At the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, all of our research and education activities are geared around building technology of some kind. The sciencey bits of tech are awesome. I love hearing from students and researchers about clever AI and ever-improving renewable energy tech.
Tech is fun. Tech is tinkering and finding and fixing and breaking and building. It’s playing with things and finding out how stuff works and then finding out how to get stuff to work better.
But we also need to recognise that there is a social, cultural, and political context to technology. That is, all technology is ultimately used by people and that people are diverse. Failing to recognise, value, and appreciate diversity leads to technologies that reinforce inequities or accessibility issues.
A recent example is that even the best facial recognition algorithms struggle to accurately identify non-white faces, and are particularly bad at recognising non-white female faces. The algorithm is only as good as the data behind it. Clearly the data in facial recognition has a strong bias towards white, male faces.
There are lots of other everyday examples where technology results in difficulties for some people. Think of the accessibility issues people who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices encounter on public transport, when a location is only accessible by stairs. Think of colour-coded information, and how difficult that can be for people with colour-blindness to interpret.
These are examples where diversity hasn’t been a strong consideration in a design process. There are also instances in which technology is reproducing and reinforcing diversity issues within STEM, including advertising algorithms displaying ads related to STEM more often to males than females.
College Dean, Professor Elanor Huntington, has said “I want to empower people to make a world we all want to live in. That starts with completely reimagining who makes our world, with what skills, and how they do it”.
This is a pretty good summary of the importance of diversity and inclusion for engineering and computer science! Professor Huntington is highlighting here that our world - social, political, technological - doesn’t just happen. We make our world. The thing is, we also experience our world very differently, largely depending on the forms of discrimination we face (or don’t face).
Technology touches all aspects of our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. I have great confidence in technology being a huge part of the solution to the ever-growing challenges we are facing this century. One recent example is the huge effort the ANU Makerspace invested to make free protective equipment for health workers on the frontline response to COVID-19. This effort made me particularly proud to be part of an institution that jumped into action to protect our community during a crisis.
But elsewhere, the lack of diversity in the design process of protective equipment has been devastating. Health workers in the UK National Health Service were using protective face shields based on a ‘male template’, despite the fact that 75 per cent of health workers in the UK are female. Ill-fitting protective equipment is putting women’s lives at risk (and other people who don’t fit the ‘template’). This would not have been an issue if smaller (predominantly female) faces and bodies had been considered in the design process of these pieces of equipment.
Facial recognition, public transportation systems, advertising algorithms, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are just a few examples of technologies that can be improved with greater recognition of diversity of users. But in order to do so, we need people who are attuned to different issues involved in every step of the design and building process. This simply will not happen while only 13 per cent of engineers in Australia are women, and this is only one element of diversity.
Tech will always be fixing and building and tinkering and improving stuff. Thinking about the social and political context in which technology is developed and deployed won’t make tech less fun. But it will make it more impactful, more important, and more effective.
Listen to Reimagine STEM
Want to find out more about engineering for social benefit and diversity? Check out Episodes 2 and 3 of our Reimagine STEM podcast!
Join our GEECS community
ANU staff and students can join our GEECS (Gender Equity in Engineering and Computer Science) networking space.