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Feminist chatbot F'xa, Image Courtesy: Feminist Internet

Understanding bias in AI with the help of a feminist chatbot

F’xa, created by the Feminist Internet, is educating people about the discriminatory side of artificial intelligence

While AI is often heralded as forging an enhanced, more efficient future, it’s important to also ask who it’s propelling forward, and who gets left behind in the tech revolution. Just last year, Amazon scrapped its AI recruitment tool after finding out it automatically downgraded CVs belonging to women. Over the next few years, AI is set to play an increasingly important role in employment, the arts, and how we navigate daily life – tech organisations need to act fast on addressing these issues.

It’s not just women who are vulnerable to the erroneous nature of AI. We’ve previously reported on the threat machine learning poses to the trans community, and to see racial bias in action, you only have to look so far as Google’s search engine. In 2016, it was reported that a woman who, after Googling “unprofessional hairstyles for work”, was met with images of natural afros, whereas a search for “professional hairstyles for work” resulted in photos of white women with tidy up-dos and ponytails. There was also the disturbing revelation of AI identifying people’s sexuality – something that could be a powerful tool used for more sinister actions.

Earlier this year, Mozilla published its annual Internet Health Report, and highlighted the movement’s efforts to become more responsible. AI has already, in many cases, demonstrated its capacity for making all the same bad decisions as humans, but faster.

The Feminist Internet, co-founded by Charlotte Web in 2018, works to prevent biases creeping into AI systems. The non-profit organisation hopes to make the Internet a safer, more democratic space, by tackling instances of online abuse and trolling. Webb and a proudly diverse team recently launched its first product: a feminist chatbot designed to educate users on the issues surrounding AI, known as F’xa – a direct play on Amazon’s Alexa assistant. Female personal assistants, the group have outlined, reinforce women as the assistant and caregiver. Below, Dazed speaks Webb to find out more about the steps being taken to make the Internet a more inclusive, expressive, and accountable place for everyone.

Why did you start the feminist chatbot?

Charlotte Webb: To provide a playful guide to AI bias, and suggest steps that can be taken to address it. We wanted to simplify a set of complex issues and bring them to life through a conversational interface.

What does a feminist Internet look like?

Charlotte Webb: I see it more as a combination of lots of small actions individuals can take to push back against the dominant power structures that rule the internet, that shift it away from the corporate monopoly situation we’re in now… it’s a space where there’s less emphasis on online abuse, and the sophisticated tactics that have become so dominant in the Internet space.

Have you seen a willingness of big tech companies to cooperate?

Charlotte Webb: Because there is more attention on issues like AI bias, companies are starting to pay attention. It’s very difficult to say whether or not that's lip service and responding to consumer demand, rather than them really wanting to change their entire business model, which is quite unlikely. At the moment, it seems more productive to educate designers of the future who might go and work at big companies like Amazon, or Apple, or Facebook, and make sure the mindsets they have going into those companies are aligned to ethical development

“The internet enables amazing opportunities to bond, learn from each other, to find solace, to grow, to feel better. On the other hand, it creates niche hates” – Charlotte Webb

According to the feminist chatbot, only 22 per cent of the people building AI are female. How do we change that, and in turn remove the human bias that results from the coding?

Charlotte Webb: The focus has been too much on the pipeline – the talk about not getting enough women into tech, for example. It’s important that happens, but the problem is that the opportunities for progression are not equal for men and women once they’re there, so it's about transforming company culture.

Because patriarchal values are still so entrenched in society, does the world need to change before the Internet can?

Charlotte Webb: For me, the Internet and the world are not distinct, so even though I think it’s important to recognise the differences between online and offline experience, I think it's important to recognise the feedback loop between them.

If you look at online abuse, you could say, fundamentally, it’s not a technological problem. The motivations that people have to behave in these ways are not technological, but the face of the Internet facilitates those behaviours in a way that’s distinct.

I think we’re starting to see abusive behaviour which is less about explicit, shouty trolling and more about attempts to divide communities. It’s one of those really clear paradoxical things because, in one way, the internet enables amazing opportunities to bond, learn from each other, to find solace, to grow, to feel better. On the other hand, it creates niche hates.

What can be done to combat online abuse?

Charlotte Webb: I think that the question of censorship and free speech is probably one of the hardest things to come terms with. Without condoning awful behaviour, there’s something about trying to understand the people that do it (online abuse) are in pain, and I don’t want to come across like I would defend hateful speech or extremist content. A lot of the attention is on identifying the hate speech programmatically, but we want to work with people who are suffering, and shift people’s mindset around the issue.

Can there be a ‘feminist’ Alexa?

Charlotte Webb: We’re now working with a really amazing developer called Catherine Breslin, who used to work at Amazon, on teaching young people how to build Alexa skills.

We're encouraging them to think about what kind of skills might be able to help somebody who’s got a problem in the world, how could feminist values address that problem, and what type of voice – metaphorically and literally – would an Alexa skill take on if it was a feminist entity.

How optimistic do you feel about the future of the Feminist Internet?

Charlotte Webb: Very! So many incredible people want to make a difference. But people are going to be resistant to the mechanism of feminism to transform the Internet, which is one of the reasons why it’s important to modify the language. If it’s more comfortable for people, let’s just talk about making the Internet more equal.

You can chat to F’xa here