women in life 3.0
San Francisco
June 09 2019

Article provided by Didem Un Ates, Microsoft

“When the wind of change blows; some people build walls, others build windmills.” – Chinese proverb

Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence stretches one’s mind and imagination on how life could be, not just a few decades from now, but billions of years ahead.

By Life 1.0, the scientist refers to our biological evolution based on DNA. Life 2.0 is about our current ‘cultural development’ stage where we can remodel much of our ‘software,’ e.g. learn a new language or pick up a profession. The main focus of the book is of course “Life 3.0” where artificial general intelligence may someday, in addition to being able to learn, be able to redesign its own hardware and software. I strongly recommend the book if you have not read it already. What is missing for me though, is what happens to minorities and underrepresented groups – especially women – in Life 3.0.

Bias, discrimination, inequality and similar issues have been perturbing our societies for centuries, probably thousands of years. And it is indeed uplifting to observe the progress we have made from generation to generation, notwithstanding occasional twists and turns on the way. However; having been a technology enthusiast all my life and working in one of the leading firms and teams as we collectively progress towards ‘Life 3.0,’ I know these issues will get even more exacerbated and amplified if we continue not to have the diverse workforce (and data) needed to foresee and flag such problems from their unique perspectives. Amazon’s recent challenge with their AI recruiting tool being biased against women is just one example of many data sets and AI tools that adversely affect women and minorities. In this case, Amazon’s new recruiting system ‘learned’ that male candidates were preferable and penalized resumes that included the word “women’s” such as “women’s chess club captain.”

On a related note, let’s not forget, there is also the jobs front: According to the World Economic Forum, women are employed in jobs that face the highest automation risks. For example, 73 per cent of cashiers are women, and 97 per cent of cashiers are expected to lose their jobs to automation.

I genuinely believe that we can shape Life 3.0 in a way we would like it to transpire, if we can have diverse teams, especially women; directly involved in building, implementing, and using these technologies. However, the current picture and trends look grim: According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, women accounted for nearly 37 per cent of all computer science undergraduate students in 1985. 33 years on, this figure is now only 12 per cent. According to a recent WIRED & Element AI study, the diversity of leading machine learning researchers also happens to be only 12 per cent women. We truly have to work harder than ever, to welcome more women in technology, especially AI.

So what can be done? A LOT. To begin with, we can start with ourselves; e.g. pick up coding courses (online or in person) or training in AI. (All possible free of charge, by the way.) Women’s networks such as Women in AI are also powerful forums to encourage and galvanize wider audiences. Third; we can help other women, girls, and minorities with their upskilling efforts and inspire young ones to consider technology and engineering as a complement, if not a key ingredient, for any passion they may choose to pursue. To this end, I have taken immense pleasure in hosting and volunteering at a number of events:

  • Girls in STEM AI Bootcamp – Athens, Aug 27-31st
  • ‘Girls in AI’ Global Hackathon – London, Oct 13-14th
  • ‘Teens in AI’ NASA Global Space Hackathon – London, Oct 20-21st
  • Code:First Girls Conference 2018 – London, Nov 10th
  • ‘AI & Careers’ sessions at various secondary schools

It is fair to say I probably benefited from these initiatives more than the participants; given the joy, satisfaction, and positive energy I received in return. I am also delighted to have a new passion to scale these efforts so that we can increase that disconcerting 12 per cent figure. Deep at heart, I would much rather work on creating a fascinating ‘Life 3.0’ than retrieving and/or being intimidated by potential doomsday scenarios.

With respect to jobs in Life 3.0, some actually argue that the future is bright for women – provided we prepare to grasp the opportunity. “Empathy, listening, multi-tasking, intuition, collaboration and patience are qualities that will get more prominence as automation takes over the workplace,” states Kate Levchuk, “Both by nature and by culture, women are better placed to benefit from automation. The inherent presence of empathy and collaboration skills makes women perfectly positioned to navigate the complex post-industrial world.” It may be premature to conclude women will be better off in Life 3.0, but there is a good chance to create a historic opportunity from a potential crisis. “Mindful optimism,” is the term Max Tegmark uses to suggest we can and should be optimistic, as long as we plan and work for the future we would like to have. I could not agree more. So back to my Python lab.