Monday, November 20, 2017

Why is AI female?

This Blog is Written By 
Roberta Duarte

In the past few years we've been experiencing a huge surge in conventional versions of artificial intelligence assistants. Whether it’s Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, or Microsoft’s Cortana, AI machine ability to interact with its users is becoming an ordinary and sometimes integral part of everyday life. 

Through voice queries and natural language aptitude, they answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions for us. These computerized personalities can be deemed almost human-like. The more human we make them, the more important it seems that we give them names, personality and —more worryingly — gender.

But robotic assistants don't have a gender, really. Strip them of the names and voices added by their human creators, there’s nothing there that requires it to be ‘he’ or ‘she’, other than our own assumptions. Yet many indeed do have names, and a disproportionate number of them are sold to the public as ‘female’.

Sure, you can change Siri to a different gender and even a different accent. But presently AI assistants seem to default to a female persona. 

To a certain extent, us humans,are led by our assumptions and biased truths. As we move into a new age of automation, the technology being created says an uncomfortable amount about the way society understands both women and work.

Assigning gender to these AI personalities may be saying something about the roles we expect them to play. Virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana and Alexa perform functions historically assigned to women.

Society has long implemented the female role to administrative, accommodating and aid lending positions. Assistant and secretary positions are especially stratified female. With its roots in early 20th century industrial revolution, the employment of secretaries quickly became women's work as companies realized they could pay women lower wages.

In fact, the preponderance of anticipated work to be one day carried out by robots is currently undertaken by women and girls, for low pay or no pay at all. A report by ONS quantifies the annual value of the “home production economy” — the housework, childcare and organizational chores done largely by women — at 1 trillion, almost 60% of the “official” economy. From nurses, secretaries, and sex workers to wives and girlfriends, the emotional labor that keeps society running is still feminized — and still stigmatized.

It is no mistake the face of AI is female. Always ready and predisposed, these technologies take on distilled and idolized femininity. Your AI is always working, always available, always ready at any minute to provide assistance with a positive attitude. The gendering of AI is purposely linked our to culturally underlying sexism. Customers interpret these AI personalities through the lens of their own biases. Stereotypes about women in service roles make female AIs easier to accept, which is the ultimate goal for tech companies that want to make AI mainstream.

The fast approaching world of competent faithful automated auxiliary is sadly all too susceptible to our long standing faulty presumptions of the female role in society. Right now, as we expect AI technology advancement to serve our personal organizational everyday needs, we need to be conscious of our outstanding biases. It is imperative to question why we feel the need to gender this innovative tool.

 Consider the artificially intelligent voices you hear on a regular basis. Your personal assisting device should be helpful, compliant, and do as you say. 
But should they also be female? 
Are technology companies catering to our desire for robotic assistants with personality, or are they reinforcing our biases about gender, and the roles that women play?

Thursday, November 16, 2017

What The Heck is ‘Mansplaining’?

This Blog Post Written By 
Raven Jared J. 

The mansplaining sensation that’s gripping the nation: how and why does it affect our culture? 

Our story today begins with a personal anecdote that leads to the question you may be asking yourself right now, what the heck is ‘mansplaining’? When I first came across this term (ah how naïve I was) I assumed ‘mansplaining’ was some cute funny way in which men were explaining things. The inner voice of a 1940’s radio show host echoed in my head: “Gather ‘round folks! Give this man a topic and watch him go!” I pictured a brightly colored wheel with topics like “reproduction”, “the female body”, and “where to buy the best artisan cheese board” spinning to land on a segment that some poor man would be struggling to explain. But despite how adorable the word itself sounds, the actual meaning of ‘mansplaining’ and more importantly, the implications of the action, are so different from what I originally assumed. For those of you who may believe that sexism doesn’t exist anymore, well, take a seat and try not to ‘manspread’ while doing so.

