Tech must diversify to avoid inbuilt bias, says Facebook's Sandberg

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 21 January 2020 18:18 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer and Member of the Board, attends the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

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'We really have to work hard to not have those biases become part of technology, which means we need more women in the field,' Sandberg said

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, Jan 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Technology firms must address bias in their algorithms amid concerns that artificial intelligence is enabling sexist discrimination against women and girls, Facebook Inc's operations chief Sheryl Sandberg said on Tuesday.

Sandberg, 50, said the male-dominated industry must hire more women to ensure its platforms represent the billions of people that use them.

"We really have to work hard to not have those biases become part of technology, which means we need more women in the field," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in London.

Sandberg is one of the most powerful women in technology and is also known for her feminist "Lean In" initiative which urges women to aim for top jobs and highlights sexist barriers in the workplace.

The executive, whose net worth is estimated at $1.7 billion by Forbes, worked for Google before jumping ship to Facebook more than a decade ago, where she has helped build the social network site into a global media juggernaut.

Technology has given women "access to resources and a voice", said Sandberg on the sidelines of a 'Lean in' event attended by women business leaders.

But the tech sector - known for its often macho "brogrammer" culture - has faced criticism for failing to promote women into senior roles.

Campaigners warn that technology can reflect societal bias, while world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has said artificial intelligence (AI) must be better tested to ensure it does not discriminate against minorities.

Amazon was forced to scrap an AI recruiting engine in 2018 after it was found to discriminate against women, while the United Nations has warned that popular voice-activated digital 'helpers' can reinforce social norms.

Women are still held back by expectations that they should be emotional and giving while men are seen as natural leaders, Sandberg told Lean In followers - biases that she acknowledged could also be written into technology.

She cited the low numbers of women entering computer science degrees as a concern, saying they should be encouraged into the field to ensure a diversity of voices.

Facebook has faced criticism from rights groups for failing to tackle abuse and sexual harassment on its platform used by more than 2 billion people worldwide.

"We have very firm policies against hate, against violence, against bullying, and we do all we can to find this stuff quickly and take it down," she said, adding Facebook has developed technology to identify and remove banned materials.

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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