In May, Google introduced a Gmail feature called Smart Compose to “help you quickly reply to incoming emails.” Powered by artificial intelligence, the predictive text capability can automatically complete sentences in email drafts, offering various suggestions as you type. But now, Google has removed all gender-based pronouns from the feature.
The Smart Compose constraint comes after a research scientist at Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., stumped the Gmail proficiency on a colleague’s gender, as reported by Reuters. When he typed “I am meeting an investor next week” in an email earlier this year, it suggested the followup “Do you want to meet him?” instead of “her.”
And gender is “a big, big thing” to get wrong, says Google product manager Paul Lambert. So the company blocked the Gmail capability from suggesting gender-based pronouns like “him” and “her” in emails going forward. But before they completely got rid of them, Lambert’s team did attempt a few programming workarounds that proved unreliable.
In the end, however, the most straightforward solution was simply to remove the gendered replies all together, a change that Google says affects “fewer than one percent of Smart Compose predictions,” as noted by The Verge. “The only reliable technique we have is to be conservative,” adds Google engineer Prabhakar Raghavan, who also worked on Gmail.
A learning system based on human sentences becomes proficient in finishing common phrases but is still limited by such generalities. Therefore, historically male-dominated fields such as finance and science would drive the technology to conclude that info from an investor or engineer is coming from a “he” or a “him,” explains Reuters. The issue’s a common linguistic hurdle faced by many tech companies.
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