We must bring back the vision of AI as something collective and complex that will help us deal with the big problems that affect all of us.
AI is a superpower that must not be concentrated in the hands of a few or shaped by an exclusive group, oriented only by profit, or by national security or military purposes. It should be deployed to address society’s biggest problems, including social inequalities around gender, race, economic injustices, and climate change.
However, when we discuss the future of AI, tomorrow looks grim for women and girls, and the current narratives we hear do not seem to favours a creative, fearless, limitless environment of imagination and freedom.
Rather the discourse tends to revolve around the potential and current new forms of gender-based violence, biases, risks, and exclusion. Most technology discussions around women are reduced to the harms, about the dangerous set of tools that will spread exploitation, surveillance and control, and systems unethically created by big unaccountable, opaque corporations, armies and authoritarian governments that are discriminatory and exploitative.
We must urgently move away from these narratives of the helpless recipient or user victimized by very powerful actors. This is radically disempowering and potentially distracts us so that we miss out on what science and technology can do to support positive change. We should not renounce the possibility that technologies can make our lives better and address our problems. We must bring back the vision of AI as something collective and complex that could help us deal with the big problems that affect everything on the planet – from the climate crisis to economic and social inequality.
It is time to reframe the discourse around AI, and bring it closer to the hands and minds of women and girls, as a powerful set of tools to which they and all of humanity are entitled to take and transform to advance their societies. Education and action around our collective digital future should be reframed and reclaimed. Women and girls should be able to understand the transformative power of AI as something accessible to them, and that they are invited to play and learn with. They should be invited to have an active relationship with the tech they are using, and build upon these tools to create future infrastructures.
Prototyping as a starting point
The promising features of AI are efficiency and speed - but we can go further. AI can also be about improving systems that were too complex to unpack with 20th-century methods. AI allows a level of granularity of interventions unthinkable in the past. Maybe it could even be used to fix multiple inequalities.
To begin turning around the narrative, we need more than just words. We need tangible plans for the future. And that can be achieved by prototyping AI systems that are inclusive by design, and feminist by default in the public sector. It can start with locally grown ideas, and producing research that will lead to viable prototypes and pilot projects that will lead to viable, scalable products designed to reduce gender inequalities locally and/or globally. We need products that accelerate inclusion and help us reverse a decade of terrible predictions telling us that women and girls will wait a hundred years or more to achieve equality.
One way to unlock this potential is to think about technology not as corporate, but as collective and focused on the public good, with a public sector that has both the resources and the abilities to build different and better technologies with more and different people in the design room. We need to plug in the people who are closer to the non-digital reality. With local reality feeding design and policies, feminists will not just translate today into the design, we’ll translate utopia and code gender and race equality into the design.
The dream is to enable feminists to prototype, create, test and deploy systems that are inclusive by design, feminist by default. This would be a daring systemic change. These co-created prototypes will be highly interdisciplinary and highly participatory. They might meet with impatience or resistance because things that are participatory take more time and are more complex and more expensive. But the risk of building the traditional way is too high as our alternative is to crystalize Patriarchy 2.0, homogeneous, dull, and unresponsive. This tech solutionism alternative must be avoided at all costs.
Our prediction is that the next century will see women shaping their own tech futures, especially young feminists. Even though systemic inequalities have historically blocked women from accessing so many areas, today we have the opportunity to take proactive, bold steps to fix these past injustices and lack of access. Prototyping a Feminist AI future in the public sector will crack open the system to allow women into the decision rooms where designs and budgets are created and evaluated.
Effectively prototyping a feminist AI future in the public sector will open a new era of public interest technologies and technologies with large-scale social impact for women and girls. Truly transforming power. We are starting to do it now.