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Google’s New AI Tool Blocks Gendered Pronouns

Microsoft's LinkedIn said it avoids gendered pronouns in its year-old predictive messaging tool.

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The Google name is displayed outside the company's office in London, Britain. VOA

Alphabet Inc’s Google in May introduced a slick feature for Gmail that automatically completes sentences for users as they type. Tap out “I love” and Gmail might propose “you” or “it.” But users are out of luck if the object of their affection is “him” or “her.”

Google’s technology will not suggest gender-based pronouns because the risk is too high that its “Smart Compose” technology might predict someone’s sex or gender identity incorrectly and offend users, product leaders revealed to Reuters in interviews.

Gmail product manager Paul Lambert said a company research scientist discovered the problem in January when he typed “I am meeting an investor next week,” and Smart Compose suggested a possible follow-up question: “Do you want to meet him?” instead of “her.”

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AI experts have called on the companies to display a disclaimer and multiple possible translations.. Pixabay

Consumers have become accustomed to embarrassing gaffes from autocorrect on smartphones. But Google refused to take chances at a time when gender issues are reshaping politics and society, and critics are scrutinizing potential biases in artificial intelligence like never before.

“Not all ‘screw ups’ are equal,” Lambert said. Gender is a “a big, big thing” to get wrong.

Getting Smart Compose right could be good for business. Demonstrating that Google understands the nuances of AI better than competitors is part of the company’s strategy to build affinity for its brand and attract customers to its AI-powered cloud computing tools, advertising services and hardware.

Gmail has 1.5 billion users, and Lambert said Smart Compose assists on 11 percent of messages worldwide sent from Gmail.com, where the feature first launched.

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A Google logo is seen at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, VOA

Smart Compose is an example of what AI developers call natural language generation (NLG), in which computers learn to write sentences by studying patterns and relationships between words in literature, emails and web pages.

A system shown billions of human sentences becomes adept at completing common phrases but is limited by generalities. Men have long dominated fields such as finance and science, for example, so the technology would conclude from the data that an investor or engineer is “he” or “him.” The issue trips up nearly every major tech company.

Lambert said the Smart Compose team of about 15 engineers and designers tried several workarounds, but none proved bias-free or worthwhile. They decided the best solution was the strictest one: Limit coverage. The gendered pronoun ban affects fewer than 1 percent of cases where Smart Compose would propose something, Lambert said.

“The only reliable technique we have is to be conservative,” said Prabhakar Raghavan, who oversaw engineering of Gmail and other services until a recent promotion.

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Google is not the only tech company wrestling with the gender-based pronoun problem. (VOA)

New policy

Google’s decision to play it safe on gender follows some high-profile embarrassments for the company’s predictive technologies.

The company apologized in 2015 when the image recognition feature of its photo service labeled a black couple as gorillas. In 2016, Google altered its search engine’s autocomplete function after it suggested the anti-Semitic query “are jews evil” when users sought information about Jews.

Google has banned expletives and racial slurs from its predictive technologies, as well as mentions of its business rivals or tragic events.

The company’s new policy banning gendered pronouns also affected the list of possible responses in Google’s Smart Reply. That service allow users to respond instantly to text messages and emails with short phrases such as “sounds good.”

Google uses tests developed by its AI ethics team to uncover new biases. A spam and abuse team pokes at systems, trying to find “juicy” gaffes by thinking as hackers or journalists might, Lambert said.

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during a news conference in New Delhi. VOA

Workers outside the United States look for local cultural issues. Smart Compose will soon work in four other languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French.

“You need a lot of human oversight,” said engineering leader Raghavan, because “in each language, the net of inappropriateness has to cover something different.”

Wispread challenge

Google is not the only tech company wrestling with the gender-based pronoun problem. Agolo, a New York startup that has received investment from Thomson Reuters, uses AI to summarize business documents.

Its technology cannot reliably determine in some documents which pronoun goes with which name. So the summary pulls several sentences to give users more context, said Mohamed AlTantawy, Agolo’s chief technology officer.

He said longer copy is better than missing details. “The smallest mistakes will make people lose confidence,” AlTantawy said. “People want 100 percent correct.”

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Gmail product manager Paul Lambert said a company research scientist discovered the problem in January VOA

Yet, imperfections remain. Predictive keyboard tools developed by Google and Apple Inc propose the gendered “policeman” to complete “police” and “salesman” for “sales.”

Type the neutral Turkish phrase “one is a soldier” into Google Translate and it spits out “he’s a soldier” in English. So do translation tools from Alibaba and Microsoft Corp. Amazon.com Inc opts for “she” for the same phrase on its translation service for cloud computing customers.

AI experts have called on the companies to display a disclaimer and multiple possible translations.

Microsoft’s LinkedIn said it avoids gendered pronouns in its year-old predictive messaging tool, Smart Replies, to ward off potential blunders.

Also Read: Google Slammed With A Civil Case From Russia

Alibaba and Amazon did not respond to requests to comment. Warnings and limitations like those in Smart Compose remain the most-used countermeasures in complex systems, said John Hegele, integration engineer at Durham, North Carolina-based Automated Insights Inc, which generates news articles from statistics.

“The end goal is a fully machine-generated system where it magically knows what to write,” Hegele said. “There’s been a ton of advances made but we’re not there yet.” (VOA)

Next Story

‘My Greatest Mistake’: Bill Gates Regrets Microsoft Losing on Android

Gates stepped down as the CEO in 2000 and as Chief Software Architect in 2008. Satya Nadella took over as the company's CEO in 2014

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Businessman Bill Gates exits through the lobby at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, Dec. 13, 2016. (VOA)

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has said that his “greatest mistake ever” was the company losing on the Android opportunity, which has costed Microsoft nearly $400 billion and made Google the real winner.

In an interview during an event hosted by venture capital firm Village Global, Gates revealed that the mistake was to allow Google to develop Android and not creating a profitable model themselves, reports TechCrunch.

“In the software world, particularly for platforms, these are winner-take-all markets. So the greatest mistake ever is whatever mismanagement I engaged in that caused Microsoft not to be what Android is. That is, Android is the standard non-Apple phone platform. That was a natural thing for Microsoft to win,” Gates told Eventbrite cofounder and CEO Julia Hartz.

“If you’re there with half as many apps or 90 per cent as many apps, you’re on your way to complete doom. There’s room for exactly one non-Apple operating system and what’s that worth? $400 billion that would be transferred from company G (Google) to company M (Microsoft),” he emphasised.

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FILE – A sign for Microsoft is seen on a building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 18, 2017. VOA

Google acquired Android for just $50 million in 2005. The original iPhone came out in 2007 and the first Android device was released in 2008.

Android today has 85 per cent of the smartphone OS market and Microsoft Windows OS-based devices are nowhere to be seen.

Also Read: Spotify Paying Tax on Less Than 1% of Paid Subscribers: Apple

Microsoft has asked its users to switch to an Android or iOS device as it announced the end of support for Windows 10 Mobile.

The company told users that Windows 10 Mobile will stop receiving new security updates after December 10.

Gates stepped down as the CEO in 2000 and as Chief Software Architect in 2008. Satya Nadella took over as the company’s CEO in 2014. (IANS)