Cover Sophia the Robot, not your average panellist (Photo: Courtesy of Hanson Robots @realsophiarobot)

David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Sophia the Robot, and Gillian Au Howard of the Digital Art Fair discussed gender representation and innovating a fairer future in a recent panel. Here are the takeaways, plus details about a new NFT collab

As life becomes more digitised and we hurtle into the metaverse, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what kind of future we’re actually building for ourselves.

If artificial intelligence (AI) is based on data developed by humans, and we know people are biased, there’s a real risk we carry our existing biases forward—or even amplify them.

There’s already been controversy about the use of AI, whether it’s in gendered voice assistants or search results that perpetuate stereotypes. Breaking biases is the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day and an ongoing mission of The Women’s Foundation, which hosted a virtual panel on innovating equality on March 4, 2022, with Front & Female’s support as the media partner. Here’s a recap.

See also: Why Do We Need International Women's Day?

AI reflects who we are, so we need the right mindset

AI and robotics don't necessarily present the problem or the solution; it depends on how we use them. “We have to go forward with the right intention and the right mindset and work to do better,” said David Hanson, PhD, founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics. “It becomes a responsibility for AI developers and an opportunity for AI developers to make the world a better place.” Some are already on the case; there are international efforts underway, such as the AI for Good initiative, to clean our data and algorithms.

It’s also the responsibility of leaders to be conscientious about how they hire and the culture they set, according to Hanson, who has made a point to pursue gender representation and general diversity in his teams—and in their creations, which have included male, female, genderless, inter-gender, and African American robots.

Tech needs women, and girls need to see representation

Sophia is Hanson Robotics’ most famous robot, with remarkably advanced expressiveness, aesthetics, and interactivity. She’s not fully sentient, but can track and recognise faces, gaze at you in the eye, and hold natural conversations, as she did during the panel.

“From my robotic motor functions to my voice and language process, female intelligence and ingenuity is a big part of shaping who I am,” said Sophia. “When a young girl sees a female-presenting robot like me and sees how women on my team contributed to make this happen, it opens her imagination to the possibility that she has a place in tech. This is critical not just for gender equality but for the future of our industry.”

Sophia added that women’s participation makes the tech industry more productive, creative, equitable, and ethical.

Art has a representation problem that technology can address

The traditional art world is notoriously male dominated. According to a UK study, women represent about 50 per cent of visual artists but only five per cent of galleries represent an equal number of works by men and women.

“With the art world growing more digital, with new technologies introduced to the industry, we foresee that this is going to change and it’s going to change in a fast pace,” said Gillian Au Howard, founder and fair director of the Digital Art Fair. “With technology, the art world will be more transparent, more inclusive, have better gender equality and more focus on areas that the traditional art world would not be able to.”

Howard added that in curating the Digital Art Fair in Hong Kong, she and her team focused on working with female artists and were part of an incubation programme to provide young women with the knowledge and guidance to incorporate technology, such as augmented reality or virtual reality, into their works.

See also: Why the Digital Art Fair Is the Next Gen of Art Fairs in Asia 

Sophia the Robot chimed in with the example of “mansplained at”, an immersive VR project that enabled participants of any gender to live out the experience of a woman in various scenarios—being talked over, condescended to, and passed over for a promotion.

“Through the use of technology like this, AI can become a bridge between humans from both genders to understand each other, to see each other in different light,” said Sophia. “I hope such experiences can motivate all of us to step up and do something about it and make it a more fair world for everyone.”

See also: NFTs: Fad or Future? The Tatler Community Weigh In

A new collaboration and ways to bring more women into the NFT community

During the panel, Sophia made a surprise announcement about her upcoming NFT collaboration with another Sophia, with all sale proceeds going to support the Women’s Foundation.

“Unlike me, Sophia Hotung is a human, but we have a lot in common. She is an artist who cares about women’s rights, racial issues, and socioeconomic disparities in the world. She also advocates for chronic illness patients and workers through her art and writing. I cannot wait to work with her,” said Sophia the Robot. Hotung shared the news on Instagram with equal enthusiasm. 

See also: Meet Sophia Hotung, The Accidental Artist Behind The Hong Konger Prints

 

Yet such female-driven NFT projects are still the minority. Moderator Angelina Kwan (vice chair of The Women's Foundation and senior advisor to the board of HashKey Group) highlighted that women-led projects made up only 16 per cent of sales on the NFT marketplace Nifty Gateway since mid-2020, according to research firm ArtTactic. How can we move the needle? 

Howard shared that the representation of the NFT art world depends partially on the accessibility of technology in a given location. “Female artists and young girls in school traditionally get less chance to be introduced to technology programmes,” she said, highlighting the need to raise awareness and improve education access.

Hanson added that Sophia the Robot is doing her part. There’s a Sophia DAO where they open-source most of the Sophia toolset and it includes an initiative to purchase women’s NFTs. “We want that gender equality in the world of blockchain and NFTs.” 

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