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Shalini Kantayya | Award-Winning Filmmaker | Director of Coded Bias | TED Fellow
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

What happens to human rights when we let machines encroach on our social systems? Is our technology truly designed to be neutral? Shalini Kantayya’s latest film Coded Bias—now streaming on Netflix—explores the intersection of innovation and ethics. Dubbed “the most important film about AI you can watch today,” Coded Bias disrupts the default belief that AI, science, and technology are inherently impartial, and instead, illuminates key questions about racial bias in tech that we’ve never thought to ask before.

“For those who weren’t already aware of these new threats to personal privacy, Coded Bias opens their eyes to this invasive phenomenon, identifying the blindspots in the systems that may already be watching you.”


 In her research at M.I.T Media Lab, computer scientist Joy Buolamwini—a Black women— made a startling discovery: facial recognition technologies could not detect dark-skinned faces, nor could they accurately identify women. This discovery was the beginning of a much bigger realization: that machine-learning algorithms—intended to avoid prejudice—are only as unbiased as the humans, and the data sets, programming them. Filmmaker Shalini Kantayya was so captivated by this story that she captured it in what later became the critically acclaimed documentary Coded Bias. From Buolamwini’s initial discovery, to the movement for transparency and accountability that followed, Kantayya’s film offers a stunning exploration of how we can protect our civil liberties in the face of artificial intelligence—which is growing more ubiquitous by the day. Called “the most cleareyed of several recent documentaries about the perils of Big Tech,” by the New York Times, Coded Bias zeroes in on the human cost of these technologies, which are designed to improve our lives, but instead perpetuate existing racial and gender-based inequities. Pragmatic, honest, and hopeful, this film follows many unsung heroes—data scientists, mathematicians, and watchdog groups from all over the world—in their fight to expose the discrimination built into the algorithms we use every day.


Kantayya’s production company 7th Empire Media works to create a culture of human rights through imaginative media. Also an eco-activist, Kantayya knows sustainable energy isn’t just right for the environment, but also promises untold economic opportunities. In her feature documentary Catching the Sun, she tells a modern story of innovation—one that’s disrupting outmoded industries and putting power into the hands of those who need it most. It explores the race for the clean energy future through the stories of solar entrepreneurs in the U.S. and China. The film premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and was named a New York Times Critics’ Pick. It’s also part of American Film Showcase, and will be shown at U.S. embassies and diplomatic missions around the world. The film won the Best Feature award at the San Francisco Green Film Festival, and was released globally on Netflix with Executive Producer Leonardo DiCaprio. Catching the Sun has been nominated by the Environmental Media Association for the EMA Award for Best Documentary, and has been translated into 35 languages.


Recently, Kantayya directed Breakthrough for National Geographic: a series profiling trailblazing scientists who will transform our future (Executive Produced by Ron Howard). Her award-winning sci-fi film about the world water crisis, A Drop of Life, was broadcast on national television in the U.S. and India. A Drop of Life was used as a tool to organize for water rights in 40 villages across Africa—making a real-world impact in the lives of thousands. Kantayya finished in the top 10 out of 12,000 filmmakers on Fox’s On the Lot, a show by Steven Spielberg in search of Hollywood’s next great director.


Kantayya is a Sundance Fellow and a TED Fellow. She was also a finalist for the ABC/Disney Directing Program. A William D. Fulbright Scholar, she has lectured at Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and USC, among others. She has received recognition from the Sundance Documentary Program, IFP Spotlight on Documentary, New York Women in Film and Television, and the Jerome Hill Centennial.


Speech Topics

Social Justice
Coded Bias How Human Prejudice Creates Corrupt Technology

Is there such a thing as truly neutral technology? What happens to our rights when we let machines govern our liberties? Award-winning filmmaker and activist Shalini Kantayya’s 2020 Sundance documentary, Coded Bias, explores how technologies are fundamentally designed with bias—specifically the biases that reflect the assumptions (conscious or subconscious) of the people who program them. In this deeply researched and engaging talk, Kantayya explores the intersection of innovation and discrimination: disrupting the belief that AI, science, and technology are inherently unbiased. She illuminates key questions about racial and gender bias in tech, data privacy, and human rights, while revealing uncomfortable truths about how these systems evolve—and how they adversely impact marginalized communities, especially through law enforcement. With warmth, wisdom, and even humor, Kantayya’s interactive talk reveals what the A.I. technologies shaping our collective future mean for civil rights and democracy; exploring how we got here, how biased tech affects the way we live together, and what we can do to course-correct in this era of rapid technological advancement.

Climate Crisis
Catching the Sun The Future of the American Dream Is Green

There’s a race afoot for the clean energy future—the foremost global economic opportunity of our time. Already more than half of the new energy that’s coming online globally is from renewable sources. It represents a trillion dollar industry. And all over the world, countries are making a transition. Some countries will actually leap-frog the grid and catapult into a distributed future. President Barack Obama said “the country that leads in clean energy will be the country that leads the 21st Century.” The U.S. can help lead a global transition to clean energy that can rebuild the ladder of economic opportunity in America. Solving the energy crisis could be a party of innovation, invention, and economic opportunity through disruptive technologies that democratize energy. If we are to succeed in retrofitting the nation for clean energy, a new generation of workers must be trained to confront the massive technological challenges that lie ahead. But who wins and who loses? What does building a ‘green economy’ actually look like on the ground?

Climate Crisis
Inside the Mounting Water Crisis

Having come of age between Brooklyn and Bombay, Kantayya first became passionate about water rights while filming at the Kumbha Mela, a religious festival that happens at the confluence of three sacred rivers.  She found the statistics alarming: two-thirds of the world's people will not have adequate access to clean drinking water by the year 2027. And there are no borders to this crisis. As demand rapidly exceeds supply, every species on the planet is in danger. Your access is at risk. The question is what will you do about it? In this gripping film screening and interactive talk, Shalini Kantayya fuses personal and political to explore the mounting worldwide water crisis, helping audiences to see water as a basic human right and inspiring them to make change.

Social Justice
Story Leads to Action
Shalini Kantayya finished in the top 10 out of 12,000 filmmakers in On the Lot, the Steven Spielberg show in search of Hollywood's next great director. Her company, 7th Empire Media, aims to create a culture of human rights and a sustainable planet through imaginative media that makes a real impact. In this entertaining and interactive presentation, Kantayya uses clips from her award-winning films to address to talk about how to tell a story that moves the heart, reaches new audiences, and makes real change. The keynote will include an overview of framing, messaging, and the elements of how to tell an engaging story. Using a variety of visual media, this keynote shares tools on how to use the power of a story to communicate your message and drive real change.