Robots aren't racist

Cathy Brown
Cathy Brown, Policy & Research Manager, DCA

From the time I was 15 years old and for over seven years, I worked Thursday nights and weekends in the cash office at my local supermarket. My job involved collecting cash from the checkouts at the front of the store, counting it into piles of matching notes, reconciling it, and banking it in the store safe.

Sometimes I also did the pay run, which involved putting cash in an orange envelope for each employee.

Having a part-time job was just what was expected in the 90s. It was a rite of passage. You could earn your own money, make some new friends and most importantly learn to negotiate a world outside school and home.

But when I look at how much of my high-school job has now been automated, I wonder what sort of part-time jobs my kids will have when they’re in high school.

For one thing, computers can sort and count money faster than I ever did.

Disruption will impact on the labour market in a number of ways. The Foundation for Young Australians estimates that about 60 per cent of young people are being trained for professions that will be radically altered in the next 10 to 15 years.

Jobs will be disappearing and we don’t yet know what will replace them. The best guess is that roughly 40 per cent of today’s jobs will be replaced within the next 10 to 15 years. And that is jobs across the economy. Self-driving cars will soon take over much of our public transport.

And with the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), computers are going to replace all sorts of knowledge jobs. AI has already developed capabilities to do the work currently undertaken by lawyers and accountants. Already hospitals in Australia are experimenting with automated pharmacy dispensaries.

So it is no exaggeration to say that this will be a massive shift in the way we work. But beyond the disruption to the types of jobs we will do in the future, what about the workplaces of the future?

Or, as I like to put it, what will the robots mean for diversity and inclusion?

Senator Jenny McAllister wrote recently about how gender equality will be impacted by technology, because “as automation takes over, profits will sit with those who own the technologies”. And currently, that is overwhelmingly men.

Not just that, but technology is a heavily male dominated industry. And that is impacting on the way new technologies are designed. It was not all that long ago that speech recognition software didn’t recognise women’s voices.

Already we are seeing these biases in things like searches on the internet. It has been shown that Google’s recommendation algorithm which serves up job adverts is more likely to recommend high-prestige and high-paying jobs to men than to women.

It’s not just gender, either. There is a robot in America that makes sentencing decisions, but it has been found to disproportionately sentence African American men

Also, what will it also mean for people with disability, people from other cultural backgrounds, queer people? Will it impact more on migrant and refugee communities?

Google was also spotlighted recently because of some of the distasteful autocomplete options it offered when people entered the terms “are women”, “are Jews” or “is homosexuality”. Google was quick to take action, but as their spokesperson pointed out “Autocomplete predictions are algorithmically generated based on users' search activity and interests”.

So in other words, it’s not the robots being sexist, racist or homophobic, it’s the people who program them, and in this instance the people who use Google.

For me, this is actually where things do look bright for a diversity and inclusion agenda.

I have no idea what the jobs of the future will be. But what predictions have in common is that there will be a diverse set of skills required.

Automation is happening in an increasingly globalised world. And operating in a global world requires the sorts of skills that can only come from having a diverse workforce.

Adaptability and entrepreneurship will be key, including the ability to respond to uncertainty and deal with unpredictability.

For those interested in inclusion, this list of skills will be sounding familiar. Because these are the sort of skills that come specifically from having a diverse and inclusive workforce.

Diversity already has a clear financial pay off. According to McKinsey (2015) companies in the top quartile for recent gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. DCA’s research and other recent  Australian studies have found that the higher the proportion of senior leaders who have cultural training, speak an Asian language or have lived and worked in Asia for more than three months, the more likely business performance will exceed expectations.

But more and more, we will need the creative pay-off that only disparate teams can bring.

It is diverse thinking that will disrupt bias in design before it is implemented.

If there had have been women on the team developing the early voice recognition software, then I doubt that it would have been developed without being able to recognise women’s voices.

And new technologies will also shape the way we can recruit and develop diverse workforces to begin with.

Pascale Fung from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology argues that

One way to defeat the discrimination of recommendation engines and to boost gender parity in the work force is to train the recommendation engines on a broader diversity of users and to enable the engines to do a better job of reading people’s intentions.”

And then what about robots conducting job interviews? We are already experimenting with “blind CVs” but what about taking this one step further and having AI do the sorting in the first place?

So what do the robots mean for diversity and inclusion?

We don’t know yet. But we do know that diversity and inclusion is important for the robots. 

Cathy Brown

Cathy is DCA’s Policy & Research Manager. She has a background as a political and policy advisor across a range of offices in Government and Opposition. Cathy is passionate about equality, diversity and inclusion and is a community activist for LGBTI people and their families.

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