Why we desperately need women to design AI

Photo by Siyan Ren on Unsplash
  • Do you remember when Apple released its health app a few years ago? Its purpose was to offer a ‘comprehensive’ access point to health information and data. But it left out a large health issue that almost all women deal with, and then took a year to fix that hole.
  • Then there was that frustrated middle school-aged girl who enjoyed gaming, but couldn’t find an avatar she related to. So she analyzed 50 popular games and found that 98% of them had male avatars (mostly free!), and only 46% of them had female avatars (mostly available for a charge!). Even more askew when you consider that almost half of gamers are women.

Diversity in, diversity out

You could make the argument that AI is positioned to make one of the largest, most profound changes to humanity that many have ever seen. It touches or will touch most of what we care about and will be built with the ethics, morals, biases and access of the people who create it. This means we need to pay close attention that it represents all users.

“If we don’t get women and people of color at the table — real technologists doing the real work — we will bias systems. Trying to reverse that a decade or two from now will be so much more difficult, if not close to impossible. This is the time to get women and diverse voices in so that we build it properly, right? And it can be great. It’s going to be ubiquitous. It’s going to be awesome. But we have to have people at the table.” — Fei-Fei Li

Melinda Gates and Fei-Fei Li of AIForAll. Photo courtesy of Pivotal.

Manage the behaviors that machines perpetuate

Leah Fessler wrote an eye-opening piece after testing several personal assistant bots to see how they’d stand up to sexual harassment (literally, they sexually harassed the bots, who, by the way, are most often defaulted to female voices unless you change them).

“Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Home have women’s voices because women’s voices make more money. Yes, Silicon Valley is male-dominated and notoriously sexist, but this phenomenon runs deeper than that. Bot creators are primarily driven by predicted market success, which depends on customer satisfaction — and customers like their digital servants to sound like women.”

We could get into a lengthy discussion on how this ties to capitalism and perpetuates historic norms, but Leah pushed even further. Beyond having these bots “be female,” what about how they were treated? What would they do?

Siri and Alexa remain either evasive, grateful, or flirtatious, while Cortana and Google Home crack jokes in response to the harassments they comprehend.”

Leah goes on to give several other examples, all of which suggest that the programmers in charge of each of these bots had some level of consciousness when putting together the responses, but fell short in responding to this behavior as explicitly wrong until the word “rape” was introduced (and, as you can see above and in the other examples, some response sets were downright frightening… Siri practically wanted to flirt back!).

“While the exact gender breakdown of developers behind these bots is unknown, we can be nearly certain the vast majority are men; women comprise 20% or less of technology jobs at the major tech companies that have created these bots. Thus the chance that male bot developers manually programmed these bots to respond to sexual harassment with jokes is exceedingly high. Do they prefer their bots respond ironically, rather than intelligently and directly, to sexual harassment?”

This is only one example of how having a thought echo chamber (otherwise referred to as a lack of diversity) on your engineering teams for technology that is the closest we have to interacting with humans can reinforce and perpetuate (and exacerbate?) cultural and societal norms that many of us are working so hard to change.

The solution is more women on engineering teams.

There’s plenty of research that concludes that having more women at almost any level of your company — especially in leadership — will have a positive impact on results and a company’s bottom line. Yup, this means more money.



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Kate Brodock

CEO of Switch, GP at the W Fund, Mentor at Techstars. I like tech, startups, VC, leadership, women in those, craft brew, hilariousness, life. NYC/Upstate.