Gender is personal – not computational
Posted by admin on 15th May 2018

Imagine walking down the street and seeing advertising screens change their content based on how you walk, how you talk, or even the shape of your chest. These screens rely on hidden cameras, microphones and computers to guess if you’re male or female. This might sound futuristic, but patrons in a Norwegian pizzeria discovered it’s exactly what was happening: Women were seeing ads for salad and men were seeing ads for meat options. The software running a digital advertising board spilled the beans when it crashed and displayed its underlying code. The motivation behind using this technology might have been to improve advertising quality or user experience. Nevertheless, many customers were unpleasantly surprised by it.

This sort of situation is not just creepy and invasive. It’s worse: Efforts at automatic gender recognition – using algorithms to guess a person’s gender based on images, video or audio – raise significant social and ethical concerns that are not yet fully explored. Most current research on automatic gender recognition technologies focuses instead on technological details.

Our recent research found that people with diverse gender identities, including those identifying as transgender or gender nonbinary, are particularly concerned that these systems could miscategorize them. People who express their gender differently from stereotypical male and female norms already experience discrimination and harm as a result of being miscategorized or misunderstood. Ideally, technology designers should develop systems to make these problems less common, not more so.

Using algorithms to classify people

As digital technologies become more powerful and sophisticated, their designers are trying to use them to identify and categorize complex human characteristics, such as sexual orientation, gender and ethnicity. The idea is that with enough training on abundant user data, algorithms can learn to analyze people’s appearance and behavior – and perhaps one day characterize people as well as, or even better than, other humans do.