Why Can't This Soap Dispenser Identify Dark Skin?

GIF: Facebook/Chukwuemeka Afigbo

On Wednesday, a Facebook employee in Nigeria shared footage of a minor inconvenience that he says speaks to tech's larger diversity problem. In the video, a white man and a dark-skinned black man both try to get soap from a soap dispenser. The soap dispenses for the white man, but not the darker skinned man. After a bit of laughter, a person can be overheard chucking, "too black!"

Most likely, the soap dispenser uses an optic sensor to detect when a hand is placed underneath. While more advanced sensors don't have a problem with dark skin, cheaper ones (like in a bathroom soap dispenser) can have issues. When reviewing wearables, CNET spoke to Bharat Vasan, the COO of Basis Science, who explained how these monitors fail people of colour:

"The light has to penetrate through several layers...and so the higher the person is on the Fitzpatrick scale (a measure of skin tone), the more difficult it is for light to bounce back," he explained. "For someone who is very pale in a very brightly-lit setting, the light could get washed out. The skin colour issue is something that our technology compensates for. The darker the skin, the brighter the light shines, the lighter [the skin] the less it shines."

While soap dispensers are a more light-hearted example, this same problem has been documented in wearable fitness trackers and heart-rate monitors, with much more dire consequences. Health inequities for people of colour are well documented. And while no wearables maker would suggest they're a substitute for professional healthcare, it's still troubling that the people most at risk for a condition like heart disease will have more difficulties conveniently accessing or monitoring the condition on the go.

A user of Xiao Mi's Mi Band 2 Heart Rate monitor says the device can't detect his heart rate on his wrist, but can on his fingertip. (Image: Miui.com)

In his original post, Afigbo hypothesized that "having a dark skinned person on the team would have resulted in a better product." And surely, testing the product on a variety of skin tones would have at least alerted them to the problem. Skin tone recognition is a clear problem in tech that, given the industry's indefensible homogeneity, is sadly ignored.

WATCH MORE: Tech News


Comments

    It's the water fountains from Better of Ted all over again!

    For someone who is very pale in a very brightly-lit setting, the light could get washed out.

    So it happens to whitey too? so there's no diversity problem, just shitty hardware? why bait?

      It's the dude talking about the expensive wearables he sells, not the cheap scanner in the soap dispenser.

      Did you watch the video? White-as-white paper towel clearly triggers the soap. Black skin clearly doesn't.

        Literally creator says it will have trouble with really pale skin in brightly lit settings.

        Why bait?

        Why Can't This Soap Dispenser Identify Dark Skin?

        It's the dude talking about the expensive wearables he sells, not the cheap scanner in the soap dispenser.

        Which is it mate? You're baiting.

    You know what else is racist? Web browsers.

    Their default background colour? White.

      You know there's a setting on Gizmodo where you can change to a dark background?

      We've got you covered for diversity, my dude.

        Seriously? Holy shit why wasn't I informed of this sooner?

        Yes. That's one site down. I will not rest until all vendors implement browsers of colour as the default setting for HTML. Period.

        Black Times New Roman text on a white background with blue links is hate speech. *rabble rabble*

      Have you noticed when clouds on a sunny day are in the sky, they appear white, yet when a storm is rolling in, they're much darker, almost black, as if the racists are trying to link dangerous weather to darker tones...

    For some this reason it reminds me of how digital cameras are apparently racist. The way the technology works is better suited for lighter skinned people.

      Hehehe the nerve of white people for having more reflective skin.

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