UNESCO report 'I'd blush if I could' should make AI programmers ponder over sexism

Abigail Banerji

"Siri, what's the time?"

"Alexa, what's the match score?"

"Hey Google, Where is the closest McDonalds?"

People who own or use smartphones, laptops or even a GPS, are familiar with voice assistants. They are also used to asking these questions frequently.

Have you wondered why they all sound female? Or even realised that every one of them named after women?

And before anyone starts protesting that Siri can be changed to sound like a male, to suit their narrative of AIs not being gendered, but ask yourself how many people have actually changed their settings?

Amazon's AI restricts resumes with the word "women" in it. Image credit: Tech2

Amazon's AI restricts resumes with the word "women" in it. Image credit: Tech2

Alexa, Siri, Cortana and the other unnamed versions are only the tip of the iceberg. There are different versions of the AIs that are used in different sectors, banks, offices, restaurants, etc. They are all women's voices.

And where there are women, men will find a way to exploit them.

People's interactions with others are based on their own gender and inherent biases. We apply our learned gender stereotypes to these voice assistants, giving them names and sexes based on our preference and do not notice it in our day-to-day lives.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has come out with a report talking about gender-neutral voices for our artificial intelligence programs and devices.

The report titled "I'd blush if I could", comes from a response Siri gave when called a "bitch" by a user. While the program has been updated to have a more neutral response, the reason that this even happened in the first place needs to be addressed.

Siri as seen being used on an iPhone X.

Siri as seen being used on an iPhone X.

The report talks about the assistants re-enforcing gender stereotypes like in the case of Siri. They make women, both human and artificial, to be viewed through innate biases present in human beings. They "reinforce commonly held gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment" and that they are "obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers".

While the report seeks to "expose some of these biases", it doesn't need to. We already knew they existed. What needs to be done is to find a way through it.

The AI programs have been written by men and the male privilege ingrained in them seems to be reflecting in the assistants.

According to the UNESCO report, women are four times less likely to know how to programme computers and 13 times less likely to file a technology patent. The more men write the programs, the more gendered the AI algorithms become. Whenever asked questions that would be considered sexists by a human female, Siri's replies are a coy and flirtatious comeback and Google's assistant very helpfully finds something from the internet and brings it up to you.

The report talks about Amazon's AI that downgraded any resumes that had the word 'women' in it. The reason being that it was trained using images that showed very apparent gendered biases and that is what it learnt. After learning it, it has magnified it to restrict any woman from being selected.

The European Commission stated, "Technology reflects the values of its developers, and that of the information they draw from. It is clear that having more diverse teams working in the development of such technologies might help in identifying biases and prevent them."

To combat this new phenomenon, the report suggests a solution and a simple one at that: Get more women in the digital and technological workspace.

For that to happen, opportunities need to be created. Women need to be encouraged to study and then take up these jobs. Employers need to recruit women and if qualified, they need to be promoted as well. Having a position of power will enable them to make the necessary changes without fear of backlash.

If the working spaces are more diverse, men and women will learn to work symbiotically. Women will be able to identify the biases at the root level and weed it out.

If this is not done, the consequences will be dire €" perpetuation and acceleration of gender inequality in our artificial intelligence which spells trouble.

However, the first thing to come to mind is that now even artificial intelligence will get more respect than actual women will ever receive. If only our policymakers would take the laws and countless reports seriously so that men treat women like human beings instead of...? We can't even say machines now.

Also See: Artificial Intelligence is better than a human doctor at predicting health threats: Study

Facebook is working on AI that will be trained using self-learning methods

Google Duplex calls for reservations are handled by humans one-fourth of the time

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