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The Royal Academy of Engineering Leads Campaign to Change Misrepresentation of Engineers Online with AI

November 14, 2019 by Luke James

An AI program has highlighted the widespread misrepresentation online of the engineering profession, prompting a campaign to change how they are portrayed in the imagery used for advertising, media, and recruitment.

The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), alongside leading consumer brands and high-profile engineers, has begun a campaign to quite literally change the face of engineering. This move comes after AI programmed trained on the results of online search has revealed a major misrepresentation of how the profession is portrayed online when people search for the word ‘engineer’. 

When announced by the RAEng, it said that the campaign seeks to change the misrepresentation of engineering online, celebrate the contribution of engineers, and encourage more young people to consider a career in the profession.

Some of the names throwing their weight behind RAEng’s campaign include Facebook, the BBC, Transport for London (TfL), and Ferrari.


Proving the Misrepresentation

To test how engineers are represented online, an AI machine learning model—a Generative Adversarial Network built by a PhD student in Machine Learning at Imperial College London—looked at over 1,100 images of engineers sourced online and then generated its own image based on the given dataset. The images generated by the GAN showed just how narrowly engineers are typically portrayed online—a white male wearing a suit and a yellow hardhat. 


The image of a ‘typical engineer’ generated by the GAN.

The image of a ‘typical engineer’ generated by the GAN. Image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Engineering.


This image is hardly representative of engineers today and shows how online depictions are failing to keep up with the reality of the modern engineering profession. It is thought by some that this poor representation could be discouraging prominent engineering talent from pursuing a career in the profession—this is a rather apt problem given the field’s current skills shortage.


This is Engineering Day

These findings have in fact caused such a stir within the profession that they have prompted the launch of a campaign to coincide with This is Engineering Day, an event held by the RAE to celebrate and promote the reality of the engineering profession. This year’s event took place on November 6 and featured contributions from a diverse range of engineers worldwide. This marked the beginning of Tomorrow’s Engineers Week.

By coinciding their announcement with This is Engineering Day, the RAEng hoped to encourage online sources to change the way they depict engineers to avoid perpetuating an outdated stereotype; while the field may historically have been dominated by suit-wearing white males donning hardhats, this is no longer the case. 


Modern engineers

Modern engineers. Image courtesy of This is Engineering via Flickr.


In response, RAEng also created its own Flick library of free to use images to showcase what engineers really look like. 

Chief Executive of the RAEng, Dr Hayaatun Sillem, said, “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.”

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