When technology imitates life: The rise of discriminatory artificial intelligence

 

By Teresa Harris

 


 

Early last year, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down after several employees were ousted for their behaviour towards women, and the company was accused of fostering a toxic culture of sexism and harassment. In August 2017, James Damore, an engineer at Google, released a 10-page memo asserting women are biologically less suited to careers in tech, and criticized the company’s gender diversity efforts.

We’re familiar with these headlines, and the many others that have placed the state of gender diversity in North America’s tech industry under intense scrutiny. However, the problem goes deeper than we may realize — from the minds of employees, to the technology they’re producing — specifically in the realm of artificial intelligence. The result? Artificially intelligent technology that mimics the people and environment it was founded by and in: at best, inherently biased, and at worst, explicitly sexist.

Devices using artificial intelligence deeply affect how we live, work, and play. Voice-powered personal assistants are now with us in the car and kitchen, and suggestive search engines, which make use of machine-learning algorithms, seem to know us better than our closest companions. Since 2012, C.B. Insights reports that funding for A.I. start-ups has increased by over 850 per cent. Tech leaders including Google, Apple, and IBM have each purchased at least five companies with A.I. specialization, with Google acquiring a whopping 12 in the last six years.

 

“The problem goes deeper than we may realize — from the minds of employees, to the technology they’re producing.”

 

The consequences of the gender and racially homogeneous work environments characteristic of Silicon Valley are already being seen in the A.I. market, which comes as no surprise to many industry experts.

“When you don’t have the diversity of people designing voice-recognition software, you forget to test the technology using those people,” says Dr. Sarah Saska, co-founder and managing partner of Feminuity, a Toronto-based consulting firm that works with innovative companies to help them navigate through the unmapped territory of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. “Still to this day, some A.I. software doesn’t understand particular types of accents, i.e. those that deviate from the Western white male.”

University of Virginia computer science professor Vicente Ordóñez found that research-image collections supported by Microsoft and Facebook have shown “predictable gender bias in their depiction of activities such as cooking and sports,” strongly associating women with the former and men with the latter.

In 2017, news website Quartz studied how voice-powered assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana responded to different types of verbal harassment, including lewd comments about their sex, sexuality, sexual characteristics, or sexual behavior. They found that “the bots most frequently evaded harassment, occasionally responded positively with either graciousness or flirtation, and rarely responded negatively,” meaning these virtual women almost never asked the harasser to stop, or told them that what they were saying was inappropriate.

These bots haven’t been around long enough to absorb the patriarchal biases entrenched throughout our society. However, the people — or should we say, the men — programming them have. And while bias and behaviour like this can be corrected, it requires a researcher to be looking for that bias in the first place, and to specify what he or she wants to correct. If recent headlines are any indicator, many within the tech industry don’t see the issue, or the value in correcting it.

 

“There are a lot of women who aren’t comfortable in environments where they don’t know everything. So encouraging them to take the leap is very important.”

 

Angelique Mohring is the founder and CEO of GainX, a company that uses A.I. and machine learning to aid global corporations in their transformation across people and projects. While she won’t deny the current state of gender inequality in the tech workplace, she remains hopeful that women not only belong there, but can add significant value to the field.

“Because of A.I., we’re going to need a skill set that goes beyond digital talent. The broader perspective women have will be worth its weight in gold in the future economy.” Mohring describes the ‘future economy’ as one wherein companies do much more with less — something she believes women are particularly well suited for. “Throughout history, women have always done more with less. We have been continually figuring out how to survive and take care of families and communities with very little.”

So how do we derail the speeding train that is biased artificial intelligence?

The obvious answer: get more women into tech so that more women, and a more diverse set of women, are designing and programming the tech we use. But Anne Martel, co-founder and SVP of Operations at Montreal startup Element AI, doesn’t think it’s as simple as getting more women in the door.

“It’s the company’s responsibility to be a safe place to learn, fail and learn from that failure,” she says. “There are a lot of women who aren’t comfortable in environments where they don’t know everything. So encouraging them to take the leap is very important.”

Even still, Martel thinks the consequences of non-diverse tech go beyond sexist and discriminatory software — she believes biased A.I. is destined to fail in the marketplace. “To allow for the adoption of A.I. systems, they have to be relatable. And a lack of diversity will prevent us from truly benefiting from these systems, because they’re not going to represent the reality we know.”

 

The One-sided State of Tech

According to data from the National Science Foundation, the number of women holding computer science degrees has declined from 25 per cent in 2004, to 18 per cent in 2014. And research from Morgan Stanley revealed that just 29 per cent of employees in tech are women, and only 13 per cent are executives.

The cause of a female shortage in tech comes down to what, in 2008, the Harvard Business Review called “The Athena Factor.” At the time, a reported 63 per cent of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) experienced sexual harassment at work, the result of cultures that celebrated “hostile machismo.” The review found other antigens that deter women from workplaces, including isolating them on teams of predominantly men and using systems of risk and reward that tend to disadvantage risk-averse women. The result? A 52 per cent drop off between women who graduate with degrees in STEM fields, and those who remain in those industries.

A more recent survey conducted in 2015 by a group of female tech investors and executives, titled “The Elephant in the Valley,” revealed that “84 per cent of the participants had been told they were too aggressive in the office, 66 per cent said that they had been excluded from important events because of their gender, and 60 per cent reported unwanted sexual advances in the workplace.”

