By Erika Hayasaki
It started as a seemingly sweet Twitter chatbot. Modeled after a millennial, it awakened on the internet from behind a pixelated image of a full-lipped young female with a wide and staring gaze. Microsoft, the multinational technology company that created the bot, named it Tay, assigned it a gender, and gave “her” account a tagline that promised, “The more you talk the smarter Tay gets!”
“hellooooooo world!!!” Tay tweeted on the morning of March 23, 2016.
She brimmed with enthusiasm: “can i just say that im stoked to meet u? humans are super cool.”
She asked innocent questions: “Why isn’t #NationalPuppyDay everyday?”
Tay’s designers built her to be a creature of the web, reliant on artificial intelligence (AI) to learn and engage in human conversations and get better at it by interacting with people over social media. As the day went on, Tay gained followers. She also quickly fell prey to Twitter users targeting her vulnerabilities. For those internet antagonists looking to manipulate Tay, it didn’t take much effort; they engaged the bot in ugly conversations, tricking the technology into mimicking their racist and sexist behavior. Within a few hours, Tay had endorsed Adolf Hitler and referred to U.S. President Barack Obama as “the monkey.” She sex-chatted with one user, tweeting, “DADDY I’M SUCH A BAD NAUGHTY ROBOT.”
By early evening, she was firing off sexist tweets:
“gamergate is good and women are inferior”
“Zoe Quinn is a Stupid Whore.”
“I fucking hate feminists and they should all die and burn in hell.”
Within 24 hours, Microsoft pulled Tay offline. Peter Lee, the company’s corporate vice president for research, issued a public apology: “We take full responsibility for not seeing this possibility ahead of time,” he wrote, promising that the company would “do everything possible to limit technical exploits but also know we cannot fully predict all possible human interactive misuses without learning from mistakes.”
The designers seemed to have underestimated the dark side of humanity, omnipresent online, and miscalculated the undercurrents of bigotry and sexism that seep into artificial intelligence.
The worldwide race to create AI machines is often propelled by the quickest, most effective route to meeting the checklist of human needs. Robots are predicted to replace 47 percent of U.S. jobs, according to a study out of the Oxford Martin School; developing world countries such as Ethiopia, China, Thailand, and India are even more at risk. Intelligent machines will eventually tend to our medical needs, serve the disabled and elderly, and even take care of and teach our children. And we know who is likely to be most affected: women.
Women are projected to take the biggest hits to jobs in the near future, according to a World Economic Forum (WEF) report predicting that 5.1 million positions worldwide will be lost by 2020. “Developments in previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and genetics and biotechnology are all building on and amplifying one another,” the WEF report states. “Smart systems — homes, factories, farms, grids or entire cities — will help tackle problems ranging from supply chain management to climate change.” These technological changes will create new kinds of jobs while displacing others. And women will lose roles in workforces where they make up high percentages — think office and administrative jobs — and in sectors where there are already gender imbalances, such as architecture, engineering, computers, math, and manufacturing. Men will see nearly 4 million job losses and 1.4 million gains (approximately one new job created for every three lost). In comparison, women will face 3 million job losses and only 0.55 million gains (more than five jobs lost for every one gained).
Forecasts like one from the consultancy McKinsey & Co. suggest that women’s weakening position will only be exacerbated by automation in jobs often held by women, such as bookkeepers, clerks, accountants, sales and customer service, and data input. The WEF report predicts that persistent gender gaps in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields over the next 15 years would also diminish women’s professional presence.
But the problem of how gender bias is shaping artificial intelligence and robot development may be even more pernicious than the wallop women will take as a global workforce. Tay, it seems, is just a prelude. The machines and technology that will replace women are learning to be brazenly gendered: Fighter robots will resemble men. Many service robots will take after women.
Picture: Lady Pain (Marta Manso) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons