Way back in 1992, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin described the organization as "pale, male and stale", a derisive commentary on the lack of race, gender and age/tenure diversity within the United States' premier science agency. Fast forward to 2018 and most tech industries still suffer from at least two of these symptoms.
In fact, the problem may even be worsening over time. The number of women going into computer science—an obvious key ingredient in AI and ML—has decreased by half since 1985 reported Jaxenter earlier this year, and this survey found that the presence of females in top AI/ML positions is a mere 18%.
The lack of women in this tech sub-field is particularly interesting when you consider that from the voice of starship Enterprise's computer on the TV series Star Trek the Next Generation to modern-day Siri, women are frequently the voice of AI. Despite the female voices of Siri, Alexa and Cortana, "[their] capabilities embody those traditionally found in solutions and products developed by male founders," wrote Luke Tang of TechCode’s Global AI+ Accelerator in an op-ed published earlier this year.
But since AI is about innovating to solve social and human problems, gender parity is a far better long-term strategy for firms in this space, argued a recent article in Forbes.
"Incredible breakthroughs occur when talented and diverse thinkers collaborate, pooling together unique backgrounds, disciplines, expertise, and perspectives. Holistic and inclusive thinking is even more important in the field of AI, where our inventions have pervasive and exponential impact."
Tang takes this a few steps further, suggesting that as AI continues to develop, women will be uniquely poised to make contributions that men might not even think of:
"[I]n the future world of artificial intelligence, women might even be at an advantage over men by their innate social sensitivity to solve real-world, niche problems. Men often look at the technology and vision its broad applications, whereas women often empathize how new technology can be used to solve a specific problem."
There is already evidence to support this. Women like Vanessa Xi are shaking up AI by putting their skills to work to solve issues directly impacting women while others like Latanya Sweeney are contributing by diversifying academia and serving as role models for the next generation of women gearing up to enter the AI space. With that in mind, here are seven awesome women who should be on your radar:
1. Vanessa Xi, CEO of YONO Labs, developed technology that helps women track their fertility cycles and detect pregnancy using an earbud-like device that tracks body temperature. Initially conceived as a Kickstarter campaign, this device can help women plan their families naturally without using hormonal birth control or invasive devices—just a smart phone and ear. We think that's pretty cool.
2. Fei-Fei Li is one busy lady. She joined Google Cloud in January 2017 as Chief Scientist of AI/ML, and she also continues to serve as a Stanford professor and head of both the Artificial Intelligence Lab and the Stanford Vision Lab at the prestigious U.S. university. Her work centers on developing the algorithms that make AI possible and allow robots to effectively "think." This accomplished academic holds degrees in Physics and Electric Engineering and is a prolific writer of scientific papers that help to advance the field. One of her main preoccupations is diversity in the field of AI. Forbes quoted her as saying: "We all have a responsibility to make sure everyone - including companies, governments and researchers - develop AI with diversity in mind." In her spare time, Li also runs a nonprofit called AI4ALL to augment diversity in science and tech.
3. Erica Lee is an entrepreneur with a history of participation in technology sector start-ups, including helping to co-found Collective Intelligence Technologies, Inc. The company's main product was developed to improve image recognition in vehicles using machine learning capabilities. Lee was until recently the CEO of DeepFarm.ai, an agricultural tech start-up that she founded to assist farmers in detecting crop issues early and thereby increase their production. Watch her incredible, fast-paced DeepFarm pitch below.
4. Latanya Sweeney boasts an impressive résumé. She is currently Harvard University's Professor of Government and Technology in Residence, where she looks at ways to tackle socio-political and governance issues with technology. Sweeney also has extensive experience in the public sector and once served as the Chief Technologist for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, a leading appointed position. These days, in addition to teaching, she acts as Editor-in-Chief of Technology Science magazine and the Director of Harvard's Data Privacy Lab. Ultimately, she says on her webpage, "I would like to see society harness their energy and get others thinking about innovative solutions to pressing problems." Here she is at GHC 16 delivering a keynote speech on data privacy, another one of her many interests.
5. Carol Reiley is a roboticist with more than a decade of experience under her belt. In 2015, she founded drive.ai, a Silicon Valley start-up with connection to Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Lab, which is working on developing software for self-driving cars. Her research interests are diverse and interdisciplinary and include everything from how high-skilled robots can assist humans in natural language processing. She has graced the cover of MAKE magazine, been lauded for her achievements in AI by Forbes magazine, and she's even written a children's book: Making a Splash, which helps kids build self-esteem and a brain growth mindset. Check out the book's website here.
6. Prachi Baxi is the co-founder of Smartypans, Bluetooth enabled cookware that enables users to track the nutritional content of ingredients in real time while cooking. Prior to starting the company in 2015, she wore a number of different hats in the consumer electronics and wellness industries—fitness writer, nutritionist, USDA worker. Her background also includes a Master's degree in Clinical Nutrition and yoga practice.