By Jade Francine, Co-Founder and COO of WeMaintain
In 2018, Kriti Sharma asked in the Harvard Business Review if it was even possible to prevent biases from “creeping into AI”. Two years later, sophisticated technology, including voice assistants, such as Siri, and automated facial recognition technology, or AFR, continue to show biases against certain demographics, including women and people of colour.
In the UK, the school exams chaos showed how an apparently complex algorithm could be biased against pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Facebook continues to be called out for its perceived failure to remove racial bias in its AI.
But the failure of technology companies to include a diversity of voices in the development of new tech is not restricted to these examples. In the world of property maintenance, for example, the people who will have to use the technology are rarely included in the discussion about how it should work. Engineers say they are not involved in conversations about how a piece of software should be made to optimise their work, but this does not just mean that an opportunity to make their work more efficient has been missed. Poorly thought-out technology can even complicate their work, or—as in the case of tracking software that tracks the movement of engineers—put more pressure on their shoulders than is necessary.
And in much of the world, including continental Europe and Latin America, the contributions of blue-collar workers to important debate surrounding technology that they will have to use are frequently dismissed or ignored—if those workers are even allowed to have a collective voice in the first place.
There are reports of entire teams being given technology they don’t even want to use, including smartphones that might be fashionable but are not the best of the options out there if the work is to be done well. This is not only pointless, but expensive. And the only way it can happen is if the decision-makers within a company are not involving their entire team, right down to the most “junior” level, in the decision-making process.
If tech is really to empower people, then it must include those people who would be empowered by it. Otherwise what emerges is a kind of noblesse oblige, with the most powerful believing they know what those “below” them need better than they do. What is happening within companies is just a microcosm of what is happening on the global scale, with a small group of companies and people developing technology for everyone that somehow fails to take into account entire swathes of the planet. It is easier to get it right in the first place, then have to find ways to alter complex technology once that technology is mature.
But this problem also sheds light on one that is more easy to recognise and now familiar in many businesses across many sectors. And that’s the problem of inclusion as opposed to diversity: not just bringing diverse voices into a business, but actually empowering those people. Without that inclusion—without creating a space in which everyone feels comfortable speaking, and in which everyone is being heard—diversity counts almost for nought. It becomes a way for businesses to signal their virtue or their progressive credentials. This is not only hollow, but bad for business. A wealth of data shows that diversity is good for business. As the World Economic Forum put it in April 2019, “The business case for diversity in the workplace is now overwhelming.”
Just as trying to change complex technology once it’s mature is harder than developing it in the right way to begin with, it is hard for a business to change its approach once that business is large and profitable. And can also understand why a successful business would be reluctant to make fundamental changes. But a genuine change in approach that allows for technology within a business to be truly inclusive necessitates a willingness to do exactly this: to change the vision, the mission statement—even the way of thinking.
But in the long run, what might be an expensive and labour-intensive task will be justified by its results.