How “reality bubbles” blind us to unknowns

Imagine a man’s head and a woman’s head. Now, visualize what that man and woman are wearing. If you saw the man wearing a suit and the woman a bikini, you might be an AI system.

A too narrow perspective

Of course, assuming men wear suits and women wear bikinis is very stereotypical. But why did the AI system come to this conclusion? According to Karen Hao from the MIT tech review, the AI system learned by example from the internet, which is filled with “scantily clad women and other often harmful stereotypes.”

Because the AI developers didn’t have the time, money, knowledge or interest, they failed to see their example data as fundamentally lacking. Not examining their own perspective, they (unintentionally) reaffirmed a world where woman don’t really wear suits (and men don’t really wear bikinis).

Reality bubbles

We might say that woman commonly wear suits too, therefore the AI systems should depict women as such. That’s true, but then we still maintain a Western perspective. Why doesn’t the system imagine, for example, the woman wearing a sari (a common women’s garment from the Indian subcontinent)?

In her book The Reality Bubble, Zia Tong writes that humans all live inside “a psychological [bubble] that shapes our ideas about the everyday world.” In other words, we each experience and understand the world in our own, limited way.

By growing up in particular environments, with a particular body, in a particular society, we get exposed to particular things and ideas. For some, suits and bikinis might come to mind, for others saris are more obvious. It all depends on their “reality bubble”.

Moving beyond our own reality bubbles.

Unfortunately, we often fail to go outside of our reality bubbles. And while the internet connects people and ideas like never before, our digital environments also often reflect certain world views instead of others and echo already familiar things and ideas back to us.

So even in this connected world, it’s still hard to get outside of our own reality bubbles.

Nonetheless, we don’t want AI systems to echo stereotypes or do harm, so we need to find ways to get outside of our bubbles. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.