Who is responsible for the gender bias in AI? Journalist Tracey Spicer’s new book tackles this crucial question

by Women’s Agenda
Friday 4 August 2023

About seven years ago, Walkley award-winning journalist Tracey Spicer’s then 11-year-old son turned to her and said, ‘Mum, I want a robot slave’.”

“Against our better judgement as parents, he’d been watching South Park,” Spicer told Women’s Agenda recently. “And the very naughty boy, Cartman, had an Amazon Alexa, which he was ordering around like he was some sort of colonial overlord – in the most offensive language.”

While her son’s question caught her very off guard, it’s ultimately what led her to the idea of writing a book on the technological shift in society and who is responsible for the embedded bias in AI.

“I had this epiphany – ‘Oh my goodness, this terrible idea about women and girls being servile, like in the 1950s, is being embedded into the technologies that our children are using right now’,” Spicer said.

“And as you know, they pick up messages from the mass media and what they see around them everyday, so that gave me the idea of writing a book about how the bias of the past is being embedded into the future and what we can all do about it.”

Published by Simon & Schuster Australia, Spicer’s book, “Man-Made”, is a deeply researched and gripping read into an uncertain technological future, culminating in a call to action that shakes the tech sector’s foundations. 

Who’s to blame for the bias embedded in AI?
“Technology frightens people,” says Spicer, noting that the more she researched it, the more frightened she became by its potential. 

To get past this fear, however, she wrote the book in an engaging and humorous way to start a conversation in the broader community. But at the end of the day, people want to know who’s responsible for AI’s bias, Spicer says, which is why the book is also written in a ‘Whodunnit’ style.

“I decided that yes, big tech is the new big tobacco,” she says. “Some of them have profit margins larger than the GDPs of nation states and they operate unfettered. There’s very little regulation around artificial intelligence.”

“The power is collected in the hands of a very small group of predominantly young white men in Silicon Valley and their power is disproportionate to the rest of society, especially given the fact that they hold the future of humanity in their hands.”

Spicer adds that the other two groups who need to be held responsible are governments – for a lack of diversity and not keeping up-to-date with changing tech – and ‘us’, as we all play a role in supporting certain tech companies over others.

“We can choose to support these tech companies or we can choose to boycott them,” says Spicer.

“For example, we can catch a Shebah – a female-run transport company – instead of an Uber. We can change the voice of Siri from female to male, or we can simply learn a bit more about artificial intelligence in everyday play with chat GPT, see where the biases lie and teach the robots to be better.”

What can we do to create positive change?
“We can work with this technology rather than sitting back passively and allowing it to be our masters,” Spicer says, noting that she wishes this to be the lasting message of her book.

“I’m hoping to give people that understanding about the tools to stand up and say ‘enough’, to push back against the powerful vested interests that are trying to make an awful lot of money through a handful of people worldwide.”

On an individual level, Spicer says the first step towards lasting change in our homes is education. This includes talking to children, friends or those in your local community about what they can do with their smart home technology.

Increasing diversity and inclusion in the broader tech sector, specifically AI and machine learning, is also critical.

“Ask your employer, ‘do we have audits on our algorithms for bias’,” says Spicer, “because very few companies do it and it’s starting to be mandated around the world.”

“And more broadly, whenever there’s a conversation in the media – which there is a lot these days about Chat GPT or AI or Midjourney, the image generation app – get engaged in the conversation. Have your say have a play with it.”