Are Robots Sexist? No, Humans Are.

In 2019 the UN released a report showing gender bias in AI. 71% more targeted awful things said to female assistants than not. In other words, the robots were sexist.

But are robots really sexist? Of course not. Robots are products, and they do what their builders (consciously or unconsciously) tell them to do.

Why are robots sexist?

So, why are robots sexist? It’s not because people tell them to be directly. But, to quote the UN report:

Today, women are extremely under-represented in teams developing AI tools: women make up only 12 percent of AI researchers, six percent of software developers, and are 13 times less likely to file ICT (information and communication technology) patents.

UN News

When women aren’t involved in the creation, their voices and their perspectives do not contribute to the “robot” personality. Since many men grow up in households where women do the majority of the work, it’s unsurprising that they create robots with female-sounding names and voices to act as assistants. And unfortunately, we live in a society that undervalues the work of assistants, and so many people treat these female-sounding assistants poorly.

As AI ethicist Josie Young said in her TED talk, “when we add a human name, face, or voice [to technology] … it reflects the biases in the viewpoints of the teams that built it.”

How to improve

Many organizations are making an effort to improve. I recently heard about Google’s efforts, both to improve diversity and to use the Google Assistant to teach people.

One team identified value in having the Google Assistant confront sexist statements, instead of ignoring them or “laughing them off”. After all, if people treat the assistant like a woman, shouldn’t they get a response like a woman would be able to give?

But we can do more. We can fight bias, and have better hiring patterns. But we also need to be aware that we live in a sexist society. We need to create robots that are anti-sexist, in the same way that we need to be anti-racist.

Personally, I look forward to a world in which we need not ask if our robots are sexist. We can know, because we actively make them not so.

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