November 6, 2019

AI highlights misrepresentation of engineers, prompting major campaign

By Lucy Ingham

An artificial intelligence (AI) program has highlighted how unrepresentative online depictions of the engineering profession are, prompting a major campaign to change how engineers are portrayed in imagery used in online advertising, recruitment and media.

The AI program, which took the form of a machine learning model known as a generative adversarial network, was trained on over 1,100 images found from a host of online sources and generated new images based on this data.

The vast majority of the generated images were of a white male wearing a hard hat, a woefully inaccurate depiction of the profession. In reality, engineering is a far more diverse field, both in terms of the people that do the job, and what the job involves.

The AI’s findings show how online depictions are failing to keep up with the reality of the profession, and it is feared that this poor representation is discouraging many from considering engineering – a significant issue given that the field faces a critical skills shortage.

AI engineers findings drive campaign launch

The findings have prompted the launch of a campaign to coincide with This is Engineering Day, an event held today to celebrate and promote the reality of the profession by The Royal Academy of Engineering.

The campaign is encouraging online sources across all fields to change the way they are depicting engineers to avoid perpetuating what Dr Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, describes as “outdated and narrow stereotypes of engineering”.

“Engineers play a profoundly important role in shaping the world around us – from designing our cities and transport systems, to delivering clean energy solutions, enhancing cybersecurity and advancing healthcare – but that’s simply not reflected in online image searches,” she said.

“We want to ensure that engineers are portrayed in a much more representative way, and that we help young people see the fantastic variety of opportunities on offer.”

The campaign has already seen over 100 organisations sign a pledge to combat the misrepresentation of engineers highlighted by the AI, including the BBC, Facebook, Ocado, Transport for London and Rolls Royce.

The organisations have also helped to create a free library of images that provide a more accurate portrayal of the field, such as the one pictured above, in a bid to encourage better depictions on other sites.

“Engineering is everywhere, and This Is Engineering Day gives us an opportunity to shine a light on the people who make possible so many features of modern life that we take for granted,” added Sillem.

“I hope that by inviting the public to discover a different side to engineering, we will be able to inspire more people from all parts of society to choose a profession that shapes our world.”

Read more: AI to be worth $14bn to UK construction, architecture and engineering sector

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