Thursday July 28, 2016

Pokemon Go shows how technology reflects real-world biases, says prof

Geography professor Renee Sieber says real-world biases are reflected in the augmented reality of Pokemon Go.

Geography professor Renee Sieber says real-world biases are reflected in the augmented reality of Pokemon Go. (Sam Mircovich/Illustration/Reuters)

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This summer's craze features cartoon characters, smartphones and crowds of people roaming the streets staring at their phone screens. 

Pokemon Go is a game and a popular one. But critics say it isn't just fun and games — it's discriminatory and reflects a player bias that shows up in the algorithms.

'Algorithms are not objective.' - Renee Sieber, geography professor at McGill University

Earlier this week, Kendra James, a writer from New Jersey, observed that there were fewer Pokemon in her primarily black neighbourhood compared to the majority white neighbourhoods beside it. 

This doesn't surprise Renee Sieber, a geography professor at McGill University. She tells The Current's host Laura Lynch why she thinks real-world biases are reflected in the augmented reality of Pokemon Go and other interactive map-based games.


What do you think? Is Pokemon Go biased? (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

"Technology is not neutral, it's not objective. The data is not objective. The algorithms are not objective. They are built by humans, they embed the biases of humans and it's always important for us to understand that."

A previous iteration of Pokemon Go by Google included stops that were decided "largely by white guys," explains Sieber. "The biases of these players is built inevitably into the locations of some of these characters."

So how does the game work?

Imagine opening on your smartphone, an app with a digital map of your hometown.  At certain spots on the map you see little animated characters or in the parlance: Pokemons.

So you head out, in the real world, to try to find and "capture" the characters plotted on the map.  Once you find a character — and don't forget the character is only an animation you see on your phone screen, you then use the buttons on your phone and in video game style, play to try to capture that character.

On a positive note, Sieber tells Lynch that Pokemon Go can be an opportunity of discovery if you look up to see what's around you.

"We should still enjoy the game but we should be cognizant that first of all there are biases, and second of all, look around you — learn something about where you are more than what the game is showing you."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Marc Apollonio, Kristin Nelson and Peggy Lam.