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feminists of the world unite!



Rewriting HERstory...

Sexism 2.0. Why Robocop and his friends should keep feminists awake.

Lady robotWhile artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming a part of everyone’s life whether that is at the office, at school or at home, few are those who question and care about the sources and possible impact of AI on our future generations. It is not the amount of blockbusters displaying apocalyptic scenes of humanoid robots taking over the world that is lacking, though none of them seem to tackle the possible challenge machines might represent in our struggle toward a more equal and humanist society. Recent studies however suggest the danger is real as they highlight AI tend to be sexist and racist[1] and besides the way robots act, the way they look and what they are created for also reflects and reinforces a stereotypical civilization.

Information processing programs at the basis of AI use algorithms to connect pieces of information and extract requested data. We are now all acquainted with the most common predictive search engines which use the same technique to answer all our questions. A very simple test in Google for example might give you an idea of how close-minded algorithms can be: when looking for images of a CEO, a Manager or a Doctor, the white male is obviously prominent while the role of teacher and secretary, according to Google, seems to be reserved to the white, good-looking female – not rarely with quite sexual features. When AI is constructed based on data which reflects our own unequal and stereotypical society, you basically program machines to learn our own biases. While in some cases researchers can no longer deny the problem and try to compensate this phenomenon, one could expect for most actors in this highly competitive industry not to care about the consequences of their programs as it would cost more time and money to do so and, especially, as most of the engineers (typically benefiting from socially dominant norms) developing those robots, do not feel concerned by potential biases which will de facto reinforce their own privileges. As machines learn and adapt from their original coding, they become less transparent and predictable which makes it difficult to keep track of the complex interactions of the original algorithms and data. You thus lose control pretty fast on the output and related actions of your revolutionary Android. Robots can’t learn instinctively and follow ethical rules as long as those are not programmed. They do not question themselves or remain open to change their “mental” constructions based on personal experiences. You can’t educate robots to obtain mentality changes but, at the same time, it seems like robots are increasingly going to “educate” future generations of humans and progressively replace them in decision making processes. If one does not pay attention on the potential biases AI assimilates by feeding it with stereotypical data, vicious circles are created in which human users receive the information, possibly without questioning it, and simply copy-paste it into the next generation of robots. When this is the case, you maintain – and through potential uncontrolled mechanisms – reinforce sexist ideas and misconceptions about all kinds of minorities which are not or much less present in the conception of AI. While we strive for a more equal society, computer sciences might consequently catch us up by creating a new generation of decision makers and masters which – instead of smoothing out stereotypes – enforces them.

Besides its sexist way of thinking, our humanoid robot-friend might as well become an enemy to women more then to men by the role he will be given. Potential competition of AI in the marketplace is a well-addressed issue so far and it is known that the risk is clearly higher for women. We might expect that the first industries, i.e. the service industries, to successfully embrace the use of robotics to replace their human resources will be those mainly employing women and, in Western countries, especially women with foreign backgrounds facing higher risks of precariousness.

In order to make robots more acceptable, they need to be more human-like. In our gendered societies this unfortunately means robots need to be gendered. Today, the typical gynoid (a humanoid robot that is gendered female) exhibits the most stereotypical characteristics of women one can imagine. And as this wasn’t enough, a new generation of “hot lady robots” are now becoming a serious trend. Just google it and you might well be surprised of the lack of creativity of our so-called computer engineering geniuses. The integration of human characteristics in robotics, disclosed a research paradigm known as the Computer Are Social Actors (CASA) theory which suggests that people react to computers and robots in a similar way they interact with other social entities[2]. In fact, several research studies have shown female robots are generally expected to be compliant, having communal personality traits, being more focused on humans then on themselves and thus, being at the service of their owner. Male robots, on the other hand, are more generally considered being able to control the environment, having, sometimes, more power than human beings. People tend to trust male robots (even if this is limited to a male voice) more when it comes to technical support as they are considered to be more intelligent and autonomous.  It needs no further explanation to imagine the damaging effect of enforcing these stereotypical concepts within computer engineering. Unfortunately, it seems like this is exactly what is happening. When developing service oriented programs and robots, female features (physical traits, voice,…) are often preferred while guard robots are typically represented through male features. Before we know, the robot community will bring us back to the ‘50s.

