Monday 5 September 2016

A sexist encounter

Today I experienced my first instance of sexism in an academic setting. I went to a talk by a leading scholar in Artificial Intelligence on how it is to change 'everything'. The room was mostly men but there were some women. I found the talk interesting and while there were certain technical concepts I did not understand, there was a lot I was able to follow, especially in terms of connecting Machine Learning to the human brain.

When it came time to ask questions, I was the first person to raise my hand and nonetheless was the fifth person to have the microphone handed to. When I got the microphone I asked a two part question, the first about morality and ethics with regard to self-learning robots (making specific reference to points he made in the talk), giving an example about drones and automated decision making. The second part of my question was about robot agency and the posthuman and if he thought this kind of AI work would have positive social implications and effects with regard to gender and race.

The first thing he did when he answered was ask me if I had any children. When I said no, he said 'well, you will soon'. The audience laughed. Then he offered a pedantic allegory about how teaching robots to be moral is like teaching children to be moral and gave the example that if a child is burning ants, you teach him that is this wrong. He answered no part of my question. No one said anything and the Q&A continued as normal.

While it may be true that my question was too long and perhaps too 'Humanities' for this context, I thought it was nonetheless a worthwhile question and that scientists who work on this kind of research should be capable of answering questions about the social and cultural impact of their work on the world. I felt this especially deeply given that Art History, amongst other subjects have begun to make an effort at introducing interdisciplinary approaches and bridging gaps between the arts and sciences.

I am convinced that had a man asked this question, he would not have asked him if he was a father. Moreover, there are several more interesting, more intelligent and more respectful ways he could have addressed my question some of which include notions of subjectivity and morality, the possibility or impossibility of controlling robots, how he expects life will be like if and when we live amongst robots as equals, etc. I am truly disappointed by this exchange and sincerely hope that people within the technology and science fields are having important discussions such as these both amongst themselves and with scholars in the humanities and that this was an isolated instance of a paternalistic individual who lacks an open mind.

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