AI algorithm demonstrates widespread misrepresentation of engineers

Posted on 7 Nov 2019 by The Manufacturer

Big brands, corporations and industry leaders have called for a more representative view of engineers, rejecting the “narrow” depiction of the profession typically portrayed in online search results.

Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Shell UK are among a host of major organisations to join the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) in signing a pledge to change the search results for the word “engineer”, which the campaign group claims vastly misrepresents the profession.

Female aerospace engineer in hangar with the Tempest aircraft - Photo: Harry Parvin - image courtesy of This is Engineering.

Photo: Harry Parvin – image courtesy of This is Engineering.

An AI algorithm, commissioned by RAEng, analysed more than 1,100 images of engineers sourced online and found that the majority were of white men in hard hats.

Many emerging, in-demand careers are in engineering, according to the World Economic Forum, yet each year the UK is short of up to 59,000 people in the field.

Just 12% of the engineering workforce in the UK is female, and 9% are from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, it said.

RAEng launched its campaign to correct the misleading stereotype on 6 November, by creating a national awareness day titled This is Engineering Daymarking the beginning of Tomorrow’s Engineers Week.

Other big names throwing their weight behind the campaign include Ferrari, the BBC, Facebook, ITV, Transport for London (TfL), Ocado, Anglian Water, Network Rail, EDF Energy and National Grid.

The AI machine learning model, otherwise known as a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN), was trained by Stylianos Moschoglou, a PhD student in Machine Learning at Imperial College London and Machine Learning Scientist at Facesoft.

Engineers test bike in wind tunnel - image courtesy of University of Southampton. Aerospace Engineering.

Image courtesy of University of Southampton. Aerospace Engineering.

RAEng wanted to test the standard representation of the engineering profession online and discovered that 63% of images on the first page of the search results using Google Chrome extension “Fatkun”, were of a person in a hard hat.

This, despite the fact that only a small minority of professional engineers wear hard hats most of the time.

Now, the RAEng is enlisting support from some of the most influential names in business to persuade the media, image providers, recruiters and advertisers to paint a more representative picture of the profession and those who work in it.

A new Flickr library of free to use images has also been created to showcase what engineers really look like.

The campaign is also designed to steer more young people from a variety of backgrounds into the STEM subjects and career paths.

More than 75% of young people aged 11-19 and 73% of parents know little about what those working in engineering actually do, according to research by EngineeringUK.

Civil engineers manage flood prevention project Photo: Harry Parvin - image courtesy of This is Engineering.

Photo: Harry Parvin – image courtesy of This is 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,” said Dr Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

“That’s why I’m appealing to anyone who uses or promotes images of engineers to join us in challenging outdated and narrow stereotypes of engineering. 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.”

By Rory Butler, Staff Journalist