As daily interactions with humanoid robots are no longer fiction and we expect for those interactions to shape the way humans gather and process information becoming increasingly dependent of AI, it is time for us to give this issue more weight on the feminist agenda. Concretely, one should make sure to address the ethical risks of programming AI within standard training modules of computer science and engineering. Women should be increasingly represented within the area in order to assure a gender balance among the creators of our future. The same applies to minorities and less-privileged groups of our society. Laws and control-instances should be set up for AI to be screened and corrected for sexist, racist and other biases. All these measures should be self-evident as much as the need for awareness-raising among next generations for them to remain critical toward AI. The more humans will support equality, the more humanistic Robocop and his friends will be. However, time is running short as the first humanoid robots are standing at the door and might as well surpass our good intentions…

[1] See: “Bad News: Artificial Intelligence Is Racist, Too. By Stephanie Pappas In: Live Science Contributor. April 13, 2017.” and “Just like humans, artificial intelligence can be sexist and racist. On: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/machine-learning-bias-prejudice

[2] Tay B.T.C., Park, T., Jung Y., Wong A.H.Y. (2013). When Sterotypes Meet Robots: The Effect of Gender Stereotypes on People’s Acceptance of a Security Robot. In: Harris D. (eds) Engineering Psychology and Cognitive Egonomics. Understanding Human Cognition. EPCE 2013. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 8019. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.


Let’s talk about sex! Before they do…

By Barbara De Witte


I am about 10 years old. Mum took us with her to see her best friend who owns a little library in the big City. While the ladies are cheerfully chatting, I’m trying to kill time strolling around the shop while exploring some magazines. Suddenly I notice my oldest sister in a corner of the shop, waving with a magazine and whispering for my other sister and myself to come closer. I shuffle toward her, curious but vigilant and unexpectedly there we are, my sisters (about 11 and 12) and I, gazing at a particularly, unusual kind of magazine. The kind of magazine I have been avoiding ever since. The image I got to see is still burned into my memory. A young, blond woman with a typical 80’s haircut totally naked except for a mini bikini-top with US flag print, barely covering her nipples. Besides her funny hair, she looks gorgeous. Perfect body with too perfect boobs. The woman stares into the camera, showing off her best, fake smile. She stands straight on her feet, her legs spread wide open. In front of her, a man is kneeling, looking at her, smiling as well. His fist disappears in between her legs. At that exact moment, I know I saw something I wasn’t supposed to see. Something only adults are supposed to see. For a while, I secretly hope I’ll never grow older. This doesn’t feels right. This can’t be true. Nobody ever prepared me for this. I understand very well what this is but I never imagined it that way before. Mum had lost us out of sight just for a while. It happens. I was too young but eventually, this would have happen.

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Aan Meneer Jan Verheyen en consoorten: The game is on!

Ja… het is weer zo ver. Ik moét er iets over zeggen of het nu iemand een moer kan schelen of niet. Het zal de zoveelste monoloog zijn omtrent de metoo-hashtag en net omdat ik voor de zoveelste keer in de krant las dat alweer een andere populaire ego-tripper er perse zijn mening over kwijt moest omdat hij dat hele hashtag gedoe overdreven vindt (ik zal wél namen noemen Meneer Jan Verheyen, aangezien u dat zo belangrijk vindt[1]), doe ik er graag nog een schepje bovenop! Na twee weken zal het wel welletjes zijn denkt Meneer Verheyen. Hij refereert dan wel specifiek naar de Weinstein-heisa maar wat Meneer niet lijkt te begrijpen is dat dat slechts het puntje van de ijsberg is en dat ontelbare vrouwen dankbaar zijn dat dit eindelijke de deur opende om hun verhaal te doen. Wie meent dat het nu wel mag stoppen, vraag ik zeer beleefd “en wanneer mag het dan voor ons stoppen?”. Denkt u dan dat ik na 32 jaar niet genoeg heb van die gratis “complimentjes”, die constante dubbelzinnigheid, de opgedrongen voorzorgen om een minimum aan veiligheid te garanderen op straat, op het werk en op café? Ik zet “complimentjes” zeer bewust tussen haakjes want een compliment is het niet voor mij om publiekelijk nagefloten te worden, om opmerkingen te krijgen over mijn uiterlijk of avances te krijgen op het werk, écht niet. Maar ja, dat is dan weer een ander argument dat regelmatig de kop opsteekt: wij overdrijven wellicht, wij vrouwen beseffen niet dat dat allemaal goed bedoeld is. Het is toch waar, ocharme die mannen, die willen gewoon wat aandacht. Serieus? Denkt er nu echt één van die mannen dat ik mij zal omdraaien en een praatje zal slaan om dan uiteindelijk met hem naar huis te keren? Neen, die zogenaamde complimentjes, dat is pure intimidatie. Een diepgeworteld machtsspel. Niet meer of minder. Makkelijker als je met vrienden of collega’s bent trouwens. Dan voel je je nog machtiger en kan je meteen indruk maken op die andere mannen of eens goed lachen. Hoe stoer. Nog gezelliger als je in de auto zit, veilig geborgen in jouw koetswerk, klaar om gas te geven zodat je jouw acties niet hoeft te verantwoorden. Maar ook alleen in het park of terwijl je een wildvreemde vrouw gewoon voorbij loopt. Waarom niet, als je je sterk genoeg voelt? Een opkickertje doet altijd deugd aan zijn ego en hoe die ene vrouw zich daarbij voelt, dat is het minst van zijn zorgen.

