This article is the seventh in a series of essays written by Black physicists and co-published with Physics World as part of #BlackInPhysics Week, an event dedicated to celebrating Black physicists and their contributions to the scientific community and to revealing a more complete picture of what a physicist looks like.
My phone’s alarm awakens me (Jessica Esquivel) at the ass crack of dawn. Bleary-eyed and annoyed, I roll over to dismiss it for the fifth time and do my morning doom scroll of social media before convincing myself that I do, in fact, need to attend my morning Zoom call. I’ve been working from home for seven months, and the commute is great: My office is in my kitchen, 10 steps from my bed (yes, I counted). Still, amid the pandemic, the police killings of Black people followed by no justice, and the death of my dad in June, I find getting up to work difficult. As I’m brushing my teeth, I see dark circles under my eyes, and my springy curls—thinning from the stress, sadness, and anxiety—jut out in all directions like a dented crown. I splash some water on my face and tell myself that this is going to have to do, but as I scroll to find the Zoom link, I see a pile of dishes in the sink behind me, papers strewn across the counter, and groceries that we were just too tired to put away last night. I need a Zoom background, but the one I carefully picked from West Elm’s site to mimic my dream kitchen can’t figure out how to position itself around my curls. Even in the COVID-19 era of virtual meetings, I’m subliminally told that I don’t belong.
Although a failed Zoom background is a relatively trivial problem, the lack of representation of Black individuals in artificial intelligence (AI) has major consequences. AI systems are designed to mimic human intelligence, and they have taken hold of our lives, from the targeted ads we see when we are shopping online to the “recommended” section on a Netflix home page. Although these systems offer significant societal benefits, too many of them have detrimental effects on the Black community. We can joke about automated soap dispensers being “racist”—their IR technology cannot recognize darker complexions—but the same technology is also used in pulse oximeters. Here, encoded racial bias could mean life or death for Black individuals, especially in the time of COVID-19, when monitoring oxygen levels is important.
Google searches are also powered by AI, and even apparently innocuous searches can have noxious side effects. As the writer and communications expert Safiya Umoja Noble details in her essay “The Enduring Anti-Black Racism of Google Search,” over-sexualization of Black girls is widespread, as is the idea that naturally textured Black women’s hair is somehow “unprofessional.” Although some may think these errors have been fixed, in June 2020 the Google Ad portal was still perpetuating the objectification of Black girls, and it wasn’t until July that MIT permanently pulled a widely used, 80-million-image AI data set because so many of the images were labeled in racist and misogynistic ways. These data sets are used to train image-recognition software that feeds into technology such as self-driving cars, social media, and facial-recognition software used by police.
The role of physicists in AI
My graduate work in particle physics focused on developing a form of AI called a convolutional neural network that can distinguish charged-current muon–neutrino interactions from neutral-current interactions at low energies. Before my work, these interactions were seen as essentially identical. My motivation for developing the algorithm was to suss out a very complicated signal in the mounds of data the MicroBooNE detector at Fermilab creates. But historically, basic research also motivates innovations and new technology. The fact that my research, my proximity to AI, could have detrimental effects on the Black community is discombobulating.
Physicists like me who study such abstract concepts don’t tend to dwell on how our research might work its way into society. However, I’ve come to realize that we can’t just bury our heads in the sand. We cannot develop AI because we want to find physics beyond the standard model without also recognizing that some aspects of our innovations could be used to harm the Black community. Black scientists need to be in the room when AI algorithms are developed, and as a physics community, we need to be discussing the ethics of our role in that work.
The coming quantum revolution
Like AI, quantum information science and engineering (QISE) is a rapidly evolving field with tremendous potential benefits. Quantum mechanics describes the laws of physics at microscopic length scales, and QISE researchers like me (Charles Brown) endeavor to control the systems that obey these fundamental laws. By doing so, we hope to engineer novel quantum devices such as quantum sensors, networks, or computers as well as novel quantum materials with properties that don’t exist at everyday length scales.
What makes a quantum sensor, computer, or network unique is its reliance on quantum superposition. Superposition allows the bits in a quantum computer—qubits—to encode much more information than classical bits. This should help researchers solve some currently intractable problems, and quantum networks should enable fast and secure information transfer between quantum devices. Superpositions are also prone to collapse when measured, meaning that, in principle, if an eavesdropper tried to intercept information encoded in a superposition, their spying would be immediately detectable. It is precisely this sensitivity to measurement, or perturbation, that enables researchers to create quantum sensors that are far more sensitive than classical ones.
QISE could revolutionize our technology and understanding of nature, and it is important for Black physicists to have a stake in that revolution. Yet I have been part of the QISE world for nearly a decade, and throughout its rise I have rarely seen other Black physicists. Fellow QISE researchers (and all physicists): Who do you see in your Gordon Research Conference photograph? Who is in the bustling hallways and jam-packed QISE sessions at the APS March Meeting or in the massive banquet room at the APS DAMOP meeting? If you can remember only a few (or zero) Black physicists, that is not surprising: In 2017 Black students were awarded about 3% of physics undergraduate degrees and 2% of physics PhDs in the US, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The low number of Black physicists, particularly in QISE, presents several issues that must be addressed. First, representation matters. It’s important that future Black physicists and younger ones today be empowered by established, visible Black physicists making an impact in QISE. Second, early-career doctorate holders (those who have held a PhD for 10 years or fewer) bring new skills and knowledge to the STEM workforce and are considered important drivers of technological progress and knowledge generation—but few of us are Black (figure 1), and Black representation is low throughout science and engineering occupations (figure 2).
The $100 million IBM-HBCU Quantum Center is a good example of the ongoing effort required to change this unsatisfactory status quo. The center was set up as a partnership between IBM and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the US, and it aims to help HBCU students and faculty get involved in QISE in a way that promotes belonging. The center will also provide research opportunities to graduates and undergraduates and connect HBCU talent to the QISE community. In doing so, it will have a direct and positive impact on Black representation in QISE, both in academia and in industry.
The money pouring into QISE offers many other opportunities to increase Black representation. NSF recently created three $25 million Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes that aim to advance the state of the art in quantum sensing, networking, and computation. Another NSF-funded center, Quantum Foundry, is designed to do the same for quantum materials. The US Department of Energy recently created the $115 million Quantum Systems Accelerator to advance technological solutions to problems in QISE. The quantum technological revolution these institutions help to bring about will be transformative for science and society. There is an incredible opportunity here to ensure that Black students are included in the research and training they offer, and to give established Black physicists the financial and infrastructural resources they need to participate.
A call for action
We both dream of a “quantum leap” in Black representation in physics, and the bountiful funding for both AI and QISE research places existing and future research centers in a unique position to help bring that about. If these centers implement swift action to develop and include Black researchers—perhaps by adopting the goals of the IBM–HBCU Quantum Center—then the researchers they support will be positioned to make important contributions to these developing fields.
In AI and QISE, especially, the richness of experience that Black physicists bring to research teams improves problem solving and provides a much needed perspective on how technologies should be implemented. Without a concerted effort to address the current underrepresentation, however, the scientific community risks missing out on this perspective, perpetuating harm to the Black community and unjustly excluding Black people from technologies that will wholly transform society.
Jessica Esquivel is a postdoc at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where she works on the Muon g-2 experiment as a physicist and data analyst. Charles D. Brown II is a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, where he experiments with ultracold atoms in optical lattices.