Gender is a ‘big, big thing’ to get wrong — Google’s AI blocks pronouns like ‘him’ and ‘her’

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  • Gmail’s ‘Smart Compose’ AI feature has implemented a gendered pronouns ban.
  • While autocomplete suggestions will still include ‘you’ and ‘it’, they will no longer include ‘him’ and ‘her’.
  • Paul Lambert, Gmail’s product manager discovered the issue when writing an email to a female investor.
  • Unable to find an un-biased solution, Lambert and his team conceded to implementing the ban in lieu of gender being a ‘big, big’ thing to get wrong.
If you use Gmail then you were probably pretty amped about the ‘Smart Compose’ technology when it was introduced in May allowing one to complete sentences automatically. But Paul Lambert, Google’s product manager, revealed to Reuters that sentences will no longer autocomplete if there’s a gender in the mix.

Writing out pronouns like ‘it’ or ‘you’ will still be feasible but gender specific pronouns like ‘her’ and ‘him’ won’t be suggested automatically. That is because the technology giant is attempting to be inclusive and keep its predictive technology from offending its users.

Lambert spotted the issue when he was writing an email to a female investor when Smart Compose suggested, “Do you want to meet ‘him’?” instead of ‘her’.

“Not all ‘screw ups’ are equal,” Lambert told Reuters. Adding that gender is a “big, big thing” to get wrong.

Trying to be smarter

Smart Compose, specifically, is a subset of AI technology called ‘natural language generation’ (NLG). That means that it learns by studying patterns between how words are commonly used on emails and web pages.

So, while common phrases are easy enough to integrate, the algorithm is limited by certain generalities like ‘he’ and ‘him’ being used for an investor or engineer since the system detected that men have long dominated the fields of finance and science.

Lambert and his 15-member team tried other workarounds to the problem of gendered pronouns, but none resulted in bias-free results. Having no other feasible options at their disposal, they decided to implement a gendered pronoun ban which only affects fewer than one percent of Smart Compose cases.

Playing to businesses, consumers

Autocorrect has always been a bane for consumers, so much so that there are platforms like Autocorrect Fail, listicles on BuzzFeed, and albums on Pinterest exist to ridicule the extent to which autocorrect bungles.

But, if Smart Compose can keep from making the same errors, there’s a market opportunity for Google to build a reliable autocomplete solution.

Superior AI technology that can get around manual double-checking would be a huge boon, not only for consumers, but also for businesses looking for reliable strategy increase efficiency.
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