Today, December 3, as part of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, it is crucial to highlight the biases embedded in artificial intelligence (AI) tools, especially those that completely exclude people with disabilities. These biases not only negatively impact the technological landscape, but also reflect prevailing societal misconceptions about the capabilities and contributions of these individuals.
Recently, at Special Olympics, we conducted an experiment asking an AI tool to generate images of athletes playing sports.
Surprisingly, the AI response never included images of athletes with disabilities participating in sports. This omission reveals a glaring truth: the prevalent exclusion of people with disabilities from the very definition of what it is to be an athlete in the AI domain. This reflects a broader bias in society that inadvertently seeps into technology, creating a limited perception of who can be considered an athlete or actively engaged in physical activities.
In the digital realm of artificial intelligence, the definition of an "athlete" is often restricted and limited. AI systems rarely represent individuals with disabilities participating in sports. However, the story of athletes like Special Olympics Puerto Rico's Jose Rivera challenges this narrow view. Jose, known as "Joseíto," made history by becoming the first athlete with an intellectual disability from Puerto Rico to complete an Ironman 70.3 triathlon this year. His success defies expectations, demonstrating extraordinary abilities in his sport despite the barriers he faced. His story is one that AI cannot fully identify, and that society has yet to fully recognize.
On this significant day, Special Olympics Latin America and UNESCO are launching a joint campaign that exposes and confronts these biases head-on. The campaign seeks to show how what happens in an AI tool reflects the daily experiences of exclusion, discrimination and lack of recognition of the abilities of people with disabilities. These people often navigate a world not designed for their needs, encountering obstacles from systemic barriers to social stigmatization.
The "Let's Change the Game" campaign seeks to start an inclusion revolution by changing attitudes and understanding of disability, inviting people to open their minds and hearts to the incredible potential of people with disabilities.
At Special Olympics, our mission goes beyond improving the lives of people with intellectual disabilities through sport. We seek to catalyze a paradigm shift in societal attitudes and dismantle barriers that perpetuate exclusion. Our work challenges misconceptions and showcases the abilities of people with intellectual disabilities, urging society to re-evaluate preconceptions and embrace inclusivity.
Advocating for inclusivity in AI presents challenges. Biases in AI systems stem from societal biases and stereotypes that limit opportunities for people with disabilities in their daily lives. Overcoming these biases requires collaborative efforts, prioritizing diversity and inclusion in AI design and implementation, as well as the implementation of sound ethical regulations to ensure fairness and equity in its application.
Indeed, Artificial Intelligence is all the rage. We read it in the news, we see it on social networks. For so many, it evokes thoughts of science fiction; of futuristic robots we would not have thought of, even in our wildest dreams. These technologies are defining the way we work, interact and live.
We think of the benefits they present: increased productivity, work-time reduction, resource optimization.
And, sometimes, we also discuss their risks: replication of biases and stereotypes, concentration of this resource in a few hands and countries, potential for exclusion of populations that barely have access to the Internet, threats to human rights.
In light of this, UNESCO, true to their role in the humanities and with the imperative that science and technology be developed within a framework of ethics, has reached global agreements on universal norms to maximize the benefits of scientific discoveries while minimizing risks and threats, ensuring their contribution to a more inclusive, sustainable and peaceful world.
One of these norms is the Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence adopted in 2021 by 193 UNESCO Member States, after an extensive global process of dialogues and consultations with experts in the field, academia, civil society, among others.
The Recommendation establishes a set of values in line with the promotion and protection of human rights, human dignity and environmental sustainability. It promotes essential principles such as transparency, accountability and the rule of law online.
It also includes concrete policy chapters calling for better data governance, gender equality and other important aspects of AI applications in education, culture, labor markets, the environment, communication and information, health and social welfare, and the economy.
The challenge is now for all countries to comply in adopting concrete measures and to promote the appropriation of these ethical standards by academia, civil society and the private sector so that "Artificial Intelligence is at our service and not at our expense", leaving no one behind.
As advocates for inclusion and social justice, we at Special Olympics and UNESCO call on all stakeholders to commit to "Changing the Game". Join us in challenging ingrained biases in AI and society by fostering an environment where the abilities and contributions of people with disabilities are recognized, celebrated and fully integrated into our collective society.
Joseíto's story reminds us that the potential and achievements of people with disabilities transcend the limits imposed by AI and society. Together, we can work to overcome these limits and build a more inclusive and equitable world for all.