A new technology solution designed to tackle unconscious gender, racial and cultural bias has been designed by a Trinity College Dublin team led by associate professor in sociology Anne Holohan. The technology, backed by the Enterprise Ireland Commercialisation Fund, is already being piloted at the university and will shortly go into trials with the Seattle Police Department and An Garda Síochána.
Tilt – transformation in learning and training – is a gamified platform powered by artificial intelligence engines that has the potential to change the way organisations deal with unconscious bias, says Prof Holohan.
"It is a role-playing game where players take on the role of a person who is different in some way to them. They play a 2D animated game in which they get to understand the perspective of someone who is different to themselves in key ways. Players gain knowledge as they go through the game, which involves everyday interactions between people."
For example, a man playing the role of a female character will gain insights into sexual objectification and how it affects women in their daily lives.
It’s not just about walking in someone else’s shoes. Players also get to see how other characters in the game interact with theirs, offering further insights into people’s behaviour.
“They get to see how their character sees the world and how the world sees them,” says Holohan.
Scale is among the key advantages of providing the training online. “There is no limit to the number of people who can play it. Role-play training already exists but it is expensive and difficult to organise for people to take part in person. Role-playing is a very powerful experience, and we are bringing it to more people.”
The game gives players and organisations measurable feedback. “It can score players on various different areas of knowledge and skills so that people know where they need to improve,” says Conor McNally, who is working with Prof Holohan on the commercialisation of the product.
“We can also give consolidated, anonymised scores to organisations. The goal is individual transformation and organisational transformation.”
Role-playing is a tried-and-trusted learning methodology. “The brain is very plastic, and we know that people can learn throughout their lives,” says Holohan. “The best way is to learn through doing. Playing the game allows the adult brain to use its plasticity to learn by practising new ways of doing things.”
The game also helps people to learn how they should react to and behave in certain situations, says McNally. “There are things you might let go, such as people putting another person down. You might think they are small things because they are not affecting you. But the game helps you see it as if you are the one experiencing it. It makes you much more mindful.”
The project has its origins in research work carried out by Prof Holohan in Kosovo at the beginning of the century and a later EU-funded research project that created game-based training for peacekeepers.
“That’s when we had the idea of creating an online solution for unconscious bias training,” says Holohan. The peacekeeper training project had looked at gender and cultural bias.
“I realised the same issues and biases exist in different settings and organisations. I made contact with Conor, who has expertise in start-up development, and we applied for Enterprise Ireland commercialisation funding.”
That funding has been critically important for the success of the project, says McNally. “The Commercialisation Fund has been amazing. I’ve been involved in start-ups outside of the university setting, and getting initial funding can be very difficult.
“The great thing about starting up in a university with Commercialisation Fund support is that it gives you the proper funding to commercialise intellectual property and work with different partners at a very early stage.”
The fund is designed to assist the creation of technology- based start-up companies in higher education institutes and other research performing organisations.
"Our role is to try to find research ideas that are too early for venture capital funds and so on to invest in and help them get to commercial reality," says Enterprise Ireland senior commercialisation specialist Tom Melia.
“This is a very exciting project which has the potential to make a fundamental difference to people’s lives. We are working with them to get the project to a stage where people will invest in it and get the product to a point where people will want to buy it.”
All going well with the pilot trials, the aim is to launch a spin-out company before the end of the year. “There is a wealth of knowledge and research in the social sciences, and we want to get it out there in a useful way,” says Holohan. “We are at that in-between stage in commercialising the project, and Enterprise Ireland has been very supportive in bridging that gap.”