The rise of the racist robots
PUBLISHED: 06:00 02 June 2018
Science guru Anne-Marie Imafidon on the dangers of imposing today's prejudices on tomorrow's science.
A female-shaped stumbling block is putting at risk the government’s drive to create a post-Brexit Britain at the forefront of a global tech revolution.
In a speech on Britain’s industrial strategy earlier this month, Theresa May identified the so-called “grand challenges” we must overcome as a nation to achieve the goal of “making the UK the world’s most innovative nation by 2030”. At the top of the list sits the grandest challenge of all: data and Artificial Intelligence (AI). The aim, no less, is to put the country at the heart of the AI and data revolution. Without doubt, it is a bold vision.
The prime minister went on to address fears that we would miss out on progress by limiting our options in one important demographic: immigrants. When it comes to Brexit, when we’re no longer able to cherry-pick the best talent from across the EU, we’ve got a bit of a problem there. But Theresa May recognised this in her speech, at Jodrell Bank, and vowed to address it.
“Today over half of the UK’s resident researcher population were born overseas,” she said. “When we leave the European Union, I will ensure that does not change.”
But there is another demographic whose under-representation threatens the strategy. Only 17% of those working in the UK’s technology sector identify as female, and this means we’re lacking much-needed balance in an industry that is supposed to be driving innovation. Women are 46% of the working population and just over 50% of the adult population: we’re missing out on a lot of talent and are nowhere near where we should be performing as a result.
The industrial strategy is built on five ‘foundations of productivity’ (they do like their lists), the first of which is ‘people’. I agree.
People create the products, services and technologies that power the economy. We’re only as good as the people who are able to contribute here. We’re going to have to start getting serious about home-growing our own talent – and we have yet to see much tangible progress on this point.
The gender gap in technology is one that society – the government, industry and the media – needs to take seriously if we are to collectively reap significant returns on this government’s proposed investment.
Because injecting today’s prejudices into tomorrow’s science would be a tragedy.
AI algorithms that can’t distinguish between certain races and animals and voice recognition technology that can’t recognise a female voice: these are the product of a lazy group-think. With the rise of the robots – robots that will be both hiring us and replacing us – the need to ensure that the algorithms we build are fair has become even more urgent. We need diverse perspectives and experiences to build technology we can be proud of.
A diverse workforce and better data-sets may also help address the ethical challenges raised about much of what we are currently building. It shouldn’t have taken the perfect storm of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and GDPR email panic to finally make us start taking privacy seriously.
We should learn from this and start building a culture where we question what we are making and why: just because you can make something, doesn’t mean that you have to make it. There is something to be said for completely embracing the notion of ‘tech for good’ in our innovation approach. And soon we won’t be able to rely on the EU to regulate on this for us. We will have to start shifting for ourselves and building our own processes, our own checks and balances. We have to be proactive. We have to be vigilant.
And the way we do this is by really taking that first ‘foundation’ seriously. Bringing everyone along must be our number one priority, and this starts with making sure we are all digitally literate.
It’s the first step to becoming, first, digitally competent, and ultimately, hopefully, a technical contributor. Brexit also makes it more urgent than ever that we get the next generation trained up with the right skills.
As for those of us already in the workforce, it’s equally important that the technology we build feels empowering, rather than threatening.
Good technology can make us more productive and more efficient – and this is good for the economy. But we will only build this technology if a diverse range of voices with a diverse set of experiences are in the room when it gets made – otherwise we will continue to build tech that only serves a small subsection of society.
We have an opportunity here to take our country on a meaningful journey that allows all of us to achieve more – that builds a Britain that is “fit for the future”.
We can only do this if we are alive to the challenges ahead – challenges that Brexit is bringing into sharp focus. But, if we get it right, we will really have taken control of our country’s narrative in a way that can benefit the entire world – Europe included.
Anne-Marie Imafidon is the co-founder and CEO of Stemettes, a social enterprise promoting women in STEM careers
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