China, Sexism And Artificial Intelligence

Cultural attitudes are a worrying aspect of this AI powerhouse

In April, the Chinese AI business SenseTime became the world’s most valuable Artificial Intelligence startup, with a valuation of more than $3bn. The company, founded in 2014, is backed by many of the big names in Chinese tech – including Alibaba, who reportedly sought the biggest stake in the business with a $230m investment.

Whilst this growth is music to the ears of SenseTime investors, it is also part of a wider drive by in China to become world leaders in AI. With both private business and the government firmly behind this ambition, China is the perfect breeding ground for pushing the boundaries of AI technology. Enduring cultural attitudes towards women, however, give this technological success story a sting in its tail.

China aims for AI domination

The conditions for AI research in China are perfect. The country has a good supply of expert software engineers, an enormous pool of internet users to act as testers, and a government which collects and stores huge amounts of its citizens’ data. Freely available data is necessary for optimum AI development, as machine learning algorithms are trained by analysing examples. This last point is a key difference between China and the West – unlike many of the governments of the Western world, it appears the Chinese state has no qualms about closely monitoring its residents.

The most significant current buzz around AI in China lies in face and image recognition – a development which has largely been driven by the state. Earlier this year, the government rolled out a scheme to track its citizens with facial recognition technology, transforming its existing CCTV network into a nationwide platform for AI powered surveillance and data sharing. SenseTime, like other successful startups Megvii and Yitu, specialises in systems which analyse faces and images.

Along with this focus on facial recognition, however, AI is also being pursued in such avenues as product and vehicle identification, healthcare and robotics. It’s all part of China’s plan to become the world leader in AI by 2030 – a move that will give the Chinese economy a 26 per cent boost, and help the country in its overarching aim of becoming a world power.

Objectification in the workplace

China’s focus on AI development, as set out in a state plan released in July 2017, will integrate the country’s civilian, academic and military uses of AI, and turn the technology into a kind of national hobby. However, if the Chinese cultural attitudes of today are anything to go by, this development will inherit worryingly sexist undertones.

It isn’t controversial to say that attitudes towards women in China are problematic. Unmarried women face stigmatisation, mainstream advertisements are frequently sexist, and women routinely face gender discrimination in the workplace. In fact, in spite of national anti gender discrimination laws, it is common for job adverts in China to state ‘men only’ or ‘men preferred.’ This is noticeably rife in the technology sector. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Chinese job recruitment sites have a history of hosting adverts from internet giants Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu for posts that were only open to men. Where job offers are open to women, they sometimes stipulate requirements such as age, height and physical appearance that have nothing to do with a woman’s capacity for the role.

The report also found that female employees were used in promotional videos and images to attract men into jobs in the technology sector. Women have been described as “late night benefits” at tech companies, declared as making male employees happy at work, and as being incentives for men to join specific businesses. Whilst the companies concerned have apologised and promised to look into these incidents, they are a worrying indication of attitudes within the Chinese technology sector, and the Chinese workplace as a whole.

What AI learns from us

If you’re wondering what these sexist attitudes have to do with the development of AI, then consider the fact that this intelligent technology learns from what we feed into it. If AI picks up discriminatory views from data sets, or from the inherent bias of the engineers which programme it, then this will shape its understanding of the world and the decisions it makes. Sexist attitudes at Chinese tech companies, as well as a lack of diversity in their workforces, will lead to biased AI. This, when combined with China’s intention to integrate AI into all spheres of life, could enshrine these misogynistic and sexist views into Chinese culture for ever more.

These considerations make it clear that the ethical development of AI is just as important as its technical performance. China’s transition into an AI powerhouse is a concern for us all – not only because Western businesses stand to lose their competitive edge to the East – but also because the entire world is likely to be using Chinese AI in the future. We must hope that when AI becomes an everyday feature of our lives it conforms to our cultural values and ideals. If current attitudes are anything to go by, we are facing an uncertain ethical horizon.

Can the West withstand the Chinese drive towards AI supremacy? What should the technology sector do to combat sexism? How can we ensure the ethical development of AI? Share your thoughts and ideas.

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