artificial intelligence

Cinematic depictions of AI scientists reaffirm gender disparities, study reveals

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Just 8 per cent of all depictions of AI professionals in films are women, a statistic that researchers fear could lead to an uneven balance of genders in the workplace and a higher risk of gender bias seeping into the algorithms set to define the future.

A University of Cambridge study found that cinematic depictions of AI scientists “are so heavily skewed towards men” that a “cultural stereotype” has been established which may contribute to the shortage of women now working in AI development.

The team from the University’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (LCFI) whittled down over 1,400 films to the 142 most influential cinematic works featuring artificial intelligence between 1920 and 2020, and identified 116 characters they classed as 'AI professionals'.

Of these, 92 per cent of all AI scientists and engineers on screen were men, with representations of women consisting of a total of eight scientists and one CEO. This is higher than the percentage of men in the current AI workforce (78 per cent).

Researchers argue that films such as 'Iron Man' and 'Ex Machina' promote cultural perceptions of AI as the product of lone male geniuses.

Of the eight female AI scientists to come out of 100 years of cinema, four were still depicted as inferior or subservient to men.

The first major film to put a female AI creator on screen did not come until the 1997 comedy 'Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery', with the character Frau Farbissina and her ‘Fembots’.

This dearth of on-screen depictions may be linked to a lack of women behind the camera, the researchers postulate.

Depending on how directors’ gender is counted, not a single film looked at for the study with an AI plotline was directed solely by a woman.

“Gender inequality in the AI industry is systemic and pervasive,” said co-author Dr Kanta Dihal. “Mainstream films are an enormously influential source and amplifier of the cultural stereotypes that help dictate who is suited to a career in AI.

“Our cinematic stock-take shows that women are grossly underrepresented as AI scientists on screen. We need to be careful that these cultural stereotypes do not become a self-fulfilling prophecy as we enter the age of artificial intelligence.”

The researchers found that a third (37 individuals) of cinema’s AI scientists are presented as 'geniuses' – and of these, just one is a woman. In fact, 14 per cent of all AI professionals on film are portrayed as former child prodigies of some kind.

The LCFI team also pointed to previous research showing that people across age groups associate exceptional intellectual ability with men – the 'brilliance bias' – and argue that the stereotype of AI scientists as genius visionaries entrenches beliefs that women are not suited for AI-related careers.

Globally, it is estimated that only 22 per cent of AI professionals are women compared to 39 per cent across all STEM-related jobs. Over 80 per cent of all AI professors are men, with women comprising just 12 per cent of authors at AI conferences.

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