Women in tech are fighting A.I. bias—but where are the men?

November 10, 2021, 1:44 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Malala gets married, Dr. Jill Biden leads the White House’s COVID vaccine campaign in schools, and we ponder the impact of bias in A.I. Have a wonderful Wednesday.

– Battling bias. If I’ve been a little MIA this week, it was because I spent Monday and Tuesday in Boston for Fortune’s inaugural Brainstorm A.I. gathering. It was a fun and wonky couple of days diving into artificial intelligence and machine learning, technologies that—for good or ill—seem increasingly likely to shape not just the future of business, but the world at large.

There are a lot of good and hopeful things to be said about A.I. and M.L., but there’s also a very real risk that the technologies will perpetuate biases that already exist, and even introduce new ones. That was the subject of one of the most engrossing discussions of the event by a panel that was—as pointed out by moderator, guest co-chair, and deputy CEO of Smart Eye Rana el Kaliouby—comprised entirely of women.

One of the scariest parts of bias in A.I. is how wide and varied the potential effects can be. Sony Group’s head of A.I. ethics office Alice Xiang gave the example of a self-driving car that’s been trained too narrowly in what it recognizes as a human reason to jam on the breaks. “You need to think about being able to detect pedestrians—and ensure that you can detect all sorts of pedestrians and not just people that are represented dominantly in your training or test set,” said Xiang.

And though not so obviously life-or-death, Dr. Margaret Mitchell, chief ethics scientist of Hugging Face, pointed to the problems with bias in A.I. language processing:

“We find that when we have these large language models training on tons and tons of data … most of it is sourced from the web, where we see a lot of racism and sexism and ableism and ageism,” she said. “[It’s] largely sourced from Wikipedia, which is primarily written by men, white men, between something like 20 to 30 or so, and single and PhD, higher-level education, which means that the kind of topics that are covered, that are then scraped in training the language models, reflect those knowledge bases, reflect those backgrounds.”

(By the way, if Mitchell’s name sounds familiar, it may be because she was previously co-head of Google’s A.I. ethics unit before being fired earlier this year. Mitchell was a fierce and public critic of what she considered to be the company’s D&I failures; Google contends she was dismissed for violations of its code of conduct. Read more on that complicated situation here.)

So, how do we avoid or strip away such biases? The panelists didn’t offer easy answers, but awareness, early and frequent monitoring and testing, and transparency about problems and failures are all likely part of the solution.

As Xiang noted, “no one wants to produce products that are biased.” Yet I don’t think it was a coincidence that this critical discussion was led by an all-female panel. We cannot allow A.I. ethics to be put solely on the shoulders of women and people of color. We know what happens to corporate positions once they are tagged as “women’s jobs”—all too often, they’re marginalized and not taken as seriously as more male-skewing roles. That couldn’t be less true here: Stopping bias from further infiltrating our companies and the wider world is about as serious as it gets.

Kristen Bellstrom

The Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, is coauthored by Kristen Bellstrom, Emma Hinchliffe, and Claire Zillman. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe


- Happy couple. Malala Yousafzai, the longtime activist for human rights and girls' education, announced yesterday her marriage to her partner, Asser. Yousafzai, who became globally known after she survived a Taliban assassination attempt at 15, is now 24. She shared photos of the small nikkah ceremony in Birmingham. HuffPost

- Field trip. For its COVID-19 vaccine rollout to 5- to 11-year-olds, the White House is leaning on First Lady Jill Biden, a longtime teacher. Dr. Biden this week visited Franklin Sherman Elementary School—where students in 1954 became some of the first children inoculated against polio—to witness kids receiving their COVID shots and emphasize the importance of getting children vaccinated. New York Times

- Fed's up. President Joe Biden is choosing who will lead the Federal Reserve for the next four years, debating between awarding another term to Fed chair Jerome Powell or choosing a new leader. Bloomberg reports that Fed governor Lael Brainard interviewed for the role at the White House last week (the White House declined to comment.). Brainard is popular among Democrats and was seen as a contender for the Treasury secretary job that went to Janet Yellen. Bloomberg

- Artificial future. As Kristen mentioned, Fortune just wrapped its Brainstorm A.I. conference, where executives gathered to discuss the future of artificial intelligence in business. Ahead of the event, Accenture CEO Julie Sweet wrote for Fortune about the "responsibility and possibility" A.I. presents to CEOs. Fortune

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Bumble hired former Dunkin' chief human resources officer Stephanie Lilak as chief people officer, making the online dating business's leadership team majority-women. The Securities and Exchange Commission named new members of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, adding Christina Ho and Kara Stein as members and attorney Erica Y. Williams as chair. Manon Brouillette will be EVP at Verizon Communications and CEO of Verizon Consumer Group. The Walton Family Foundation promoted Romy Drucker to director of its K-12 education program. Caregiving benefit provider Family First hired Sara MacDonald as VP of clinical operations and Nancy Oh as VP of client success. HubSpot's Kim Walsh joins Impact.com as chief growth officer. 


- On leave. Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex joined a New York Times Dealbook event to discuss her advocacy for paid family leave. "It's not just about the mom," she said of the importance of paid time away from work. Paid leave requires the support of "modern men" who understand its value, she said. The duchess spoke alongside Ariel Investments co-CEO Mellody Hobson. New York Times

- Scottish hospitality. COP26, the UN climate conference, has been taking place in Glasgow for over a week now. But Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon doesn't have an official seat at the table, with Boris Johnson's administration representing the U.K. at the gathering. Still, she's had a significant presence at the talks as she welcomed guests to Scotland. Guardian

- Big question. What will it take for the military to fix its violence against women problem? It's a "billion-dollar question," argues this piece, citing the $1 billion Congress has allocated for the military to address the needs of its female servicemembers over the past decade. The deaths of Natasha Aposhian and Vanessa Guillen have highlighted the urgency of the issue. Elle


J. Smith-Cameron is in control Marie Claire

Will monthly child tax credit payments continue in 2022? Their future rests on Biden’s Build Back Better bill Fortune

The feminine urge to analyze this meme MEL Magazine


"I haven’t not known my power, but now I’m clearly aware of all of it, as opposed to just pieces of it."

-Singer Alicia Keys on a new phase of her life. Her new album is Keys

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