Google removes pronouns from Gmail ‘smart compose’ feature
The feature – which tries to guess what people want to say in reply to an email – will no longer help them out with gendered pronouns.
If someone emails that they’re going for a drink with someone, for instance, it might finish the sentence with “you” or “it. But it will no longer finish up the sentence with “him” or “her”.
The change was made because the artificial intelligence was wrongly predicting people’s genders in ways that seemed sexist. And it comes amid increasing concern about the unnoticed kinds of prejudice that are built into AIs like the ones powering Google’s replying feature.
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.”
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.
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.