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For AI to succeed, women need to get involved
ARTIFICIAL Intelligence (AI) has been unequivocally recognised as a technology that can solve some of the world's most complex issues. In Singapore, the government's recent dedication of S$150 million to the Tech Skills Accelerator recognises the importance of developing tech talent in this emerging field.
For all its touted benefits, however, the rise of AI can also have unintended consequences on workforce demographics and for women in business. This is far more imminent than Hollywood's dominant narrative of 'robots taking over the world'.
I've been responsible for building the AI application Pegg, the world's first accounting chatbot. In my line of work, I have been privileged to collaborate with some of the greatest minds in the AI industry. Unfortunately, the narrative has been heavily dominated by one gender. This has led to the assumption that there is limited opportunity for young girls in the field, a damaging perception that needs to be changed.
At the same time, women are more at risk of being affected by automation and AI in their careers - recent research from PwC has demonstrated that potentially 23 per cent of women's jobs are at risk, around 7 per cent more than men. Risks of job displacement must be addressed alongside the serious skills shortage we are seeing in the tech sector among women.
AI technology has near-limitless applications in the business, consumer and industrial worlds - but the only way we can maximise its benefits is to eliminate human biases. We need to focus on increasing access to career opportunities and skills, and encouraging women from all backgrounds to consider the doors that AI will open for their future. Now is the perfect time for any woman to get involved - and here are three reasons why:
You don't need a computer science PhD: The beauty of AI is that it is designed to augment human intelligence in a range of different ways. Life as we know it has not been built around hardware and tech - we are artists, thinkers, carers, inventors and more. Therefore, there are numerous opportunities outside science and tech-specific roles when it comes to building useful AI.
We need groups of both men and women, enthusiastic individuals, passionate about the opportunities that this technology can bring, with expertise in problem-solving, psychology, language, design, storytelling, anthropology and law, to name a few. The only way we will create truly intelligent AI is if it is taught to work, react and understand language the way we do.
Bias is our greatest threat and will only slow progress: While the design of famous AI personas such as Alexa and Siri is heavily gendered towards female stereotypes, women engineers remain a rare occurrence in the talent pool of engineers creating them today. This is a serious problem that needs to be fixed if we want to realise the greatest scientific and economic benefits of the technology. This starts in schools and at home - it is vital that we show our girls from the get-go that no career is out of their reach.
At the end of the day, AI needs to be built to reflect the diversity of its users. Women and men work, live and think differently - we need to capture as many different perspectives as possible to produce high-quality products with maximum potential. This isn't just about gender. We need to think broader and ensure our machines are learning about ethnicity, race, language, skin colour and age - all the things that make us unique.
The tech industry recognises the need for change, now: IMDA statistics show that women account for just 30 per cent of infocomm professionals in Singapore, growing by only 1 per cent since 2010. This is not good enough. It poses a serious threat to the future global competitiveness of Singapore's tech sector. But the industry is ready for greater change. Universities and businesses are showing positive developments to help address this, with key influencers and stakeholders making a dedicated effort to improve those numbers.
I am passionate about making AI a transformative and productivity-enhancing revolution for all. However, the biggest hurdle standing in our way is building machines that do not truly represent the entire human race. That is why I created the pioneering code of ethics at Sage - five key guidelines to help businesses when working with AI. It covers everything from how to name virtual assistants to building diverse data sets that help companies make better hiring decisions that leave gender out of the equation. If we commit to a common goal to include more diversity in all aspects of AI design, programming and deployment, I think that this technology will have an even greater potential to transform the way we do business and live our lives for the better, every day. Not just women - everyone deserves to benefit from it.
- The writer is vice-president of AI at Sage Group, a global integrated accounting, payroll and payment systems provider. She is also the creator of Pegg, the world's first AI assistant that manages everything from money to people, with users in 135 countries.