Can machines think – and, if so, can they think critically about race and gender? Recent reports have shown that machine-learning systems are picking up racist and sexist ideas embedded in the language patterns they are fed by human engineers. The idea that machines can be as bigoted as people is an uncomfortable one for anyone who still believes in the moral purity of the digital future, but there’s nothing new or complicated about it. “Machine learning” is a fancy way of saying “finding patterns in data”. Of course, as Lydia Nicholas, senior researcher at the innovation thinktank Nesta, explains, all this data “has to have been collected in the past, and since society changes, you can end up with patterns that reflect the past. If those patterns are used to make decisions that affect people’s lives you end up with unacceptable discrimination.”
Robots have been racist and sexist for as long as the people who created them have been racist and sexist, because machines can work only from the information given to them, usually by the white, straight men who dominate the fields of technology and robotics. As long ago as 1986, the medical school at St George’s hospital in London was found guilty of racial and sexual discrimination when it automated its admissions process based on data collected in the 1970s.
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