Kriti Sharma is the vice-president of artificial intelligence at Sage
The question over what to do about biases and inequalities in the technology industry is not a new one. The number of women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields has always been disproportionately less than men. What may be more perplexing is, why is it getting worse?
It's 2017, and yet according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in a review of more than 380 studies from academic journals, corporations, and government sources, there is a major employment gap for women in computing and engineering.
North America, as home to leading centres of innovation and technology, is one of the worst offenders. A report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found "the high-tech industry employed far fewer African-Americans, Hispanics, and women, relative to Caucasians, Asian-Americans, and men."
However, as an executive working on the front line of technology, focusing specifically on artificial intelligence (AI), I'm one of many hoping to turn the tables.
This issue isn't only confined to new product innovation. It's also apparent in other aspects of the technology ecosystem – including venture capital. As The Globe highlighted, Ontario-based MaRS Data Catalyst published research on women's participation in venture capital and found that "only 12.5 per cent of investment roles at VC firms were held by women. It could find just eight women who were partners in those firms, compared with 93 male partners."
The Canadian government, for its part, is trying to address this issue head on and at all levels. Two years ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on, and then fulfilled, the promise of having a cabinet with an equal ratio of women to men – a first in Canada's history. When asked about the outcome from this decision at the recent Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, he said, "It has led to a better level of decision-making than we could ever have imagined."
Despite this push, disparities in developed countries like Canada are still apparent where "women earn 11 per cent less than men in comparable positions within a year of completing a PhD in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics, according to an analysis of 1,200 U.S. grads."
AI is the creation of intelligent machines that think and learn like humans. Every time Google predicts your search, when you use Alexa or Siri, or your iPhone predicts your next word in a text message – that's AI in action.
Many in the industry, myself included, strongly believe that AI should reflect the diversity of its users, and are working to minimize biases found in AI solutions. This should drive more impartial human interactions with technology (and with each other) to combat things like bias in the workplace.
The democratization of technology we are experiencing with AI is great. It's helping to reduce time-to-market, it's deepening the talent pool, and it's helping businesses of all size cost-effectively gain access to the most modern of technology. The challenge is there are a few large organizations currently developing the AI fundamentals that all businesses can use. Considering this, we must take a step back and ensure the work happening is ethical.
AI is like a great big mirror. It reflects what it sees. And currently, the groups designing AI are not as diverse as we need them to be. While AI has the potential to bring services to everyone that are currently only available to some, we need to make sure we're moving ahead in a way that reflects our purpose – to achieve diversity and equality. AI can be greatly influenced by human-designed choices, so we must be aware of the humans behind the technology curating it.
At a point when AI is poised to revolutionize our lives, the tech community has a responsibility to develop AI that is accountable and fit for purpose. For this reason, Sage created Five Core Principles to developing AI for business.
At the end of the day, AI's biggest problem is a social one – not a technology one. But through diversity in its creation, AI will enable better-informed conversations between businesses and their customers.
If we can train humans to treat software better, hopefully, this will drive humans to treat humans better.