But OK, don’t worry, this is not going to end with me telling you that we are all heading towards sexist, racist machines running the world.
The good news about AI is that it is entirely within our control. We created and we get to decide what and how it learns. We get to teach the right values, the right ethics to AI. We just have to make the decision to do this sooner rather than later.
So there are three things we can do.
One, we can be aware of our own biases and the bias in machines around us. Two, we can make sure that diverse teams are building this technology. And three, we have to give it diverse experiences to learn from.
I can talk about the first two from personal experience. When you work in technology and you don’t look like a Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, your life is a little bit difficult, your ability gets questioned.
Here’s just one example. Like most developers, I often join online tech forums and share my knowledge to help others. And I’ve found, when I log on as myself, with my own photo, my own name, I tend to get questions or comments like this: “What makes you think you’re qualified to talk about AI?” “What makes you think you know about machine learning?”
So, as you do, I made a new profile, and this time, instead of my own picture, I chose a cat with a jet pack on it. And I chose a name that did not reveal my gender. You can probably guess where this is going, right? So, this time, I didn’t get any of those patronizing comments about my ability and I was able to actually get some work done. And it sucks, guys.
I’ve been building robots since I was 15, I have a few degrees in computer science, and yet, I had to hide my gender in order for my work to be taken seriously.
And it’s not just me. Last year, Facebook did a study and they found that code written by their female engineers was rejected 35% more than the code written by male engineers.
So, what’s going on here? Are men just better at technology than women? Maybe our biased AI at the beginning of my talk was right. Probably John is a better engineer than Mary, except that he is not.
Another study found that when women coders on one platform hid their gender, like myself, their code was accepted 4% more than men. So this is not about the talent. This is about an elitism in AI that says a programmer needs to look like a certain person.
What we really need to do to make AI better is bring people from all kinds of backgrounds. We need people who can write and tell stories to help us create personalities of AI. We need people who can solve problems. We need people who face different challenges and we need people who can tell us what are the real issues that need fixing and help us find ways that technology can actually fix it.
Because, when people from diverse backgrounds come together, when we build things in the right way, the possibilities are limitless. And that’s what I want to end by talking to you about. Less racist robots, less machines that are going to take our jobs — and more about what technology can actually achieve.
Jeff Hammerbacher, he used to run data at Facebook. He said, “One of my favorite codes of all times, the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click more ads and that sucks.”
So, yes, some of the energy in the world of AI, in the world of technology is going to be about what ads you see on your stream. But a lot of it is going towards making the world so much better.
When I was growing up in Rajasthan in India, my school had one teacher to 80 students. So the teacher ends up spending most of their time with the top 5 and the bottom 10 students and everyone else gets pretty much ignored. Imagine if every child there could have an AI tutor, how much more they would learn?
Or think about a pregnant woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who has to walk 17 hours to her nearest rural prenatal clinic to get a checkup. What if she could get diagnosis on her phone, instead?
Or think about what AI could do for those one in three women in South Africa who face domestic violence. If it wasn’t safe to talk out loud, they could get an AI service to raise alarm, get financial and legal advice. These are all real examples of projects that people, including myself, are working on right now, using AI.
So, I’m sure in the next couple of days there will be yet another news story about the existential risk, robots taking over and coming for your jobs. Maybe a robot will even run for President which might not be a bad idea.
And when something like that happens, I know I’ll get the same messages worrying about the future. But I feel incredibly positive about this technology.
This is our chance to remake the world into a much more equal place. But to do that, we need to build it the right way from the get go. We need people of different genders, races, sexualities and backgrounds. We need women to be the makers and not just the machines who do the makers’ bidding. We need to think very carefully what we teach machines, what data we give them, so they don’t just repeat our own past mistakes.
So I hope I leave you thinking about two things. First, I hope you leave thinking about bias today. And that the next time you scroll past an advert that assumes you are interested in fertility clinics or online betting websites, that you think and remember that the same technology is assuming that a black man will reoffend. Or that a woman is more likely to be a personal assistant than a CEO. And I hope that reminds you that we need to do something about it.
And second, I hope you think about the fact that you don’t need to look a certain way or have a certain background in engineering or technology to create AI, which is going to be a phenomenal force for our future. You don’t need to look like a Mark Zuckerberg, you can look like me. Or even better, you can look like my apprentice Joe who left school at 16 and worked as a bartender for five years and now he builds AI for living.