The Spilled Ink-quisition – An Interview with Tracey Spicer

Helen Roche

This week Helen was lucky enough to catch up with award-winning author and journalist Tracey Spicer to discuss her new book Man-Made. In this book, Spicer exposes the next frontier of feminism. Man-Made aims to open readers’ eyes to a transformative technological shift in society and give them the tools to make positive changes.

Tracey Spicer AM 

NSW Premier’s Woman of the Year, 2019 
Agenda Setter of the Year,  Women’s Agenda, 2018 
Recipient Sydney Peace Prize for the Me Too Movement 
Winner Social Enterprise category, 100 Women of Influence 
Buy her best-selling memoir here: 
Watch her global TEDx Talk here:

Helen: Your first book, The Good Girl Stripped Bare, was an autobiography. This is a radical departure in the topic. What made you choose AI to write about?

Tracey: They’re actually similar, in a way. I used my memoir to explore themes of sexual assault, bias, and discrimination. Man-Made looks at how these problems are being exacerbated by artificial intelligence and machine learning. In each of the books I use humour to take complex social concepts and explain them in layperson’s terms.

Helen: Who is the audience you are writing this book for?

Tracey: This is a book for anyone who’s interested in society, equity, gender, race, politics, technology, justice, history, or what it means to be human. The future is being designed by a small group of people in Silicon Valley. If you’re a woman, a person of colour, aged over 50, live with a disability, or identify as transgender, most innovation using AI simply won’t work well for you. At best, it will be frustrating. At worst, it could kill you.

Helen: What challenges did you face in making a technical and dry subject into an approachable book?

Tracey: During the writing process, I was struck down with long COVID. The brain fog was debilitating. Trying to understand some of the technical concepts was like swimming through mud! Fortunately, some clever friends came to the rescue to help me workshop analogies and metaphors. For example, bias begins with the data being used to train the artificial intelligence. It’s all from the past, so the overwhelming majority of doctors are ‘he’, and nurses are ‘she’. This baby bias becomes a troublesome teenager through machine learning. The robots start behaving like white supremacists, going down the rabbit holes of conspiracy theory websites.

Helen: When did you first become aware of gender bias in AI?

Tracey: About seven years ago. Our 11-year-old son asked for a “robot slave”. Taj had been watching South Park, and Cartman was acting like a colonial overlord, ordering around his Amazon Alexa. This was a lightbulb moment. I realised the stereotypical attitude of the past about women and girls being servile was being embedded into the technology of the future.

Tracey: Tell me the story about the sex robots.

Helen: This was a fascinating chapter to write because it deals with the intersection between robotics and consent. One of the most popular sex robots—named Roxxxy—has a button that you press in order to “rape” her. Almost all the sexbots are in the female form, except for a chap by the name of Henry, which you can program to be straight, gay, or bisexual. Henry has a robotic penis which is powerful enough to lift a truck. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the first person in the world to be vivisected by a sexbot! As AI becomes more sophisticated, the robots learn your likes and dislikes, mimicking real-life companions. This raises questions about what will happen to human relationships.

Helen: Did you go through many style iterations in order to find your voice for this book?

Tracey: Yes indeed! The first version was extremely academic, because I interviewed dozens of global experts in ethics, science, and technology. The publisher suggested that I tweak the style to align with my first book, so it could be accessible to a more mainstream readership.

Helen: Going from journalist to author have you had to adapt your writing style

Tracey: Journalism requires a balanced and unbiased writing style. When I started writing opinion pieces about a decade ago, I struggled to prosecute an argument because it seemed antithetical. For this book, I combined the journalistic techniques of robust research and forensic interviewing with conclusions that I drew from the evidence. Oddly enough, it ended up a little like a detective novel. Who are the culprits? And what can we do to create a safer society?

Helen: Does the information you’ve learned about AI make you fearful for human creative opportunities?

Tracey: Yes and no. We’re living through the fourth Industrial Revolution. Initially, the exponential development of AI will lead to job losses and social disruption. But the advent of photography didn’t destroy the art of painting. There will always be creative endeavours, in some shape or form. The key is for humans to be in control of these technologies, instead of the other way around. For example, our graphic designer chose to create the cover for Man-Made using artificial intelligence, to make the point that we need to learn to collaborate with evolving technologies.

Helen: Is ChatGPT going to write all our fiction from now on?

Tracey: Bahahahahaha! I hope not. ChatGPT is riddled with bias. The result is nowhere near as good as fiction written by humans. However, I am aware of a few books being written entirely by ChatGPT that will be published later this year. It will be interesting to see how they are received. Ultimately, I think AI tools like this will be used for the “grunt” work humans really don’t want to do. 

Helen Roche is an emerging writer of short stories, poetry, and novels, with a particular interest in themes surrounding the beauty and frailty of humanity.  She is passionate about travel and has had a wealth of life experience in her nearly 60 years travelling around the sun.  She is in her third year of studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at QUT and is very excited to be on the newsletter team of ScratchThat this semester.