The Female Side of AI
What is AI?
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is genderless, yet it tends to have a bias towards males. The reason being that most AI systems were created by male engineers.
If we peep at the tech industry, we immediately realise that female engineers only account for around 25% of the tech workforce according to the Women In Tech report. What’s more worrying is the fact that in 1991, the number of women in tech had reached 36% and there has been a steady decline ever since. This situation is rather sad, especially when one considers that the first programmer was a woman, Lady Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron (the famous English poet). She had written the first program for the Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computer designed by Charles Babbage around 1837.
Of course, one might wonder why we need female input in AI at all. First of all, we need everyone on board to bring forth this revolution, and we cannot afford to exclude anyone. Second, if our AI systems lack female input, our AI may not operate correctly. Let me give you some examples.
In 2015, Amazon created a hiring tool which uses AI. It immediately started discriminating against women. Their system was biased because they trained their AI algorithms to look for potential candidates based upon past resumes. They reasoned that if the AI learns to recognise people similar to those that were employed already, then it will successfully identify promising candidates. However, since tech companies have a 75% male-dominated workforce, the bias was inevitable. Amazon’s system taught itself that male candidates were preferable and penalised resumes that included the word “women”. It also preferred candidates who littered their resumes with certain verbs (such as “executed”) since they have a male connotation.
Similar bias can be found in other case-studies. Virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Apple’s Siri have a female voice by default. A UNESCO report published in 2019 warns that such settings, together with some of the default responses, only contribute to widening the gender divide. When one of these virtual assistants was asked to do something inappropriate and verbally abused with sexist comments, it responded with “I’d blush if I could”. This reaction promotes the image of female submission in response to sexist abuse which is simply unacceptable.
However, the root of the problem is not the AI itself but rather the data which is fed into it. By default, most of our public information is already biased. A simple search on Google Images clearly shows this bias. A search for doctors or mechanics tends to return images of men, while a search for nurses or teachers returns images of women. Of course, this is nothing but a reflection of our society.
A couple of years ago, as part of our AI evangelisation initiatives, we requested to give a talk in a particular girls school. The Headmistress courteously declined because being a girls school, they did not teach them computers. This is a simply wrong! AI is for everyone, and we do need everyone on board to move forward.
A study published in Scientific America found that there is very little difference between male and female grades for computing subjects. At University, female AI students are generally amongst the top students earning high grades. We have to move away from gender stereotyping. In the past decades, there have been various achievements for women in our field of study. Margaret Hamilton wrote the computer program for the Apollo project, Katie Bouman, the computer scientist behind the first image of a black hole and the list can go on.
So if you’re interested, have a look at the University nearby, reach out to female academics and learn about the path they took. I’m sure that each and every one of them took a different route, and today, they are top in their field of studies. There are also various voluntary organisations such as Miss In Tech, Girls Who Code or Women Techmakers. Don’t let anyone stop you! AI needs more female participation. Only by reaching gender balance in the tech industry can we aspire to achieve an AI which is fair for everyone. That is why we desperately need, the female side of AI!
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
Prof Alexiei Dingli is a Professor of AI at the University of Malta. He has been conducting research and working in the field of AI for more than two decades, assisting different companies to implement AI solutions. His work has been rated World Class by international experts and he won several local and international awards (such as those by the European Space Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the United Nations to name a few). He has published several peer-reviewed publications and formed part of the Malta.AI task-force which was set up by the Maltese government, aimed at making Malta one of the top AI countries in the world.