culture, but that these systems currently are simply not fit for purpose anywhere.

      1. vir

        Re: It isn't 'Rich vs Poor'

        And there's also the slight drop-off at the very highest income bracket. Maybe the Goop effect? "No no no, we don't use your liquid hand soap, we have a $300 body purification system that harnesses positive ions to gently coax negative particles and lost dirt off of your skin without damaging it."

        Actually, if you search the Goop website for "soap", you end up with two liquid hand soaps, eight bar soaps, and three soap-possible/soap-adjacent products.

  8. joeldillon

    'A refrigerator in more developed countries have doors, and are made of stainless steel or are painted white, whereas in less developed countries where electricity is scarce, pots and pans are used to store food. Image-recognition models, therefore, won’t know that these simple storage objects are, in fact, refrigerators simply because they haven’t been taught that during the training process beforehand.'

    Hang on how is a pot or a pan a fridge?!

    1. joeW

      This confused me too. Surely if something isn't actively cooled then it is not, in fact, a refrigerator.

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        Yeah, if the comparison had been tupperware vs. pots/pans for food storage, that could have been valid. But trying to call a pan a fridge is just plain daft in any context.

  9. druck Silver badge
    Flame

    The point?

    Who really cares if an AI model can recognize these household items? It's not like there is going to be an AI self driving car travelling through the house, deciding to avoid the hand soap in a rich household, but plowing through the bathrooms of those who can only afford soap bars.

  10. Maryland, USA

    As a Googler's father, I can safely say...

    They're such sheeple, they probably wouldn't recognize my Android phone, Ford car, Olympus camera, or $25 coffee maker.

  11. Alan Bourke

    So anyway

    How's that realtime 'avoid the child running into the road' vision tech for self-driving cars coming along?

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Terminator

      Re: So anyway

      Hence the need to identify household goods from rich households. The car AI needs all the information it can get to identify which pedestrians to chose to hit in a multiple choice situation.

  12. Dedobot

    I will go for liquid soap only if I'm behind the bars in prison :-)

  13. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    Artificial Idiocy and Quality of Data

    Reading the post I noticed that only 30,000 photos from 264 homes were used for training. This strikes as too small a sample set of the homes even in the US let alone the world. The results underscore a well known problem with computers 'Garbage In = Garbage Out'. A much wider variety of situations must be carefully documented (probably by hand) before being fed into the idiocy system. Poor quality data, for whatever reason, means the analyses based on the system are at best very limited and more likely basically useless for their intended purpose.

  14. JohnHMorris

    Irony And Data Labeling

    Terrific article! It's ironic though that much of the work of labeling data is conducted in India. Labeling is important because that's the only way so-called AI "learns anything". In other words it's all pattern recognition all the time with nary a semantic in sight. Here's a reference:

    https://datadecisioning.com/?brick=ai-works-because-human-trainers-india

  15. Kernel Silver badge
    Joke

    We're missing something important here

    Where's the crucial input from our normally vocal friend who invented and patented AI many years ago?

    I'm sure he/she/it will be able to clarify the issues around this problem in the clear and concise manner we would all like to become accustomed to.

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