Artificial intelligence (AI) has taken the world by storm. But like any technology, AI has the potential to either capitalize on the good in society or inherit the vices prevalent in society and get side tracked from the utopian goals. AI works on data fed to build its algorithms and can easily turn into ‘GarbageIn, Garbage Out’ mode. Women have historically been under-represented in both technology-related and socio-economic fields. Hence data available on women is either limited or of sub-standard quality; it is often skewed towards the male. There is a grave risk that future AI solutions may be corrupted due to the unconscious prejudices in the data as it favors the existing patterns. Further, it can impact decision making for public spending in all vital sectors such as health, workplace, education, and society. We have already seen examples of how twitter-based bots had to be shut down as algorithms went racist and how AI-backed recruitment solutions were discriminatory, even though unintentional due to misrepresentation in training data. So, will the future, as defined by AI further tip the balance for women empowerment?
In this article, I attempt to de-clutter AI hype from reality as I explore the subject of gender equality and AI from three aspects: Technology Participation, Socio-Economic Opportunities, and AI for good.
Women in AI Technology
Gender equality is the fifth goal on the list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (UN). According to National Sample Surveys (2012) findings, in India, there are roughly 4 men for every 1 woman in highly skilled occupations and only about 13% of all management and senior positions are held by women. Yet the most common AI applications that we are familiar with like the personal assistants such as Cortana, Alexa, Siri all have a female persona. The first humanoid bot to get a citizenship Sophia is female too. The obvious question that arises is why are all these applications promoted as female? Does it not reinforce the gender stereotype of the female as subservient assistants, a bias that civil societies at large is trying hard to eliminate? Interestingly, few can recall in today’s pop culture that the first well-known automated assistant was, in fact, a male (HAL-9000). While the consumer forums and sales group try to convince that people find female voice comforting, approachable, and soothing, the question points to a more subterranean issue that requires both green bills (finance) and iron will to address.
On closer observation, you realize the ‘game over’ narrative for gender balancing is not scripted at the time of the representation and inclusion of women in the tech workforce. It, in fact, originates right from the enrollment of women in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Courses. Female participation in the STEM fields is as low as 20% or less. As per the World Economic Forum (WEF), it is as dismal as three times in AI as compared to other tech fields. The current AI technology scene paints a grim picture with very lopsided domination by an elite, affluent few ‘bro culture’ aficionados. If we aspire to have solutions of tomorrow reflect the needs, wants and aspirations of an equitable and inclusive society, then we must address the skill gap in AI, in women today. STEM education can cut through the darkness of under-representation and ensure that Artificial Intelligence and other emerging technologies are developed and adopted in ways that are inclusive and equitable.
Training women in machine learning, deep learning, big data can open doors for new opportunities and roles such as programmers, developers, coders, solution designers and architects, policy makers, technology entrepreneurs giving women not only a seat on the decision-making table but also an empathetic voice to shape AI solutions of tomorrow. NITIAyog, a central government policy making agency is deliberating over the introduction of AI in CBSE courses as part of the national strategy for AI.
K Suriya Prabha launched a startup called ‘YouCode Intelligence Solutions’ to make technical knowledge accessible to students in villages in Tamil Nadu with an aim to tap a talent pool so far untouched. Youcode uses google and Amazon AI Kits to simplify AI learning for young children. The subjects cover aspects like coding bots using fun and interactive smart Robots like Mekamon, Cozmo, Nintendo Lab kits coupled with Block Programs. Prabha ensures that their workshops are inclusive with equal participation from girls in them.
It is not only important to encourage women to pursue STEM education, but it is equally important to create inspiring role models for them, to help transition to successful STEM careers.
Women Entrepreneurs Harnessing AI potential
To start,women entrepreneurs struggle to get the right funding to raise capital via commercial loans, investors and VC firms for their startups and business expansion needs. Dell in collaboration with Circular Board and Pivotal have developed an AI platform Alice that uses machine learning technology to match female founders and business owners to personalized opportunities and offer a complete ecosystem that can help their business reach its potential.
Mad Street Den–Vue-ai
Ashwini Ashokan and her husband Anand Chandrasekaran founded a computer Vision and AI startup Mad Street Den that offers intelligent retail automation solution. It uses AI stack based platform that leverages image and object recognition, expression/emotion recognition capabilities. They further use data science and analytics to understand user behavior which helps retailers make better decisions and offer unique customer experience. Vue.ai recently raised Series B funding of $17 million.
StyleDotMe, MirrARapplication by Meghna Saragoi, BigThinx’s Lyflike by Chandralika Hazarika are other startups in the field of fashion exploiting AI capabilities to offer ‘Virtual Try and Buy’.
Map My Genome
When Anu Acharya realized a huge gap exists in the field of genetic DNA testing in India, her team collected data on Indian genes to build AI-based analytical and genetic testing solutions and laid the foundation of Mapmygenome. Mapmygenome’s Genomepatri system takes DNA samples from customers to perform AI-powered analytics on their genes and offer personalized genetic counseling services to consumers, doctors, physicians, and hospitals. The company successfully raised $1.1 million as the pre-series A fund in 2015.
NIRAMAI (Non-Invasive Risk Assessment with Machine Intelligence) is yet another example. Established by Geetha Manjunath and team in Bangalore, the core technology of their solution is an artificial intelligence led diagnostic platform that uses patented thermal image processing and machine learning algorithms for reliable and accurate breast cancer screening which is radiation free and non invasive.
AI for good
The transformative power of AI solutions lies in their capability to develop scalable solutions that can reach the masses at exponential speed making them affordable and accessible to society at large using just a mobile phone or internet connection.
Conversational Chatbots use Natural Language processing AI capabilities to converse like humans and understand intent and emotions. For sensitive areas like female reproductive health, domestic violence, workplace harassment these can particularly offer a non-judgmental, non-invasive way to offer personalized and traceable life-changing interventions. For marginalized, remote and rural communities these can prove to be a boon in fields like health, hygiene, women safety for information dissemination, and constructive engagement contributing to social welfare and education.
Raaji is an AI-powered chatbot, developed by journalist, Saba Khalid that gives online advice on women’s reproductive health, hygiene and safety to women and girls in Pakistan. Similarly, a number of AI-driven cognitive interview-based bots like Haptik, Shakti, Me2Bot,safecitybot, woebot are now available in India that address wide-ranging aspects like harassment, depression, physical safety, mental and physical well-being.
A number of discoveries and opportunities are waiting to be unearthed in the yet uncharted landscape of AI. Governments, NGOs, educational, corporate and financial institutions, all need to collaborate to define and implement an ethical AI strategy to addresses the prevalent imbalances. Women too need to step up and be the risk-takers and makers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty in AI play-out. More women working in the technology industry, writing algorithms and feeding into product development will change how we imagine, use and develop technology which will help create a world more focused on inclusion, empowerment, and equality.