 To quote our good friends at Urban Dictionary, ‘mansplaining’ is simply this: A term used to describe an exaggerated definition of a simple idea given by a man to woman if he feels that she is not educated enough or would not understand the meaning of said word. The idea is generally something that the woman in very familiar with.” A far cry from the sweet little term I thought it was, no? For example, it would be like a man explaining how birth works to a mother with children, or better yet some condescending comment that would suggest that the mother had no idea what childbirth or raising children is like. Bonus points if the man in question has no children. Double word score if the man has never interacted with children or even read a book about birth.

Discovering this term has helped me understand quite a few interactions I have encountered in my 19 years on this planet. Having a word for the way that I have been addressed by my male counterparts, employers, friends and customers, has allowed me to be let in on a kind of secret club; a really big club consisting of pretty much every living woman on the planet. The point is this, the fact that there is a term for this action lets me know as a woman, that I am not alone, and certainly not incompetent as I have been made to feel by those that insist upon commenting on subjects I did not ask for commentary on.

Last summer I worked for an irrigation company, (the people who come to install and fix your sprinkler systems) and when I say I was the only female person to work there, I think I was the only female person to work there ever, possibly the only woman working for an irrigation company in my district, maybe even county. What can I say? It is a heavily male dominated business, and something I came to be very aware of. Thankfully, my boss treated me as an equal and entrusted me with the same amount of responsibility as the men I worked beside. The customers however, did not treat me the same way as my male counterparts.

            When I first began working I knew that people may feel strange about seeing a new face in a company that has been serving them for 20+ years, and I brushed off many comments as just that. After working for a few months however, I started training a guy who was a few years younger than me, and had never done any irrigation work before. It was then that I fully realized the way many of the male customers would speak to me differently than the way they would speak to the guy I was training. The men I am referring to would assume that he was in charge; more experienced, and wouldn’t question the things that he would say to them about their sprinklers. When speaking to me, they would assume that not only did I not know what I was doing, but try to give me instruction on how to fix the specific leaks that they had called the professionals in to fix. And when given this unsolicited “advice” it would usually be so wrong I would have to explain as politely as possible that I did in fact know what I was doing, which was almost always followed up with an “are you sure?” a question never posed to the guy I had been training.Here are some actual things that were actually said to me:“How long have you been working here?”“Are you sure you know what you are doing?”“I think you are doing that wrong, you should put this [wrong object] here [wrong place].”“I’ll tell you what the problem is… [Not the problem]”
“It would be a lot better if you would just do this [terrible idea that will flood the yard].”
“Well this is what happened [nope] and here is how to fix it [absolutely not]”

Because I am a woman, seeing me digging ditches in their yard, laying pipe or fixing geyser-like leaks, many male customers assumed that I was either unqualified or incompetent, and it became a part of the job that I had to get used to. As much as I loved the work, and proving some customers wrong that I could do this work and do it well, it was something that did bother me. Unfortunately, being ‘mansplained’ to is a part of the job of being a woman you have to get used to.

The way we speak is what shapes our culture, because the way we speak and the way we address each other shapes the way we think. Although on its surface ‘mansplaining’ doesn’t cause any serious harm, it is a sexist way of communication that shapes our culture, and affects not only women, but men too. Linguistically, ‘mansplaining’ is a fascinating subject. It is a popular enough occurrence to have gained a term, and allows people like me to know they are not alone, and that you must gently redirect the comments thrown at you to perhaps change the way a man thinks. I am happy to say that by the end of the summer working that irrigation job, some customers would specifically request to have me come back, and many of the men who were my harshest critics in the beginning learned that just because I was a young woman didn’t mean I couldn’t do a “man’s work”. This isn’t always the case though, and regrettably, it is so hard to change someone’s mind about the way they address women, because to them, they aren’t doing anything wrong. But what does this say about our current society? This term lets us know that sexism is still alive and well, and perhaps isn’t going away anytime soon; but admitting we have a problem is the first way to solving it, so maybe raising awareness can turn something that isn’t malicious (but not necessarily benign) into a way that we can actively change the way we speak, and thus, changing our culture.