The digital future is female – but not in a good way

It’s depressing to realise that gorgeous, subservient fembots are on the march

Ava  has just been rolled out by Autodesk, a US design software company, where she is the face of customer support

Ava has just been rolled out by Autodesk, a US design software company, where she is the face of customer support

 

Last week I got a glimpse of the very near future that I did not like at all.

It was London Tech Week, an event blurbed as a “festival of tech and innovation” that lured thousands of people to an exhausting slew of conferences, dinners and parties across the city.

First, I went to a talk on Monday at Trainline, an online rail booking company I am partial to because it has a website that is remarkably easy to use and a boss named Clare Gilmartin who was the first chief executive I ever came across who had taken on the job when six months pregnant.

The event was billed as a chance to hear “the real reason there aren’t enough women in tech”. I expected the usual gripes about the dearth of female science students, too few female role models and too many female-unfriendly tech companies.

What I did not expect was the news that some things are getting worse. Women had just 12 per cent of the programming and software development jobs held by IT and telecoms professionals in the UK last year, down from 15 per cent in 2007, said Amali de Alwis, head of an outfit trying to get more women into tech jobs. In the US, the share of women in computing jobs slid from 36 per cent in 1991 to around 25 per cent in 2016.

‘Dugital human’

It is not entirely clear why this is so, but those numbers were on my mind the next day when I went to CogX, a tech fest devoted to artificial intelligence and other advancing technologies.

That is where I came across Ava, a “digital human” who takes the idea of the virtual assistant or chatbot to a new and unsettling level.

Unlike Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, who can bark at you from a speaker but are otherwise faceless nobodies, Ava looks and more or less talks like a person on your computer screen. She has just been rolled out by Autodesk, a US design software company, where she is the face of customer support for the thousands of architects and engineers who use the firm’s products worldwide.

Female helpers

She has sisters on the way. This year, the Daimler car company and NatWest bank said they were working with the same company behind Ava (New Zealand’s Soul Machines) to deliver their own lifelike digital female helpers. All are polite, helpful and in Ava’s case, strikingly gorgeous. In other words, they are precisely the sort of bots one might expect from a tech industry dominated by men.

At CogX, however, I discovered the person who had ushered Ava into the world at Autodesk was a 30-year-old woman named Rachael Rekart, director of machine assistance.

She told me nine of the 13 people on her team were also women and one of the first things she did when she took on the job of delivering Ava in 2016 was to make her a female too. (An earlier version was a digital man called Otto. )

Ms Rekart had heard all the arguments about servile female bots perpetuating dodgy stereotypes in an industry where women are already marginalised. She knew about the survey this year showing only 8 per cent of Americans could name a single female tech leader, and a quarter of those that could named Siri or Alexa.

Female empowerment

Yet for her, the new breed of artificially intelligent women such as Ava embody female empowerment.

Ava can solve 2,300 cases a day compared with a human’s paltry 25

“This is the next new revolution in technology,” she said. “They can think faster than us and learn faster than us. Why should they be male?”

Ava can solve 2,300 cases a day compared with a human’s paltry 25, and she can do each one in under five minutes while the human workforce takes an average of 1.5 days. She is so good that Autodesk’s human customer support staff are using her to help speed up their own work. And she is, by the way, non-white even though research suggested the company’s typically white male customers would have preferred a Caucasian.

I can see all this but I still find the looming army of digital female aides depressing. As Ms Rekart says, research shows people find female voices more “helpful and collaborative”. So Ava and her subservient ilk may well be the face of much of our artificially intelligent future. But if I had a daughter, that is not the sort of future I would ever want to see her joining. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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