Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Unequal access, Biased algorithms: Gender divide in India’s AI landscape

India’s fervent adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) across manufacturing, IT, and media paints a seductive picture of progress. However, beneath this glossy veneer lurks a critical issue: the persistent gender divide that threatens to magnify existing social inequalities rooted in caste, ethnicity, and occupational discrimination. While a nascent awareness of algorithmic bias exists, translating this awareness into concrete technical solutions remains elusive. This is particularly concerning because the very decision-making structures within various departments, which often perpetuate these biases, are tasked with mitigating them in AI systems.

We must challenge the naive belief that eliminating gender discrimination in AI-controlled fields can be achieved by simply ignoring the deeply entrenched social biases that already exist. AI itself is not inherently discriminatory. However, it acts as a powerful amplifier, exacerbating existing human prejudices when trained on skewed datasets. Women already face discrimination in various aspects of life due to human bias. AI, particularly when wielding significant decision-making power, can become another insidious avenue for perpetuating this marginalization.

The digital divide acts as a significant barrier. AI thrives on data streams, yet societal norms restrict women’s access to smartphones – the primary tools for interaction with this technology. This disparity creates a feedback loop of exclusion. Less data from women skews the training datasets used for AI algorithms, potentially leading to biased decision-making processes. These biased algorithms could disadvantage women in areas like loan approvals, job applications, or even access to AI-powered healthcare services. Imagine an AI-powered loan approval system trained on historical data that reflects existing gender pay gaps. This system could perpetuate discrimination by systematically rejecting loan applications from women.

Furthermore, the underrepresentation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields creates an echo chamber effect. AI developers lacking diverse perspectives may fail to identify and address gender bias within the algorithms they create. The absence of female role models in AI further discourages young women from pursuing careers in this field, perpetuating the cycle of marginalization. This lack of inclusivity can have significant downstream consequences. Bias in AI algorithms could lead to discriminatory hiring practices, exacerbate existing gender pay gaps, or even limit access to crucial public services. For instance, an AI-powered education platform that personalizes learning based on historical student data might inadvertently reinforce existing educational disparities between genders.

A Stark Reality

The rise of AI in India exposes a fault line in its march towards a technologically advanced future. The digital divide and the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields create a breeding ground for algorithmic bias. This bias has the potential to exacerbate existing social inequalities and further marginalize women. We must move beyond a superficial awareness of this issue and delve deeper to find solutions that ensure AI becomes a tool for inclusive progress, not a perpetuator of historical injustices.

Moving beyond simply acknowledging algorithmic bias is crucial in ensuring AI serves as a tool for equitable progress in India. Technical solutions are needed to address gender bias throughout the AI lifecycle. Data augmentation techniques can create more balanced training datasets, while debiasing algorithms can root out existing biases. Fairness considerations must be integrated from the design phase onwards, incorporating diverse perspectives and prioritizing data that minimizes bias. Explainable AI (XAI) techniques can shed light on decision-making processes within AI systems, allowing for the identification and mitigation of potential biases. Finally, establishing national or international standards for ethical AI development can hold developers accountable for mitigating bias in their creations.

Shihas H is the Editor of Campus Alive, a Malayalam language academic magazine. His passion for artistic expression extends beyond editorial work, as he is also a curator, art writer, and facilitator actively involved in the art community.

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