(More) Gendered imaginings of automata

My Cayla Doll

A few more bits on how automation gets gendered in particular kinds of contexts and settings. In particular, the identification of ‘home’ or certain sorts of intimacy with certain kinds of domestic or caring work that then gets gendered is something that has been increasingly discussed.

Two PhD researchers I am lucky enough to be working with, Paula Crutchlow (Exeter) and Kate Byron (Bristol), have approached some of these issues from different directions. Paula has had to wrangle with this in a number of ways in relation to the Museum of Contemporary Commodities but it was most visible in the shape of Mikayla, the hacked ‘My Friend Cayla Doll’. Kate is doing some deep dives on the sorts of assumptions that are embedded into the doing of AI/machine learning through the practices of designing, programming and so on. They are not, of course, alone. Excellent work by folks like Kate Crawford, Kate Devlin and Gina Neff (below) inform all of our conversations and work.

Here’s a collection of things that may provoke thought… I welcome any further suggestions or comments 🙂

Alexa, does AI have gender?


Alexa is female. Why? As children and adults enthusiastically shout instructions, questions and demands at Alexa, what messages are being reinforced? Professor Neff wonders if this is how we would secretly like to treat women: ‘We are inadvertently reproducing stereotypical behaviour that we wouldn’t want to see,’ she says.

Prof Gina Neff in conversation with Ruth Abrahams, OII.

Predatory Data: Gender Bias in Artificial Intelligence

it has been reported that female-sounding assistive chatbots regularly receive sexually charged messages. It was recently cited that five percent of all interactions with Robin Labs, whose bot platform helps commercial drivers with routes and logistics, is sexually explicit. The fact that the earliest female chatbots were designed to respond to these suggestions
deferentially or with sass was problematic as it normalised sexual harassment.

Vidisha Mishra and Madhulika Srikumar – Predatory Data: Gender Bias in Artificial Intelligence

The Gender of Artificial Intelligence

Chart showing that the gender of artificial intelligence (AI) is not neutral
The gendering, or not, of chatbots, digital assistants and AI movie characters – Tyler Schnoebelen

“Consistently representing digital assistants as female
hard-codes a connection between a woman’s voice and subservience.”

Stop Giving Digital Assistants Female Voices – Jessica Nordell, The New Republic

HKW Speaking to Racial Conditions Today [video]

racist facial recognition

This video of a panel session at HKW entitled “Speaking to Racial Conditions Today” is well-worth watching.

Follow this link (the video is not available for embedding here).

Inputs, discussions, Mar 15, 2018. With Zimitri Erasmus, Maya Indira Ganesh, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, David Theo Goldberg, Serhat Karakayali, Shahram Khosravi, Françoise VergÚs
English original version

Why WIRED’s future never arrives – David Karpf

Promotional image for the 1995 film Hackers

Quite a good piece on the Wired website reflecting upon 25 years of predictions about the future in the pages of that magazine (though I’m not sure the exonerating final paragraph rings true). Worth a read…

Looking back at WIRED’s early visions of the digital future, the mistake that seems most glaring is the magazine’s confidence that technology and the economics of abundance would erase social and economic inequality. Both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 imagined a future that upended traditional economics. We were all going to be millionaires, all going to be creators, all going to be collaborators. But the bright future of abundance has, time and again, been waylaid by the present realities of earnings reports, venture investments, and shareholder capitalism. On its way to the many, the new wealth has consistently been diverted up to the few.

By now, the digital revolution isn’t just the future; it has a history. Digital technology runs our economy. It organizes our daily lives. It mediates how we learn information, tell each other stories, and connect with our neighbors. It’s how we control and harass and encourage one another. It’s a tool of both surveillance and resistance. You can almost never be entirely offline anymore. The internet is setting the agenda for the world around us.

The digital revolution’s track record suggests that its arc doesn’t always bend toward abundance—or in a straight line at all. It flits about, responding to the gravitational forces of hype bubbles and monopoly power, warped by the resilience of old institutions and the fragility of new ones. Today’s WIRED seems to have learned these lessons.

25 years of wired predictions: why the future never arrives – David Karpf

‘Work Notes’ – an occasional academic journal

Pocket Remembrancer 1865

I’ve decided to do something slightly different from the research topic focused blogging I ordinarily do. I have occasionally written posts about ‘the job’, but inspired by reading Les Back’s Academic Diary this summer and with a slightly more keen sense of the passage of time I’ve decided to create a sort of sub-blog called ‘Work Notes’ that focuses on observations about working in academia. This is not an attempt to generalise but rather to reflect upon my own experiences. Likewise, this is not for self-promotion or whatever. You can find the posts on the Work Notes page. They won’t, for the moment, appear in this blog feed – they will remain separate.

