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Alexa, Siri, Sophia: Deconstructing AI's Subliminal Gender Bias

5min read
Culture

For women in artificial intelligence research, gender bias is a major barrier to success. Silicon Valley's gender problem isn't just a social justice issue however. Should the top positions in tech continue to go to men only, the tech world could be stifling its own capacity for innovation and threatening the future of AI research. The world's top female researchers are redefining the field and enacting a sea-change in the way the AI industry think about gender.


The Tech World's Gender Problem

Gender bias in the tech industry dates back to its inception. The historically male-dominated industry has long possessed an almost cult-like meritocracy, where employees are often encouraged to devote their entire lives to the success of the product. This creates an environment where discriminatory practices remain pervasive under the guise of a reward system; employees outside the standard masculine mold are often denied the same pay or promotion pathways as male employees, even when they meet or exceed job expectations.

In 2015, tech investor Trae Vassallo and several colleagues co-authored a survey titled “The Elephant in the Valley." The survey investigated the experiences of female leaders and innovators in the tech industry, and the results were bleak; 84 percent of interviewees were told they were “too aggressive," 66 percent experienced exclusionary practices, and a shocking 60 percent experienced sexual harassment. Just 18 percent of undergraduates in computer science in 2011 were women, down from 37 percent in 1985.

Gender Bias in Artificial Intelligence

Like the rest of the tech industry, AI's gender bias is similarly pervasive. The artificial intelligence sector is expected to grow from $21 billion to $190 billion between 2018 and 2025, and the employment demographic is overwhelmingly male. The field has had a difficult time developing its female workforce, potentially due to the nature of AI research itself.

“Research has become very narrowly focused on solving technical problems and not on the big questions," says Marie desJardins, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland. Also, desJardins notes the distance between the work being done in AI and the betterment of society in general.

That gap could be turning women away from the field, since women tend to value their work's contribution to their community higher than men.

AI's diversity issues affect women as well as other gender minorities like transgender and non-binary individuals, and these diversity issues also continue beyond gender. “Cultural diversity is big too," says Heather Knight, founder of Marilyn Monrobot Labs in New York City. Racial underrepresentation in the tech world compounds issues for women from minority ethnic groups. Gender and racial bias in AI are significant enough to have an effect on the way the algorithms themselves are developed, which could have lasting consequences for society if the problem isn't met head-on.

AI Algorithms Reflect Gender Bias

If researchers use biased datasets to train AIs, gender bias may become embedded in the technology itself. A study conducted on image-recognition software in 2016 found patterns that reinforced gender stereotypes. When asked to associate images with either men or women, the algorithm consistently linked women to images of kitchens, reflecting or exaggerating the gender biases it perceived.

Since the 100,000 images used were collected broadly from the web, biases in media were reflected in the AI's analysis. In a similar case, Microsoft's conversational AI “Tay" took in data from Twitter conversations and began repeating racist and misogynist phrases in less than twenty-four hours.

AIs will need to be closely managed to avoid mirroring the gender biases present in today's society.

Biases in Technology and Media

The link between gender discrimination and artificial intelligence doesn't end in employment statistics. Gender bias is implicit in AI itself. “There's a clear bias in the way women are depicted in science fiction," says Alex Haslam, media relations specialist for HowtoWatch.com. “AIs are overwhelmingly female, and are often depicted as dangerous."

Many critics have also found it problematic that almost every digital assistant uses a female name and voice. Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana, and Alexa all reinforce the stereotype of the female administrator. “It's much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes," Stanford communications professor Clifford Nass tells CNN. Whether psychological or cultural, the presence of female AIs helps these stereotypes persist.

Women Shaping the Future of AI

New efforts to close the gender gap in the sciences are charting a new course for those who have often been marginalized in the AI industry. Female professors, researchers, investors, and scientists are tackling gender bias in AI using innovative applications of technology, education, and more than a little common sense.

“The field of AI has traditionally been focused on computational intelligence, not on social or emotional intelligence," explains Rana el Kaliouby, co-founder of the AI research firm Affectiva. Kaliouby and other AI experts are looking to develop a social conscience for the AI algorithms of tomorrow, embedding moral and ethical principles into the technology.

