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Oxford Conference Challenge: Realizing Diversity, Inclusion, and Sustainability

This article is reprinted from an article published on Nikkei XTECH in Japanese on November 27, 2019.

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Facilitators from each workshop gather on stage to share workshop discussions

On September 16, 2019, a conference “100+ brilliant women in AI & ethics” was held at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. At the one-day conference, in addition to keynote speeches, workshops were held on four topics: (1) algorithms and society, (2) the world of work, (3) data and decision-making, and (4) AI and global governance.

The topic itself is not unique compared to other AI ethics and governance conferences. What was outstanding was that among approximately 150 participants, most were women. I have attended a number of conferences, but this is the first time I have seen so many women in a room at an AI conference.

The Theme of AI and Women

The importance of the topic “AI ethics and women” is related to activities to increase the female population involved in information technology research, including STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. One of the reasons why more women need to be involved is that there are several cases where women are disadvantaged because some IT systems disregard the existence of women (and include even little or no women’s data) when designing AI and learning data, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is still fresh in our memory that Amazon.com abandoned the development of an AI recruitment system biased against women in October 2018.

When we think about the social needs of technology as well as data and algorithms, we need feedback not only from women but also from diverse perspectives. The women who participated in this conference are involved in AI from various fields, sectors, and standpoints, and the content of discussions was as high quality as at other “AI ethics” conferences.

What Was Actually Discussed Was the Power Problem

It is not that all the talk was gender-specific because there were only women. In fact, many of the participants said they should be aware that they were in the majority in that they themselves had the time and position to participate in such meetings.

For example, a session on “work of the future” discussed how the development of AI could absorb the voices and concerns of people in real poverty, in the Global South and other developing countries who would be deprived of jobs or would need to be reeducated. From the point of view of the vulnerable, the importance of protecting children from having their data used and being profiled was also discussed. However, rather than alienating them from technology or procrastinating on the issue, it is important to actively involve them in technology to make them aware of these issues and provide them with a place to discuss and develop literacy. Some speakers were engaged in these specific activities.

As can be seen from these remarks and specific activities, the core issue was not only gender, but also how to confront the problems of power embedded in society from the standpoint of the socially vulnerable and those who cannot speak out, and how to co-design social activities to include diverse people.

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The conference took place at Lady Margaret Hall College in Oxford, the first women’s college

The Difficulty of Diversity, Inclusion and Sustainability in Practice

“AI ethics and women” does not exclude men from discussions. The idea is to invite people who have been unable to attend meetings due to physical or psychological constraints and to make it easier for anyone to attend. The inclusion of the term “women” was just used as a symbol. One of the organizers said in a greeting that by this means, she could confidently say “yes” when asked by a male participant if he could bring a child to a similarly conceived event organized in the past.

Involving youth is also important. In a session before the lunch break, there was a winners’ prizegiving and presentations event, celebrating the first- and second-place winners on essays and an art contest “About AI” for high school students. The contest, which was organized by Oxford University in conjunction with the plenary session, was an attempt to bring the opinions of young people to the conference. Many university and graduate students interested in the field also attended the conference, and the age range was wide.

The conference also paid attention to sustainability. This was a “carbon-neutral” event in which trees were planted to offset total greenhouse gas emissions from travel, food, and electricity use during the conference. The organizers also tried not to use plastic or disposable plates and cups for the conference meal, which was vegetarian, used recycled paper for the program, and reduced the use of paper overall.

On the other hand, it is very difficult for organizers to secure diversity and embrace various people. For example there are issues that require little considerations in “ordinary” meetings such as whether the building is barrier-free, whether it is safe for participants to bring their children and parents, how to ensure privacy and safety when the presenters are teens, or whether there is a catering company that can take the environment into consideration. Moreover, these requirements must be completed within the budget.