Here’s what I wrote about my motivations in the initial post:

I have been reading Les Back’s Academic Diary and it provides an impetus for me to mark this passing of time. This will be my own, more modest, occasional academic journal – (I hope) not for pretentious reasons, for self-promotion and so on. Rather my motivation is because I think writing (for me) is like a muscle and it needs to be exercised. Just as my physical attempts at exercise are poor and I am trying to address that, I also feel the need to create a habit of writing again. I sincerely hope I can both stick to this and get better at doing it. It is a form of learning-by-doing. Ultimately, I want to write this. I want to because I love my job and academia, in spite of it’s (or ‘our’) weirdnesses.

Steal my sunshine – 15th August

‘Recognition’ for peer review

I must confess. I did that lazy thing by asking on Twitter for something perhaps I could’ve found out with a little more effort (I have also been relatively lax at actually writing this blogpost about it!). However, it actually resulted in something interesting. 

I had just completed a (peer) review for a journal published by Sage and was asked if I wanted to sign up for “Publons” a system that supposedly let you gain ‘recognition’ for your peer reviewing. So, I did sign up but then thought: “hang on…” and this prompted by question on Twitter:

Click through to read the replies. It’s a great sharing of knowledge and expertise around the process of peer review, with plenty of contributions from colleagues with positions as editor in various journals. For example, this from Martin Coward begins to get at some of the issues.

I won’t try to summarise, or indeed embed, all of the things that were said, please do click through for the whole exchange. I do want to, very briefly, reflect upon this longstanding concern with making peer review ‘work’. The concerns that “Publons” purports to address are real. Peer review is the life-blood of academic publishing but is assumed, rather under-valued (by publishers, some colleagues and institutions) and, it seems, the constant frustration of editorial board members. As my former colleague Prof. Martin Weller has observed this labour represents rather a lot of unrecognised and under-appreciated investment.

An attempted ‘technological fix’ is, of course, not new. There have been various attempts to think about this over the years. When I was working with Martin on ‘digital scholarship’ (see his excellent open access book) the trial of an ‘open’ peer review system for Nature was a relatively recent talking point. 

It is not a novel argument but it seems to me that unless and until academics, publishers and institutions stop thinking about lots of forms of labour as a part of a perceived ‘exceptionalism’ and ‘privilege’ of academic life (which I think, if it did ever exist for a few people, is long gone) we are more-or-less doomed to rehearse this debate ad infinitum.

Machine Learning ‘like alchemy’, not electricity

Holly from the UK TV programme Red Dwarf

In this Neural Information Processing System conference talk (2017), marking receiving the ‘test of time’ award, Ali Rahimi discusses the status of rigour in the field of machine learning. In response to Andrew Ng’s infamous “Artificial Intelligence is like electricity”, Rahimi retorts “machine learning is like alchemy”. I’ve embedded the talk below, it kicks in at the point Rahimi starts this bit of argument. I confess I don’t understand the maths talk it is embedded within but I think this embodies the best of ‘science’/ academia – cut the bullshit, talk about what we don’t know as much as what we do.

The downloaders of Yaoundé

Glitched image of 'Downloaders' in the informal economy of Yaoundé, Cameroon

Via the UCL Why We Post series, I saw this post by Patrick Awondo from the project Anthropology of Smart Phones and Smart Ageing. Really interesting… read the full post here. Some quotes:

Among the material elements that mark the smartphone economy in YaoundĂ©, there are shops and sales counters that resale low-cost phones, predominantly from Asia. There are also houses and buildings in the same stlye and colours of the operators of local phone companies ; yellow for  South African MTN, Orange for French Orange, red for Korean Nextel, and blue for Cameroonian Camtel. There are also more discreet kiosks. Sometimes these are mobile, but mostly they are  sedentary. They often contain simple tables, where a laptop is installed and speakers are held by a young man between the age of 20-30 . At these kiosks, you find working persons known as ‘downloaders’, whose job it is to assist with people with their digital queries and technical needs for a fee.

Once called ‘engravers’, downloaders are not a new body of tradesmen in YaoundĂ©. They appeared in the urban landscape with the invention of the compact disk (CD) in the 90s. At that time, young working men here established the act of burning CDs for people (actually a large majority of the urban population), who had no computers to copy music and other films and data via digital media. they They also recorded music onto cassette tapes. The CD gave way to downloading and streaming, and  uses of USB sticks, and eventually smartphones. Downloading has since become a central business in Cameroon in the informal labour economy.

As an informal presence occupying the street, downloaders’s status within the  urban / labour community appears ambivalent, sometimes falling within, and sometimes outside of official protocols. Since the 2000s, public life has become increasingly disciplinary. Assisted by policemen, agents of the municipal brigade carry out daily observations of the streets, and where they deem necessary, do not hesitate to use violence against  young people  occupying parts of urban space and engaging in a variety of commercial activities (Ottou, Forthcoming).