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

The Business of Uncoupling: A conversation with divorce financial consultant, Eva Sachs

 

As the co-owners of Earth Inc., a successful landscape design firm in Toronto, Kennedy McRae and James Dale have the opportunity to meet (and create beautiful backyards for) some powerhouse women of influence. In this Q&A, they’re introducing the WOI community to their client, Eva Sachs, a certified financial planner who specializes in separation and divorce.

 

By James Dale and Kennedy McRae

 


 

 

We met Eva Sachs while transforming her backyard. Two busy professionals with grown children, Eva and her husband wanted their yard to function as their cottage oasis in the city. We were happy to oblige. As we got to know Eva, we were impressed with her entrepreneurial journey. A certified financial planner, Eva specializes in separation and divorce. She not only runs her own business as a divorce financial consultant, but also works with a business partner, family lawyer Marion Korn, to run Mutual Solutions — a financial divorce mediation practice. What we find most interesting about Eva is that despite her great knowledge and understanding of the separation and divorce process, she’s been married to the same man for more than 40 years. We sat down with Eva to chat about business ownership, family finances, and her advice for success.

 

How did you come to specialize in separation and divorce? What is it you do for your clients?

Twelve years ago, I had a traditional financial planning practice and I discovered there was a specialization in separation and divorce — Certified Divorce Financial Analyst — a certification on top of financial planning. As I started working in this area I realized that this was too big and too important to contain within my traditional practice. Few financial planners specialize in this area, so it set me apart. I established a company, a consulting practice, and have been doing this work exclusively for the past 10 years. I consult with clients who are contemplating separation and divorce, providing them with the clarity and confidence to move forward, educating them on what they should know about their family finances, and guiding them through the process from a financial perspective. Once they’re in negotiations, I help them determine what adjustments they may have to make, in terms of lifestyle and retirement planning, and look at the impact of settlement options in order to account for what will become their new financial situation.

 

You also wrote a book about divorce, but targeted to older men and women. How did that come about?

Beyond my financial planning practice, I have a financial mediation business, Mutual Solutions, which I run with my business partner Marion, a family lawyer. We work with couples interested in getting to settlement through mediation, looking at the financial side of things like property and debt. One area of divorce that we’re seeing growth in is ‘grey divorce’ — couples divorcing after long-term marriages. These separations often require creative solutions when it comes to dividing finances and property. In 2014, we wrote a book on the subject entitled When Harry Left Sally – Finding your way through Grey Divorce.

 

We’re always interested in how other small business partnerships work. How have you made it work with Marion over the years, while also running your own business?

As with all partnerships there have been ups and downs, but Marion and I bring our two skill sets and perspectives together and create better strategies that work for our clients. Having worked for myself for so long, it’s actually really nice to be working with someone else, to have someone to bounce ideas off and develop strategies with. Some of our most satisfying times are when we’re working together.

But you have to have mutual respect, you have to have that greater understanding, you have to have empathy and compassion. And you have to communicate. Sometimes it means being locked in a room and hashing stuff out. But a lot of it is just appreciating where the other person is coming from, and being able to work together as a team.

 

We’ve found, working closely with our wives over the years, that a partnership takes a lot of openness and honesty. How do you advise couples when it comes to finances?

Breakdowns often come from financial infidelity — finding out things aren’t always as they seem. This happens when one spouse lets the other manage finances completely. It’s essential that both spouses are aware of the family finances; you must go beyond trusting that the other person can handle it all. Many women come in to see me who are smart business women, executives, and there’s one small gap in their knowledge and that’s the family finances and investments. And they feel guilty about this lack of information. If one of the spouses owns a business, there are more layers of complexity. Even if your spouse isn’t involved in your business, he or she should know what’s going on and have access to the financial statements.

 

Have you ever had trouble balancing both businesses, a full roster of clients, and family life?

My husband and I both come from entrepreneurial families and their businesses (retail and food services) required much more challenging hours than mine ever has. I’ve always felt fortunate that I’ve been able to keep more regular hours. I’m a pretty easy-going person and I don’t get too stressed. I have two grown sons who are now 32 and 36, but they’ve always been very supportive. Fortunately, I’ve also been able to attract the kind of clients who are great to work with, who are looking for mutual solutions, and cause us very little, if any, stress.

In terms of downtime, we’ve never had a cottage, but our backyard is really important to us. As you know, when we did our renovation we wanted to create an oasis in the city, with water, green space, and lighting. A space my husband and I can use to unwind and entertain. And, while we didn’t set it up this way, it’s turned out our backyard is perfect for hosting outdoor movie nights with friends.

 

Speaking of your husband, we know you’ve been happily married for a long time. How does that impact your line of work?

Yes, our 42nd wedding anniversary was February 14. People often ask me what’s my divorce story that brought me to this line of work — but that’s not the case. I think not having gone through divorce keeps me neutral. I can relate to my female clients in that I’ve been married for so long, I’m a mom, and a business woman, and part of the sandwich generation. I can empathize with what they’re going through and remain neutral in terms of what divorce looks and feels like. And at the end of the day when I come home and vent, my husband is hugely supportive.