Abeba Birhane is an Ethiopian-born cognitive scientist who works at the intersection of complex adaptive systems, machine learning, algorithmic bias, and critical race studies. Birhane's groundbreaking work with Vinay Prabhu uncovered that large-scale image datasets commonly used to develop AI systems, including ImageNet and 80 Million Tiny Images, carried racist and misogynistic labels and offensive images. She has been recognized by VentureBeat as a top innovator in computer vision.
Birhane has extensively studied the impacts of emerging AI technologies and how they shape individuals and local communities. She found that AI algorithms tend to disproportionately impact vulnerable groups such as older workers, trans people, immigrants, and children. Her research on relational ethics won the best paper award at NeurIPS’s Black in AI workshop in 2019. She has also studied and written at length about algorithmic colonization. Her work in decolonizing computational sciences addressed the inherited oppressions in current systems especially towards women of color.
In 2020, Birhane and Vinay Prabhu, principal machine learning scientist at UnifyID, published a groundbreaking paper examining the problematic data collection, labelling, classification, and consequences of large image datasets. These datasets, including ImageNet and MIT's 80 Million Tiny Images, have been cited well over thousands of times to develop AI algorithms and systems. Birhane and Prabhu found that they contained many racist and misogynistic labels and slurs as well as offensive images. This resulted in MIT voluntarily and formally taking down the 80 Million Tiny Images dataset.
More recently, Birhane has worked with Rediet Abebe, George Obaido, and Sekou Remy on researching the barriers to data sharing in Africa. They found that power imbalances are significant in the data sharing process, even when the data comes from Africa. Their research was published at the ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency.
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