Artificial Intelligence, Gender Bias, and the Responsibility of Tech Companies

A renewed impetus in the gender debate – propelled by Fourth-Wave Feminism and most notably by the #metoo movement – is leading us to re-evaluate accepted practices of the past and rectify problematic practices that have spilled over into the present (see also the previous article on #metoo and Corporate Investment).

But what about the future?

As we march deep into our 4th Industrial Revolution (where the boundaries between digital and physical become blurred), Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is leading the stage and becoming a ubiquitous presence faster than we could have imagined. In just a few years AI has filtered into our homes, cars, phones and workplaces, and is being relied upon in crucial decision-making processes.

This rapid transformation is placing us before complex and urgent ethical questions concerning the role of our artificially intelligent creations in society. One such question concerns the historic and systemic biases that are being coded into AI technology (whether consciously or unconsciously) and the concrete impact this has on our daily lives. Although biases detected in AI are significant on a range of intersecting levels, including race, socio-economic status and gender, this article will focus on the latter.

There are several examples of how AI is already affected by – and in turn affecting – gender stereotypes and social constructs.

A first manifestation of the “gendering” of AI can be clearly identified in the predominance of female AI voice assistants, from Amazon’s Alexa to Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Google Assistant. These assistants – which increasingly assume human-like communication abilities – are almost invariably given default female names (referred to as “she” and “her”) and default female voices.

All four mentioned assistants had female-only voices at their release and only Siri and Google Assistant now provide for the male voice option. Curiously, Siri has a default male voice only in four languages: Arabic, Dutch, French and British English. There are numerous other examples of female-voiced technology, from GPS services to basic home appliances.

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