Can a film be deeply disturbing and, at the same time, refreshingly human? “Independent Lens” (9 p.m., PBS, TV-PG, check local listings) presents the 2020 documentary “Coded Bias.” A film brimming with ideas and dark revelations, “Coded” follows MIT scientist and digital activist Joy Buolamwini as she engages in a crusade to make people aware of the cultural, gender and racial assumptions baked into digital software and the algorithms that have come to decide and even dictate individual futures.
When she first arrived at MIT, Buolamwini tried to complete a class project by creating a “dream mirror,” a digital device that would display her face on a computer screen and overlay her reflection with encouraging images. But her efforts were thwarted by the software’s inability to “see” her face. It only recognized her when she put on a white mask. As a Black woman, she was literally invisible. This revelation inspired her to look into facial recognition software and explore the cultural assumption of the largely male and mostly white scientists behind it.
Buolamwini also encounters Cathy O’Neil, a mathematician who worked for hedge funds before discovering how they used algorithms to prey upon the most financially vulnerable.
Her best-selling book “Weapons of Math Destruction” offers an indictment of how little-understood algorithms “decide” how people are treated by schools, financial institutions and social media, determining who is enrolled or hired, who gets loans and who might get fired. O’Neil had to leave Wall Street when she saw how it used math to single out poor people for subprime loans and created formulas that actively “bet” on their failure to repay them. The cumulative result of these cynical wagers was a massive loss of wealth for the most vulnerable Americans. Arcane formulas were being used by the rich to rob the poor.
We also meet activists in London campaigning against that city’s massive surveillance system and the use of facial recognition software to “identify” possible terrorists. And we meet Brooklyn tenants fighting a facial recognition program that can lock them out of their own homes. As Buolamwini demonstrated, such software can’t “read” nonwhite faces.
“Coded Bias” pulls no punches in its indictment of digital “libertarianism” and its effect on American society. When some contend China is the model of a digital surveillance state, voices here argue China merely is honest in ways Facebook is not.
While strident, “Coded” also is cheerful, and much of that has to do with Joy Buolamwini, who lives up to her first name. She’s likely to break into spoken-word poetry after testifying before Congress. She is the star of this film in all the best ways.
It’s impossible not to notice just about all of the narrators and authoritative “talking heads” in “Coded Bias” are women. Many of color. This addition by subtraction makes a powerful statement.
• A scruffy freelance musician follows his elegant diplomat wife to Paris and becomes embroiled in dangerous intrigue in the Israeli drama “The Attache,” streaming on Acorn.
While clearly “ripped from the headlines” about recent terror attacks, “Attache” has a half-hour running time and a “fish-out-of-water” plot device more associated with sitcoms than thrillers. The hybrid approach is interesting.
TONIGHT’S OTHER HIGHLIGHTS
• Elizabeth Vargas hosts “America’s Most Wanted” (8 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
• Questions of guilt divide the town in the season finale of “Beartown” (8 p.m., HBO, TV-MA).
•A Nebraska rainstorm seems out of this world on “Debris” (9 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
• A famous surgeon makes for an obnoxious patient on “The Good Doctor” (9 p.m., ABC, TV-14).