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Why I am a feminist and saying it out loud feels as natural as saying I am a human being.

door Barbara De Witte

I shouldn’t be writing this post in the first place. Firstly because I shouldn’t be justifying myself for identifying as a feminist. Second, because I’m the umpteenth person, over many centuries, doing this so it’s getting pretty old. However, as it appears, I’m asked to explain why I call myself a feminist in many different occasions and while it seems “feminism” is back on track but many consider it to be just a hype, I guess it is no waste to remind what feminism, at least to me, is really about anyway. It might seem boring to some or totally meaningless to others. I do hope, though, some will read through the end and recognize themselves, maybe even feel slightly comforted. In the worst case, I will only help myself spill out some thoughts to feel better. So be it. I guess I can live with that.

Continue reading “Why I am a feminist and saying it out loud feels as natural as saying I am a human being.”

Carnisme: symptoom van het patriarchaat?

'I'm a vegetarian.' - 'If it's so wrong to eat animals, why are they made out of meat?'

Het borrelde al een tijd lang in mijn hoofd maar de absurditeit van het onderwerp hield me tegen hier een stuk over te schrijven. Ik hoorde de commentaren al van ver: “Die feministen weten niet wat uitvinden!”… Hoe kon ik dit onderwerp ook aansnijden zonder als hysterische amateur bestempeld te worden? En plots kruiste zij mijn pad: Professor Melanie Joy en haar controversiële theorie rond vleesconsumptie.

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Pornoficatie en Seksueel Geweld bij Jongeren, Wie Maalt erom?

door Barbara De Witte


We hebben het op deze blog al meermaals gehad over de pornoficatie van onze samenleving, de link met het patriarchaat en de objectivering van de vrouw. Het ontbreekt zeker niet aan wetenschappelijke studies om aan te tonen wat voor impact de steeds toegankelijkere pornocultuur heeft op de manier waarop mannen én vrouwen zichzelf en hun (seksuele) relaties beschouwen. Tenslotte puilt ook de (selectieve) media uit van opiniestukken omtrent het onderwerp. Wat echter opvalt is dat de mainstreammedia zelden posities inneemt en opvallend weinig linken legt tussen de, intussen genormaliseerde, pornocultuur  en perverse faits divers.

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Op weg naar een feministische geneeskunde?

door Barbara De Witte

Het medische tijdschrift JAMA publiceerde onlangs een opmerkelijk artikel getiteld: “Patients treated by female docs have lower risks of death.”. Uit het onderzoek dat in dit artikel beschreven werd, bleek dat oudere patiënten die verzorgd werden door vrouwelijke artsen, vier percent minder kans hadden om te sterven binnen de maand na de dag van opname in het ziekenhuis in vergelijking met patiënten die door mannelijke artsen werden opgevolgd. Bovendien hadden patiënten van vrouwelijke artsen 5 percent minder kans om opnieuw opgenomen te moeten worden binnen de maand na het verlaten van het ziekenhuis.

Continue reading “Op weg naar een feministische geneeskunde?”

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