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AI convinced all engineers are white men in hard hats

11 November 2019

Major brands, leading businesses and high-profile engineers have come together in a bid to change the online image search results for the word ‘engineer’, as an AI programme trained on the results of an online search for images of engineers found that it vastly misrepresents the profession.

Major brands, leading businesses and high-profile engineers have come together in a bid to change the online image search results for the word ‘engineer’, as an AI programme trained on the results of an online search for images of engineers found that it vastly misrepresents the profession.

The announcement came on This is Engineering Day, part of a nationwide campaign led by the Royal Academy of Engineering - and supported by a range of brands and engineering companies - to change the misrepresentation of engineering online, celebrate the contribution of engineers, and encourage more young people to consider a career in the profession. 

To test the representation of the profession online, an AI machine learning model, otherwise known as a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN), analysed over 1,100 images of engineers sourced online, and generated images based on this given dataset. The images generated by the GAN showed how narrowly an engineer is typically portrayed online: the majority of the generated images were of a white male wearing a hard hat. An online search, conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering on 21 October 2019, found that 63% of images on the first page of the search results were of a person in a hard hat, despite the fact that only a small minority of professional engineers wear hard hats most of the time. 
The Royal Academy of Engineering has created This Is Engineering Day, which takes place in Tomorrow’s Engineers Week, to radically change this narrow stereotype, and celebrate the varied and vital roles that engineers play, from developing medical technologies like brain scanners and clean energy solutions, to powering the social media platforms and smartphones we rely on to keep in touch every day.  

Over 100 brands across the UK that depend on engineering - including the BBC, Facebook, ITV, Transport for London, Ocado, Rolls-Royce and National Grid - have signed a pledge to increase the public visibility of more representative images of engineers and engineering, and helped create a new library of free to use images of engineers that better represent what engineers and engineering really look like (www.flickr.com/thisisengineering/). This has been developed to encourage website owners and image users to deploy a more diverse range of images when showcasing engineers and the industries in which they work.

 The campaign’s partners and supporters also challenged this misrepresentation on social media and through a range of different activities and events on This is Engineering Day including: 
  • Amazon Alexa answered questions about ‘This is Engineering Day’ and the role of engineers, and Amazon ran engineering-focused tours and STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) workshops in its fulfilment centres on 6th November 
  • Network Rail showcased real images of engineers on 60 screens across 15 stations in the UK, and across the Virgin train network
  • Facebook and Ocado created and promoted new engineering video content featuring its engineers 
  • Google hosted an engineering takeover at its Portsmouth Digital Garage on 6 November
Many of the emerging and in-demand jobs identified by the World Economic Forum are engineering jobs, yet every year the UK is short of up to 59,000 engineers, while only 12% of the engineering workforce in the UK are female, and 9% are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
Research from EngineeringUK shows that more needs to be done to raise awareness of engineering careers and encourage young people to consider the profession. Over three quarters (76%) of young people aged 11-19 and 73% of parents do not know a lot about what those working in engineering do.
 
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