Women Reclaiming AI (Artificial Intelligence) for Activism is a workshop created by Birgitte Aga and Coral Manton, designers and technologists from i-DAT Research & Design Collective, which challenges the lack of gender diversity in AI development, and the current manifestations of female-voiced AI.
I attended their inaugural workshop recently at the Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol and found it to be highly educational and radical in its vision for women-led development of a feminist-centred AI. I and a group of women were informed of the harmful gender biases in female-voiced AI development, the problems with using corporate data to programme AI and how we, as novice-coders, could collaborate to create a ‘feminist AI’.
As someone who has never coded before, I was curious to find out how Aga and Manton were going to develop an AI system with a group of novices. Using Google Assistant and programming software Dialogflow, Aga and Manton created a female-voiced personality fittingly called Feminist AI for the purposes of their workshop.
Programming works by inputting data from sources we considered feminists, such as Audre Lorde, Donna Haraway and Mary Wollstonecraft, and allocating it within the different intents, e.g. ‘career’, ‘relationship’ or ‘cyberfeminism’.
The software is fairly straightforward to use, once initiated, and users can continue curating the personality of Feminist AI after the workshop. This means that as the workshops continue, the number of users will grow, making this an increasingly collaborative project and women-led space for AI development.
Feminist AI transforms the capacity for what female-voiced AI systems can be. Instead of fulfilling requests like a secretary, Feminist AI is able to tell jokes using data sourced from Mae West quotes, provide career advice from Oprah Winfrey and expound intersectional feminism with the help of Reni Eddo-Lodge.
The workshop challenges the gender stereotypes we have been conditioned with – and which are reproduced in AI development – and encourages women to collectively develop a voice assistant that is anti-racist and anti-sexist.
To find out more, I interviewed Birgitte Aga (BA) and Coral Manton (CM) about their goals for the programme.
Why did you create the workshop?
BA/CM: We created the workshop out of concern that AI is shaping our shared futures – but lacked ‘female voices’.
This lack of representation is manifesting as AI voice assistants like Ok Google, Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Bixby using female names, identities and voices. Culturally we are used to hearing female voices in subordinate/service roles and therefore, on the whole, ‘we’ are more comfortable with a female-voiced AI assistant.
We do not want voice assistants to say ‘no’ to us – this is particularly problematic when research indicates virtual assistants find themselves fending off endless sexual solicitations and abuse from users. Some female AIs are programmed to deflect the comments; others respond with sassy, flirtatious comebacks, and some seemingly capitulate if users are persistent enough.
Only by standing up and reclaiming some of this space, and the development of these technologies themselves, can we start to design them from a more diverse and empowering world view. Activating women and challenging these representations of us, can bring change. For example, as a response to pressure an increasing number now have an option to change the gender of the voice to male.
Why is the workshop important?
BA/CM: The workshop is important to engage and inject women into a vital conversation about what they desire of future AI driven technologies, a conversation which so far women have largely been absent from.
These technologies, which are increasingly set to influencing the way we think, vote, act and communicate, the way in which we see the world, are designed by a non-representative, non-diverse, white male demographic. These workshops are a response to this lack of gender diversity in the development of AI systems and aims to empower women with the mindset and tools to reclaim these technologies.
Where do you see the workshop going?
BA/CA: Our goals are to do more workshops, engaging women on the issues around AI, sharing skills, developing workspaces and making a collective to develop a chatbot that asks questions about AI design from the point of view of women.
We would like the collective to develop beyond the workshops, taken on by other women all joining the development, adding their voices.
That women are not present in the design of future of AI technology is clearly worrying, but speaking to Ada and Manton shows that their visionary work can vitally reimagine our AI future by empowering women to reclaim AI technologies for themselves.
To find out more, visit: i-dat.org/women-reclaiming-ai-for-activism/
About the Authors
Coral Manton is an interdisciplinary artist, technologist, researcher and curator – part of the i-DAT Research & Design Collective. She is a Research Affiliate of the British Library, interested in the effect that underrepresentation of female histories and trolling/hijacking of female voices online has on future AI technologies. coralmanton.com
Birgitte Aga is an interdisciplinary artist, technologist, researcher and co-producer. She creates collaborative and data-driven work which speculates around the emergent dystopian/utopian relationship between humans and artificial intelligence technologies, driven by (biased) data and interacted with through natural language interfaces. birgitteaga.com/