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Research highlights concerns about transferring human gender bias to robots

New research by Life Science Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne has revealed that 78%a of people think it is important to represent all genders when creating robotic carers to avoid replicating ideas of traditional gender roles seen in human society.

The finding was shared by Linda Conlon, Chief Executive of Life, in a speech presented at the Women in Leadership event held on Tuesday 6 November at Newcastle Civic Centre.

Linda said: “Despite women now making up about half of the workforce, women still do most of the housework and are the primary carers for children and elderly relatives. Whilst robotic carers will be a leap forward in technology, it would be a step backwards for gender equality if they are only made in the image of a woman.”

More than 200 visitorsb took part in the research after visiting the science centre’s Robots – then and now exhibition.

Whilst the vast majority of visitors expressed concern that robots built to help care for children and the elderly might show a gender bias, opinion was more evenly split when asked whether personal digital assistants (such as Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant) commonly using a female voice by default reinforces an outdated gender stereotype: 43% of respondents said ‘yes’, 32% said ‘no’, with the remainder ‘unsure’c.

The research also revealed widespread concern about transferring prejudices to artificial intelligence (AI); 70%d of respondents to this question are concerned that prejudices held by a programmer could influence the actions of AI. However, only 28% of all respondents to this question were ‘very concerned’ about the issue.

For the respondents who were concerned about transferring prejudices to AI, an overwhelming 72%e said more should be done to increase diversity in the programming workforce to address this issue.

Professor Alan Winfield, co-founder of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, who recently participated in a debate on robotics at Life, said: “I am delighted to see a strong preference for diversity in programming teams expressed by survey respondents. In my view, it is vitally important that development teams in robotics and AI properly mirror gender and ethnic diversity. Only then will robots and AI truly reflect the needs, preferences and values of all in society.”

The exhibition Robots – then and now, developed by the Science Museum in London, is at Life Science Centre until 2 December 2018.

 

 

a Of the 222 people surveyed, 181 answered this question. The questions asked: “Robots may help to care for children and the elderly. Is it important to represent all genders when creating such robots to avoid replicating ideas of traditional gender roles seen in human society?”. 48% responded ‘yes, very important’, 30% said ‘yes, somewhat important’, 14% said ‘no’ and the rest were ‘unsure’.

b 222 people responded to the survey, of which 45% identified their gender as ‘male’, 41% as ‘female’, 6% as ‘other’ and 8% preferred not to answer.

c 201 people answered this question. The question asked: “Personal robot assistants, such as Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant, commonly use a female voice by default. Do you think this perpetuates an outdated gender stereotype?” 43% of respondents said ‘yes’, 32% said ‘no’, with the remainder ‘unsure’.

d 170 people answered this question. The question asked: “Are you concerned that prejudices held by a programmer could influence how an artificially intelligent robot may act?” 28% responded ‘yes, very concerned’, 42% responded ‘yes, a little bit’, 18% said ‘no’ and the rest were ‘unsure’.

e 116 people answered this question. The question asked: “Do you think more should be done to increase diversity in the programming workforce to address this potential issue?” 72% responded ‘yes’, 12% responded ‘no’ and the rest were ‘unsure’.

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