Ethics in tech - how the lack of diversity leads to poor design
Racist soap dispensers, sexist voice recognition, xenophobic cameras are just the tip of the iceberg for the lack of diversity in the tech industry.
I'm not sure if this post would stay here, since it's a topic that may be way too serious for DriveTribe's cheerful nature, but I'll write it anyways. You've probably seen this video by now, but just in case, watch it below to get the clear picture.
Racist soap dispenser
While for most people this is just a funny viral video, it highlight a much bigger issue in the tech industry - catastrophic lack of diversity! The soap dispenser in question contains a light sensor to determine proximity. The same tech has been used in the early days of smartphones and while cheap and easy to implement, it has proven to be inferior to infrared proximity sensors, which are now the gold standard. And trust me, there's nothing wrong to use it in a soap dispenser, as long as it's calibrated to recognise every colour shade of human skin. Apparently, a dark-skinned hand wasn’t light enough to register on the sensor
To solve such an issue, the manufacturer have to actually employ people with different skin colours to test and calibrate the sensor correctly, which clearly isn't the case. So it's not the machine that's being racist - it's the actual tech company. To make matters worse, the person in the video, Chukwuemeka Afigbo is a Nigerian man who ironically works for a tech company. But this is far from the only example . . or the worse.
Six years ago Google Photos and Flickr started to use an auto-tag system, developed to put an order in the messy user galleries by automatically assigning photo tags. And it was a great idea . . right until the moment black people were getting tagged on their own photos with the labels "ape" and "gorilla". While it was clear that one of the earliest AI system won't be perfect at launch, this has gone beyond bad! Both companies were forced to apologise, because the lack of diversity in their engineering department meant that nobody taught the AI to identify black people.
From all the companies that make digital cameras, you would think of Nikon, a Japanese manufacturer to play friendly with Asian people. You'd be wrong! It's been going from 2009 and there's no excuse for it - when an Asian person is in the frame and you press the shutter, the camera is popping a message on the display "Did someone blink?" You can imagine the feelings of Joz Wang, a Taiwanese-American, who's Nikon digital camera kept offering up that message, to which she responded with a blog post titled “No, I did not blink… I’m just Asian!”. This message still exist in the current range of Nikon cameras and although it hasn't been popping that often, you can easily find fresh complains about it in 2021! This begs the question - how many people of Asian heritage actually work at Nikon?
Voice and speech recognition sexism
A large scientific study has found a sexist issue with 96% of the voice and/or speech recognition software out there. Apparently male voices are much better recognised than female voices. The issue is very clear - the software has been trained with mainly male voices. Why? Because companies mainly employ males and secretly laugh at the term "female engineer". Mind you, this happens in 21st century and there is another nasty way females are being humiliated - payment! Even today, when a new gender is recognised every single day, females receive 20% less payment than men on average around the world! With the gap, of course being more pronounced in the tech industry!
The issue at hand
On the surface, some of these screw-ups like the soap dispenser can be viewed as funny - how can a non-sentient piece of tech be racist? But in reality, they show why diversity is so important in the most straightforward sense. After all, the company behind the dispenser probably wasn't being intentionally racist. They were, however, thoughtless.
Google’s own statistics reveal its tech departments are just 4 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic, 3 percent mixed-race and 70% males. Statistics on other tech giants show a similar story. It’s hardly a news to say the tech industry has a bad track record when it comes to diversity. Famous recent examples include the supposed “bro culture” of Uber and the disgruntled Google employee who recently released his “anti-diversity manifesto”.
Companies wanting to widen the diversity of their employees is not just a simple a case of liberal idealism, although that might often be part of it, but addressing a real issue. Technology is used by everyone, so it should be a reflection of everyone. If it doesn't do that, it doesn't work as well as it should!