Breaking the Cycle of Invisible Women in Robotics
WISE Conference 2019, headline speaker Aimee van Wynsberghe, talks about the importance of capturing the crucial role women play in the future of robotics. Only a limited amount of tickets are still available to hear Aimme talk in person, on 14th May, London, don’t miss out!
Aimee van Wynsberghe
In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote, ‘humanity is male and man define woman not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other’. These powerful words become ever more poignant today when the defining of man and women happens through the power of Big Data. As Caroline Criado Perez notes, the lack of data on women throughout history has created a gender data gap. There is a neglect in considering, studying, or celebrating the experiences, successes, and lives of women throughout history. This leads to a gender data gap in which we have far less data on women’s role in the ‘evolution of humanity’. Importantly, for machine learning systems this means that artificial intelligence (AI) machines are trained on data with huge gaps in the data sets. Perez sets out in her book “Invisible Women” to meticulously share the stories and experiences of women as a first step to closing the gender data gap.
As an ethicist who studies the ethics of robotics and AI I am consistently asking questions about how to design better robotics products and what this means. The goal of these questions is to achieve what I call responsible robotics. Responsible robotics is about both the process which leads to a robotics product as well as the product itself. It is therefore concerned with the people and material from which the product is made as well as the consequences of using the product. The concept of a gender data gap provides a platform for asking questions specific to gender, diversity, and inclusion in the making and using of robot products. We must pay attention to and ask what the experiences of females are with regard to these robot products. With this in mind it is clear that giving voice – and therefore data – to women’s experiences with robots is one important obstacle which must be overcome in order to achieve the responsible design, development, and regulation of robotics.
In my early days as a research assistant, I worked in a robotics institute in Canada. During this time I was tasked with training surgeons on the various surgical robots and testing performance when we used different amounts of delay between the surgeon’s movements and how long it took for the robot arms to move. Our focus was on how to measure accuracy and efficiency – if there was a 0.4-second delay between the surgeon moving their hands and the robotic apparatus moving would the surgeon have more or less errors in their performance? Now, of course, I am not here to say that we should disregard or minimize the importance of accuracy in surgery but we should consider the larger picture when it comes to the contexts in which robotics products will be placed. Surgery, for example, isn’t about just the moment or the event of surgery. The pre and post-operative period are crucial for the overall well-being of the patient. This means we need to take into account the experiences of the people involved in the pre and post-operative caretaking of the patient. Nurses will tell you that due to the shorter hospital stays of patients undergoing robotic surgery they must train the family members to care for their loved ones at home. They will also tell you that their entire role changed due to the introduction of the robot. New skills had to be learned and new responsibilities were delegated. None of this contributed to the evaluation of the robot. None of this is currently included in the history of the introduction of the surgical robot. And if this continues, none of this will be used to develop and implement the next generation of surgical robots.
This is but one example of a robot in a healthcare setting. Robots are also designed for other tasks like lifting, bathing, and feeding of patients. This trend extends well beyond the walls of the hospital. Robot vacuum cleaners, robot sanitizers, robot secretaries, robot educators, robot lovers, etc. are all currently under development and use today. To be sure, both men and women fulfil these tasks and roles; however, each of these tasks or roles represent moments in which the crucial experience of females could be missed to the detriment of society. Each of these tasks also represents opportunities to gain valuable insight and data which will contribute to the responsible design, development, and implementation of robotics.
One way of turning this into an opportunity is to increase female presence on the design team. This means educators, industry, and policymakers must intervene to increase the presence of women in STEM. However, this doesn’t have to mean turning every woman into a roboticist. This means acknowledging the fact that women and men experience the world differently and therefore both will have invaluable insight into how robots should be designed and developed.
As Perez argues “When we are designing a world that is meant to work for everyone we need women in the room”. Overcoming the gender data gap is not just about numbers or statistics; we need to hear the stories and experiences of women. This creates a call to action for employers, academics, and policymakers in the robotics space: women will be users of robot products, will experience robot products, will be impacted by robot products and it is time to give voice to their experiences. Only then will we have the tools – and the data – necessary to create better products and to shape our future with robots in an inclusive, ethical, and responsible way.