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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Faculty from The University of Tokyo and Northwestern discuss gender and AI

On October 28, 2022, the Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs hosted a global and interdisciplinary Fireside Chat on Gender and Artificial Intelligence: Striving for social justice and protection of rights in the age of AI. 

The event featured faculty from The University of Tokyo and Northwestern University who discussed how societal structures have shaped AI and how AI, in turn, is transforming our societies and lives. Panelists drew on historic and current examples of how technology has created and exacerbated injustices and speculated on how digital technology and AI might be critically deployed in the future to support gender equity and promote peace. 

Northwestern Buffett Institute Executive Director and Associate Provost for Global Affairs Annelise Riles moderated the discussion, which included University of Tokyo Executive Vice President, Kaori Hayashi, a Professor of Media and Journalism Studies, Founding Director of the B’AI Global Forum, and a specialist in the status of women in journalism and the representation of women in media; Yuko Itatsu, Professor of History and Director of the B’AI Global Forum at the University of Tokyo, whose work advocates for a critical examination of the spread of AI in our societies; Amy Stanley, Wayne V. Jones II Research Professor in History at Northwestern, a social historian of early and modern Japan who specializes in women’s history; and Kate Compton, an assistant professor of computer science at Northwestern University who is also an artist and programmer designing AI that augments human creativity, including Tracery, which runs over 10,000 community-made bots on Twitter.   

Here are some of the top takeaways and recommendations from the generative conversations of this all-women panel: 

  • AI is behind every domain of our lives, yet it remains largely invisible. Increasingly, every aspect of contemporary life is mediated by artificial intelligence. For example, a daily activity such as using a cell phone generates data that is read, interpreted and used to serve us information deemed to reflect our interests and presented to us in an apparently neutral fashion as “news.” Artificial intelligence is behind this and many other everyday life processes, yet it remains invisible. Individuals do not fully understand how our data is gathered and used by artificial intelligence and seldom have a say in it.  
  • AI presents challenges and opportunities. AI presents specific challenges to women and LGBTQI+ communities because algorithms and the attention economy can amplify the voices of anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQI+ groups who spread hate online. For example, some anti-feminist online groups in Japan have echoed and adopted transphobic talking points from U.S.-based anti-feminist groups. However, just as algorithms can connect hate proponents transnationally, so can they connect feminist scholars, researchers and activists, uniting people across continents that would have been unlikely to meet offline and fostering their collaboration. 
  • Look for women-created and women-run digital spaces. Although mainstream digital spaces might give the impression that the internet is dominated by men, especially when it comes to the intersection of AI and programming or tech skills, there are a growing number of spaces for and by women and non-binary people. In these online spaces, women and LGBTQI+ can coalesce around specific interests, subcultures and political affiliations.  
  • AI is shaped by geopolitics and cultural context. The United States and China are the biggest national developers of AI, investing considerable money into its defense applications, and The European Union is the biggest proponent of strict regulation of AI technologies. Outside of these big players, the development of AI is limited or non-existent in many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Africa and South America. Yet, recent global surveys that asked people how they feel about AI development show an interesting discrepancy. While Americans and Europeans are pessimistic, seeing AI as a force that could severely limit individual and civil freedoms, people in Africa and South America are much more optimistic that AI can help bring about freedom and equality. Studies also show that people in diverse cultural contexts have different ideas about privacy and what constitutes ethical problems associated with AI. If regulation attempts of AI remain Western-centric, as they currently are, they risk missing important regional and cultural differences. 
  • We need critical AI Studies. Looking in hindsight at the social impact of various technological shifts throughout history shows us that the time to influence AI development is now. The goal of universities should be to host interdisciplinary conversations under the label of “Critical AI Studies,” with multiple stakeholders interested in evaluating potential applications of AI and their societal impact. This critical endeavor should strive to influence the AI industry and course-correct AI development in real time rather than respond to it. 
  • Computer programming is a skill as important as writing. Just as writing is not only for literature departments and people interested in becoming professional writers, computer programming is not only for computer scientists. In contemporary society, computer programming is an empowering skill, one that allows people to understand how data is gathered, analyzed and used. It is also a skill that anyone can use for creative, artistic and activist purposes, and that can be harnessed in a variety of social justice projects  

Northwestern Buffett Fireside Chats provide a forum for critical dialogue on global affairs. To view a recording of this event, click play below or visit the Northwestern Buffett YouTube Channel

View the Japanese translation of the event summary here.