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The cycle of women in robotics: from vicious to virtuous

AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: We must disrupt the cycle that leads to less women working in STEM

women in robotics
The Cycle of Women in Robotics: from Vicious to Virtuous

This is part of a blog series on women in STEM, with contributions throughout July from speakers at the Women in Science and Engineering Conference 2019

It is no secret that engineers and scientists around the world are disproportionately men and without disrupting this norm, the lack of women in STEM will continue to self-perpetuate.

Fewer women scientists leads to less studying or celebrating the experiences, successes and lives of women in relation to STEM. This gender data gap means robotics and AI solutions are created in a gendered way – reflecting the lived experience of men over women. This in turn means that women lose out on the benefits and disproportionately feel the downsides, which alienates them from STEM roles, bringing us back to where we started - a lack of women in STEM.

As an ethicist who studies the ethics of robotics and AI, I am consistently asking questions about how to design better robotics products in order to achieve what I call responsible robotics. Responsible robotics is about the design process as well as the product itself. It is concerned with the material from which the product is made, how it will interact with people, as well as the consequences of using it. The concept of a gender data gap provides a platform for asking questions specific to gender, diversity and inclusion in robotics. Giving voice – and therefore data – to women’s experiences with robots is one important obstacle to overcome in order to achieve the responsible design, development, and regulation of robotics.

In my early days as a research assistant I worked in a robotics institute in Canada. My role involved training surgeons on the various surgical robots and testing performance. Our focus was on how to measure accuracy and efficiency, but whilst accuracy in surgery is incredibly important, we also need to consider the bigger picture of how technology will impact in the contexts in which it is used. In surgery the pre and post-operative period are crucial for the well-being of the patient, as are the people responsible for patient support during these periods. Nurses will tell you that due to the introduction robots in surgery their entire role changed. New skills had to be learned and new responsibilities were delegated. For example, robotic surgery led to shorter hospital stays for patients, meaning that nurses had to train family members to care for their loved ones at home. However, none of this contributed to the evaluation of the robot. None of this is currently included in the history of the introduction of the surgical robot. And if this continues, none of this will be used to develop and implement the next generation of surgical robots.

Robots are also designed for other tasks like lifting, bathing, and feeding patients. And this trend extends well beyond the walls of the hospital. Robot vacuum cleaners, sanitizers, secretaries, educators, lovers, etc are all currently under development and in use. Each of these tasks and roles represent moments in which if we’re not careful the crucial experience of females could be missed to the detriment of society.

This is the vicious cycle we find ourselves in. The nature of robotics and AI makes vicious cycles like these for all kinds of vulnerable and underrepresented groups, not to mention the environment if we don’t consider electronic waste. We must find opportunities to disrupt this vicious cycle and turn it into a virtuous one, and this begins with closing the gender data gap. Such a task requires that we identify who is responsible for what? It also requires policy makers, educators, and heads of tech to foster inclusiveness in robotics, including intervening to increase the presence of women in STEM. It doesn’t have to mean turning every women into a roboticist, but acknowledging the fact that women and men experience the world differently and will both have invaluable insight into how robots should be designed and developed.

We also need to re-consider the kinds of (empirical) research we do to study the impacts of robots. Women will be users of and will be impacted by robot products, and it is time to give voice to their experiences. Employers, academics, and policy makers in the robotics space need to actively engage the female voice through qualitative and quantitative methods of study in human-robot interactions.

As Caroline Criado Perez in her book Invisible Women argues “When we are designing a world that is meant to work for everyone, we need women in the room”. Overcoming the gender data gap is not just about numbers or statistics; we need to hear the stories and experiences of women. Only then will we have the tools – and the data necessary to create better products and to shape our future with robots in an inclusive, ethical, and responsible way.

Aimee van Wynsberghe is co-director at the Foundation for Responsible Robotics and leads the development of a quality mark for robotics and AI products.