Other female leaders in the AI field are addressing enrollment issues by designing education programs specifically for young girls. Millions of individuals have enrolled in AI and machine learning courses through programs like Coursera, with disadvantaged or underrepresented groups reporting the most benefit.

Addressing Gender Bias Through AI Technology

The incredible capacity of artificial intelligence is also addressing gender bias in society directly. A new AI algorithm developed by Google and The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media uses AI to detect male and female faces in popular films. The AI algorithm logs screen-time and speaking time for characters of different genders.

In the top films of the past three years, the algorithm found discouraging gaps; female characters received roughly half of the screen and speaking time of male characters. In the future, this data could assist filmmakers in avoiding techniques or casting selections that reinforce biases, encouraging stronger gender diversity in film.

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The embedded nature of gender bias in today's society makes progress towards equality difficult, but burgeoning fields like artificial intelligence have a higher potential for social progress. Top computer scientists and AI experts have turned their attention to addressing gender bias in AI. If artificial intelligence lives up to its expectations as a game-changing technology, a more socially responsible foundation today could have a big influence on our future.

Our newsletter that womansplains the week
3min read
Career

2020 is Around the Corner: Here's How To Design Your Next Decade

Personally, I am over the top excited that we are on the cusp of turning the page on not only a new year but also on a new 10-year window of opportunities and possibilities!

You may be thinking, whoa…I am just embracing the fall season…yikes… it is tough to think about a new decade!


Yet it is this groundwork, this forward thought that you put in place TODAY that will propel you and lead you into greatness in 2020 and beyond. Designing a new decade rests in your ability to vision, in your willingness to be curious, in your awareness of where you are now and what you most want to curate. Essentially, curating what's next is about tapping into today with confidence, conviction, and decision. Leading YOU starts now. This is your new next. It is your choice.

Sometimes to get to that 'next', you need to take a step back to reflect. Please pardon my asking you to spend time in yesterday. Those who know me personally, know that I created and continue to grow my business based on enabling the present moment as a springboard for living your legacy. So, indulge me here! True, I am asking you to peek into the past, yet it is only in order for you to bring the essence of that past forward into this moment called NOW.

One of the best ways to tap into what's next is to clarify what drives you. To design a new decade, ask yourself this question about the past ten years:

What worked? What were my successes?

Make a list of your achievements big and small. Don't type them, but rather use ink and paper and sit with and savor them. Move your thoughts and your successes from your head, to your heart, to your pen, to the paper. Remember that on the flip side of goals not attained and New Year's resolutions abandoned, there was more than likely some traction and action that moved you forward, even if the end result was not what you expected. Once you have a full list of a decade's worth of personal and professional accomplishments, think about how this makes you feel. Do you remember celebrating all of them? My guess is no. So, celebrate them now. Give them new life by validating them. Circle the successes that resonate with you most right now. Where can you lean into those accomplishments as you power into the decade ahead?

Now comes a tougher question, one that I used myself in my own mid-life reinvention and a question I adore because in a moment's time it provides you with a quick reconnect to your unique inner voice.

If it were 10 years ago and nothing were standing in your way, no fear or excuses to contend with…what would you do?

Don't overthink it. The brilliance of this question is that it refocuses purpose. Whatever first came to mind when you answered this for yourself is at its core a powerful insight into defining and redefining the FUTURE decade. Bring your answer into the light of today and what small piece of it is actionable NOW? Where is this resonating and aligning with a 2019 version of yourself?

Then, based on your success list and your answer to the above question, what is your 2020 vision for your business and for the business of YOU?

Designing a new decade begins as a collection of 3,650 opportunities. 3,650 blank slates of new days ahead in which to pivot and propel yourself forward. Every single one of those days is a window into your legacy. An invitation to be, create, explore, and chip away at this thing we call life. One 24-hour segment at a time.

While you have a decade ahead to work on design improvements, you have the ability to begin manifesting this project of YOU Version 2020 right NOW. Based on exploring the exercises in this post, begin executing your vision. Ask questions. Be present. Let go of 2019 and the past 10 years so that you can embrace the next 10. Position acceptance and self-trust at the forefront of how you lead you. One choice at a time.

Don't get bogged down in the concept of the next 10 years. Instead position clarity and intention into each new day, starting today. Then chase every one of those intentions with an in-the-moment commitment and solution toward living a legendary life!