Digital bias is the embedding of prejudices and discriminatory beliefs into the design, development, and distribution of technology products. As digital bias marginalizes and also tends to victimize those who are most socially vulnerable, it is an issue that every business creating technology products must address.
The impact of digital bias can be seen in some facial recognition applications that have proven to be more accurate in recognizing light-skin men than women and people of colour. When you search Google Images for the term “CEO,” only 11 per cent of images feature women, when 27 per cent of chief executives in the U.S. are female. Digital loan processing applications recommend higher interest rate charges to African American and Latino applicants than white applicants. An AI-based recruiting platform from Amazon preferred resumes from men over women because it learned from thousands of past applicants, which were mostly men.
Digital bias is typically present when those responsible for creating technology products are not as diverse as the populations the products are meant to serve. To ensure all innovations created by the technology industry – which has long been dominated by men (only 28 per cent of all STEM professionals globally are women) – are inclusive and not divisive, a concerted, global effort is required to encourage and empower those from underrepresented groups to be active players and leaders.
Marginalized groups, and those who live in regions where gender, income, and literacy gaps are the greatest, stand to gain the most when the issue of inclusivity is addressed by the technology sector. Conversely, failure to ensure diversity in design and production may not only reinforce discriminatory attitudes, it may also have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for our social institutions and even our political stability.
Let’s consider Africa, where the agriculture industry accounts for more than 30 per cent of the continent’s GDP and employs more than 60 per cent of its workforce. According to a recent report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, farm productivity in Africa must grow at a faster rate than the global average (of 70 per cent) “to avoid continued mass hunger”. The challenge is daunting since over 80 per cent of farmed food in Africa is grown by smallholders (those who farm less than two hectares) who have limited access to capital, low literacy rates, and face rising environmental threats and loss of land to foreign ownership.
Despite ongoing challenges, cloud computing, increased connectivity, and open-source software are helping increase accessibility and adoption. Today, nearly 33 million African smallholder farmers have registered for digital services like weather updates and market linkages. Aerial satellite, drone images, and soil sensors are helping them manage crop growth in real time. Automated systems that measure and analyze soil temperature, nutrients, and overall soil health are helping to ensure they fertilize and irrigate their crops properly. Digital platforms are also giving them more efficient access to capital. And SMS is being used to share market information, weather forecasts, and financial tips.
According to Ndubuisi Ekekwe, a founder of the non-profit African Institution of Technology, digital technology has the potential to open “vast untapped potential for farmers, investors, and entrepreneurs to improve efficiency of food production and consumption in Africa.”
Digitization in farming throughout Africa is already having a positive impact. However, in this region where literacy rates are relatively low (about 58 per cent compared with 83 per cent globally), poverty rates are high (half of the people of sub-Saharan Africa live below the poverty line), gender gaps are large (about 80 per cent of those in poverty are women), and women do between 50 and 60 per cent of farming work, there are significant concerns that the technology solutions are not meeting the needs of those who need it most. And since solutions being developed in these regions may underpin future social, economic, and political structures, the risk is that the resurgent social intolerance and divisiveness that we are seeing today around the world will become institutionalized. And the means of combatting that divisiveness will be rendered inert.
More organizations around the world need to take steps to bring business and political leaders the message that increasing the participation of all women in technology is not just about equal opportunity or winning the war for talent, but about ensuring that our technology solutions are relevant and useful for all people. Our message is that diversity, like a jury of peers, serves to put a check on individual biases. And that without this check, our technology will exacerbate the social divisions that we have long sought to overcome. If technology is to be the defense against these divisions, and if hope is to win out over fear, we need to view diversity in technology and the importance of preventing digital bias as a social and political imperative.