Furthermore, it is difficult to consider diversity “perfectly” so as not to lose sight of the quality and purpose of the content addressed. Therefore, it is important not to aim for perfection from the beginning. Starting where it is possible, get feedback if there is a problem and take that into consideration next time. Flexibility is required.

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The conference was organized as a carbon-neutral event

How the Event Was Organized and Future Perspectives

The conference itself was triggered by an idea of an Indian-American woman. Ms. Mia Dand, CEO of Lighthouse 3, posted “12 Brilliant Women in Artificial Intelligence & Ethics to Watch in 2018″ on her blog in 2018. Although there was support for this post, she received feedback that more women were active. So, she made a list of 100 women in 2019.

The list received considerable feedback, and Ms. Dand was contacted by many people who want to hold events on “women and AI ethics.” This time, Oxford University contacted all the women on Ms. Dand’s list and invited them to the event, and discovered those women who were active although they were not on the list.

Even though the list has 100 women, Ms. Dant admits that it is still skewed toward the West. Also, many of the conference participants were from Europe owing to geographical proximity. To expand the network further, Ms. Dand established a new website “Women in AI Ethics Council” with an online directory that aims to recognize and empower talented women in AI ethics around the world­­. She will be publishing the Women in AI Ethics list for 2020 in December to continue this important work and to encourage new diverse voices in this critical space.

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Ms. Mia Dand releasing her new website

Diversity and Inclusion in Japan

In Japan, diversity, inclusion, and sustainability are also treated as important concepts with respect to AI governance. The “Social Principles of Human-Centric AI” were published by the Integrated Innovation Strategy Promotion Council in Japan, March 2019. The document lists the following three points as its “basic philosophy.”

1.Dignity: A society that has respect for human dignity
2.Diversity and Inclusion: A society where people with diverse backgrounds can pursue their own well-being
3.Sustainability: A sustainable society

The three values are described as the ideal social image that Japan pursues. Goals can vary depending on the application, culture, and context of AI technology. For this reason, the principles indicate the priorities to which attention should be paid and the attitudes that should be taken to realize the target society.

However, to what extent is the diversity and inclusion of the principle committee members ensured? Among the 25 members, four are women, about 13.8%. When we turn to the European Commission’s “Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI,” which was published at the same, 22 among 51 members were women, or about 43.1%.

Of course, diversity and inclusion in the selection of committee members have other considerations besides gender, such as expertise and sector. It is also understandable that a diversity of expertise is a priority in an “expert meeting.” There is also the question of defining what diversity and inclusion mean. However, a comparison with a similar report compiled around the same time suggests that Europe is more concerned than Japan with the diversity of gender balance.

Perspectives and Challenges to Invisible Structures

When organizing a conference and agenda, attention should be paid not only to the content and purpose of the discussion, such as ”what,” but also to the implicit customs and power structure behind the format, such as “who” and “in what environment” the meeting is held.

For example, when participating in events both at home and abroad, I often encounter conferences where diversity and inclusion are the preconditions, but there is no diversity among the speakers. At that time, one of the reasons given is ”I aimed to invite more diverse people, but there was no suitable candidate.” I often organize meetings on AI, and I also often gave up because of the aforementioned difficulties and lack of resources.

However, the reason “I aimed to make [the event] as diverse and inclusive as possible, but I could not” is synonymous with “I did not look for it.” Ms. Dand searched and discovered 100 people and she is still updating the database to make it accessible to everyone. The participants who introduced the various activities, including organizers of Oxford University, are trying to increase and nurture the female population related to information technology, including high school students and young people.

What we have to do now is not about picking people from a database created by others and “looking for” or pulling out people who are already active. We have to discover, nurture, and support people who are engaged in the topics of diversity, inclusion, and sustainability. The conference gave me a valuable opportunity to experience the importance and impact of taking on the challenge of creating an environment that attracts people who have not been able to participate in the past while paying attention to the tacit customs and power structures that constitute the existing conferences and social structures.

Written by Arisa Ema