AI reveals misrepresentation of engineers online

Published:  06 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.

The announcement comes 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,3 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 hat4, 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 pledge5 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/)6. 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 will also be challenging this misrepresentation on social media and through a range of different activities and events on This is Engineering Day including:

• Amazon Alexa2 will answer questions about ‘This is Engineering Day’ and the role of engineers, and Amazon will run engineering-focused tours and STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) workshops in its fulfilment centres on 6th November

• Network Rail showcasing real images of engineers on 60 screens across 15 stations in the UK, and across the Virgin train network

• Facebook and Ocado creating and promoting new engineering video content featuring its engineers

• Google hosting an engineering takeover at its Portsmouth Digital Garage on 6 November

Many of the emerging and in-demand jobs identified by the World Economic Forum7 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 EngineeringUK8 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.

Dr Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says:

“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.

That’s why on This is Engineering Day 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.

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. 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.”

The This is Engineering free public image library is available now at www.flickr.com/thisisengineering/ for media, photo, advertising agencies and the general public to view and use in projects, articles, campaigns and on social media. The library and This is Engineering Day are part of the This is Engineering campaign, led by the Royal Academy of Engineering to give more young people, from all backgrounds, the opportunity to take up engineering careers. More information on the campaign can be found at www.ThisisEngineering.org.uk, @ThisisEng on Twitter and @ThisisEngineering on Instagram.

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