I recently overheard my 2-year-old daughter talking to Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa, and two things struck me. First, she doesn’t distinguish the disembodied voice from that of a regular human. Second, she barks orders at Alexa in a way that would be considered rude by any social convention.
I was suddenly aware and troubled that Alexa is setting a terrible example for my daughter—that women are subservient, should accept rudeness, and belong in the home.
All four of the major in-home artificial intelligence, or AI, assistants—Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana—speak by default with a female voice. Until a recent backlash, they also had docile, obedient personalities that would tolerate an exorbitant amount of sexism. The experience with my daughter opened my eyes to this subtle AI sexism, and I’m afraid it will soon get even worse.
The world’s largest tech platforms have this year launched new services that will quickly make texting between consumers and brands the norm. To handle the millions of messages efficiently, these companies will have to launch their own AI assistants. As a result, the number of assistant bots will quickly expand into the thousands, communicating with billions of consumers across websites, apps, and social networks.
As this “conversational AI” dramatically grows in usage, its sexism could get baked into the world around us, including that of our kids. Subtle reinforcement through repetition can add up, over time, to a form of problematic psychological conditioning. Today, this is quietly creeping up on us because the use of bots is still relatively low—a few minutes per day, perhaps. But soon AI will be much more ubiquitous, as bots start to replace websites and apps completely.
If we don’t change course, this next generation of conversational AI will be created by the same people who built the current sexist algorithms and scripts—but on an exponentially bigger scale. The engineers whose AI systems categorized women into kitchen and secretarial roles while offering men jobs with executive titles will have their biases massively amplified, as conversational AI goes global.
The common thread is men. The AI of today was developed by predominantly white male engineers in too much of a hurry to challenge their own chauvinism or consider the harm their work could do. As a tech company CEO since 1995, it’s a pattern I’ve seen before, during the web, search, and social revolutions of the past 20-plus years. The AI revolution started only recently, but it’s already marginalized half of the world’s population. Shame on us.
Or, I should say, shame on us again. The technology industry is a serial offender. Of the 20 largest U.S. technology firms by revenue, 18 have male CEOs. Only one in five engineers at Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are women. In AI specifically, 83% of attendees at the 2017 main annual gathering of AI experts, the Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) conference, were men, as were 90% of NIPS paper authors that year. (Wide-scale statistics on gender diversity in AI, which is relatively new as a specific sector, are not yet available.)
How can we build lasting and far-reaching AI technology if women are missing from the equation? We’re just getting started, but the signs are already worrying. Left unchecked, the results could be catastrophic.
To avert a disaster in conversational AI, one important antidote to techie male bias that we are pursuing aggressively in our company is to engage contact center staff alongside coders in building the bots. Customer service representatives—who are 65% female in the U.S., per the Labor Department—are a more diverse group than the programmers who write code, and far above the average number of female engineers at the big tech companies.
Companies working in AI should work to recruit more balanced workforces, partner with female leaders to reduce male bias, and host women-led tech initiatives. We need to develop a set of best practices in bot building and spread them across the industry.
AI has huge potential, but until the field begins to hold itself accountable, we’ll continue to miss the perspective and inclusivity we need for true progress. Diversity is our best defense against replicating and amplifying hidden biases. Without it, AI will soon birth the next crisis in the technology industry.
Robert LoCascio is the founder and CEO of LivePerson.