Defeating the algorithm: An interview with Tracey Spicer

Where is AI taking the world, and how is it embedded with long-held, damaging bias and prejudice? These questions are among those posed by Tracey Spicer in her new book, Man-Made

Tracey Spicer is one of Australia’s best-known journalists, having made her name as a newsreader on commercial TV in the 1990s. Alongside an illustrious broadcasting career, she has made significant contributions as a writer, with her debut book, the memoir The Good Girl Stripped Bare quickly becoming a best-seller upon publication in 2017. Spicer has received a plethora of prestigious awards over the course of her career, including the NSW Premier’s Woman of the Year, the Sydney Peace Prize and multiple Walkley awards. She also delivered the immensely popular Ted Talk, The Lady Stripped Bare. 

For her second book, Spicer has turned to the thorny and extremely topical issue of artificial intelligence (AI). Man-Made: How the Bias of the Past is Being Built Into the Future looks at this technology, with its potential to transform humankind on an existential level, through a feminist lens – asking crucial questions of what the future may bring us as AI evolves. As she outlines here, the book was inspired by the inquisitiveness of a child, and considers questions of accountability, regulation and how AI may be harnessed for good. 

Ahead of her appearance at Byron Writers Festival 2023, Spicer chatted with us about Man-Made

How and when did the idea for this book first emerge in your mind? What were the key questions you wanted to answer at the outset?

This book was inspired by a conversation with my then eleven-year-old son, Taj. ‘Mum, I want a robot slave,” he said one morning. Taj had been watching an episode of South Park, in which Cartman was ordering around his Amazon Alexa using extremely offensive language. Suddenly, I realised that the 1950s ideal of women and girls being servile was being embedded into the technologies of the future. I wanted to discover why chatbots for the home sounded female, while those in the banking and finance sector had male voices. Ultimately, my aim was to discover who were the villains, and what we could do to reduce the bias being built into artificial intelligence.  

The book’s subtitle is ‘How the bias of the past is being built into the future’. Can you give us a brief summary of how this is taking place? 

It starts with the datasets, which are used to train the algorithms. All of these datasets are from the past. So, most doctors are ‘he’ and nurses are ‘she’. There is also a tendency to default to descriptions of people who are white, heteronormative and able-bodied. The bias born in the algorithm becomes a troublesome teenager through machine learning. In the book, I compare machine learning with a white supremacist going down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory websites. The bots become more bigoted over time.      

Did any other books provide particular inspiration or a model for the book’s tone, structure or style? 

I decided a long time ago to write essays, columns and books on serious topics in a humorous tone. Initially I was inspired by Caitlin Moran, who pens pacy, engaging and thought-provoking books about class and gender. I also loved Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. However, reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez was the real lightbulb moment. Perez combines deep research with storytelling, anger, and clear calls to action in a seamless narrative.   

In your introduction you write the book took six years to research. What have been the biggest challenges in writing, researching or preparing the book? 

The interviewing process was quite easy because most of it happened during lockdowns. Stuck at home, there was plenty of time to chat to experts, academics and technologists via Zoom. However, towards the end of the writing process, I was stricken with long COVID. The cognitive damage was utterly debilitating. I’d re-read a chapter only to find I’d used the same word dozens of times. I seemed unable to think of synonyms. Long COVID is an energy production disorder, so I was only able to write for about half an hour each day. Fortunately, I discovered a few decent doctors who put me on medication to dampen the brain inflammation. Rest assured, I wrote those last chapters again during the editing process!

And what issues, facts, trends or revelations surprised you the most during your research? 

I was horrified by the story of the ‘racist soap dispensers’. Several years ago, a Nigerian tech worker tried to use an AI-powered soap dispenser in a Marriot hotel, but it wouldn’t work for his hand. However, it did work for his white colleague. You see, we picture Big Tech as a handful of large corporations. But most inventions are tested by tiny teams, comprising four to five people. Usually, these are young white men based in Silicon Valley. This technology did not recognise people of colour. The same tech is being used in self-driving cars. What happens when the cars can’t detect a person at a pedestrian crossing? This is a matter of life and death.

Tracey Spicer

Given your status as a writer and the topic of the book, what has been your reaction to the growing prevalence of ChatGPT? How might your book’s premise relate to that platform in particular? 

ChatGPT is beset with bias. If you ask it to tell a story about an engineer and a childcare worker, it will almost always make the engineer male, and the childcare worker female. This simply creates more content reinforcing the gender-segregated workforces of the past. Then, material will be ‘scraped’ from the internet to create new AIs, repeating and amplifying the bias. However, I urge everyone to use ChatGPT to train it do be better! If women and people in marginalised communities refuse to use this technology, we risk our voices being silenced.  

The book’s publication comes as we move further away from the peak of COVID – a time when we relied on technology more than ever for society to maintain itself. Did the unprecedented nature of this period provide you with any special insight about technology, its capacities, legislation, and so on? 

There are two issues here. The development of artificial intelligence increased exponentially during the pandemic. Consequently, governments which were (rightly) focused on COVID-19 were unable to keep up with regulation and legislation to tame this beast. Now, they’re playing catch-up. But they’re reticent to rein in these technologies because of the enormous benefits to businesses, which are struggling to improve productivity during the current economic slowdown. I expect the European Union will be the first to release sensible guidelines, as the United States is far too beholden to free market economics.  

From the perspective of language and writing style, which authors have meant the most to you, or been the most influential, over the years? 

I adore the writing of John Steinbeck, particularly in The Grapes of Wrath. He managed to write compelling social commentary with true heart. Steinbeck was the master of metaphors and similes. I love the simple, direct and insightful writing of Roxanne Gay. And Lindy West is hilarious, sharp and incredibly clever. 

What hopes do you have for the book in terms of how it might fit into the wider national conversation of this topic? 

I am of the firm belief that we’re having the wrong conversation about artificial intelligence. The tech billionaires are calling for a moratorium on further development of this constellation of technologies, to divert attention from the real-world damage they’re causing now. The current conversation is framed around a near-to-distant future. But the bias and discrimination happening under our noses is fraying our social fabric, widening the gap between rich and poor, and deepening stereotypes and inequity. 

Tracey Spicer will be appearing at 2023 Byron Writers Festival in the sessions Ethics of AI with Grace Chan and Suneel Jethani; The Feminist Trajectory with Madison Godfrey and Kristine Ziwica; and Living Disgracefully with Susan Johnson and Jacinta Parsons. Her book Man Made: How the Bias of the Past is Being Built Into the Future is out now through Simon and Schuster

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