I’m 10 years old. Minutes into a maths lesson and my palms have already begun to sweat. I’ve positioned myself in the back row, but the teacher walks up and down the aisles of the classroom, peering over our shoulders. I don’t understand the rules. The teacher’s voice becomes a blur, and I stare at the numbers on the board, willing them to make sense. I wasn’t a shy child, if anything I was bold and kind of brash, but I couldn’t ask for help. I didn’t have the language to explain what the numbers were doing to my brain.
Soon I’d have a name for what I was experiencing – dyslexia – and I’d begin to find ways to accommodate my learning style. As with everything, there are scales here. Dyslexia presents and impacts people in different ways, and I was lucky to be at a great school. But I had to learn to overcome my fear of numbers and words. I had to do battle with my confidence. It’s only now I realise that this was the cause of me honing my greatest skill: learning to learn. Discovering more about different learning styles was a gamechanger – and where my love of artificial intelligence technology was born.
Flash forward and now I’m a tech entrepreneur and co-founder of CognitionX, a market intelligence platform for AI. Two years ago I was appointed by government ministers Matt Hancock and Greg Clark, to assemble a team of experts in AI to form a council responsible for supporting the government and its office for artificial intelligence. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a front-row seat as the world is transformed by new technology but on a personal level I’m drawn to AI because I want more support too. My dyslexia means I need more help, like spotting simple mistakes in my writing.
I rely on apps such as SwiftKey and Grammarly as one might an old friend. SwiftKey in particular is a huge help in my day-to-day life. It’s an app for your smartphone keyboard that uses AI to make much better recommendations than the inbuilt spelling and grammar check. Even better is its new feature that turns my voice to text so I don’t have to type or leave a voice note when I’m struggling to find exactly the right way to say something. Grammarly is my go-to for my laptop. It combines rules, patterns, and AI deep learning techniques to help you improve your writing.
The drawback is that if something goes wrong with either of these apps, I feel as I’m back in the classroom again, freefalling, my brain foggy, letters and numbers jumbled up. I worry I’m over reliant on these technologies, but I’m also thankful for their existence. Because they use machine learning, which operates by learning how I use the apps each time, we grow together. It’s a conundrum but one I’m conscious of and take into account every day.
And this is why it’s important to note that not only am I looking for AI support, I’m looking for human support. The need for a conversation at the back of the class hasn’t been replaced by technology – it’s been augmented by it. Technology and people need to work in tandem.
I think it was my dyslexia and my need to see things from a different angle that enabled me to be open to the rewards of AI. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t risks. I grapple with the potential pitfalls of AI, particularly its bias against people underrepresented in tech across society. We are hurtling towards AI, machine learning and robotics at breakneck speed and people are being left behind. This means a risk of job loss in an already struggling climate.
One and a half million people in England are at high risk of losing their jobs to automation in the coming years, and a 2019 Office for National Statistics report revealed that 70% of them are women. Covid will no doubt increase these risks – the shift to online working has only made it easier for companies to increase automation. This is why I want to urge women to get ahead of the game. Now more than ever is a good time to become the person in your company who has learned to master the newest software. Even for those who are proudly the “least” techie, it is time to change tune. I’m not suggesting that everyone should retrain to become data scientists or AI experts. It’s more about having an understanding of how to work with products that have AI built in.
I only ever advocate for AI systems in the workplace if they have a Human in the Loop approach. HITL is a way to build AI systems that makes sure there is always a person with a key role somewhere in the decision-making process. This guarantees that whatever the outcome happens to be, it’s arrived at through a combination of steps taken by a machine and the person, together. It’s this sort of system I want to encourage women to become the best at navigating.
Throughout history a set of qualities traditionally associated with women – compassion, care, empathy and nurturing – have been dismissed or sidelined by the market. Today, care work is either among the lowest paid of jobs, or it’s done for free (mainly by women) in the home. But these qualities, which have always been vital, are about to become ever more necessary and much harder to undermine.
Many aspects of jobs are going to be assigned to machines, but they can never do everything that humans can. A machine may be able to predict and detect diseases invisible to the human eye, but the one thing it can’t do is connect on a human level and offer genuine care.
Human empathy is something machines can’t offer and so, together with an AI system, a doctor could present an accurate diagnosis in a caring way. This can only happen, however, if the doctor in question decides to embrace and fully understand how to get the best out of the AI system, which will take training and an appetite to learn.
Women have also developed another skill that will become vital in the coming years: staying on their toes. For centuries women have faced all kinds of discrimination and prejudice. Women have had to know how to be vigilant and resilient, to anticipate change and to read subtle cues and analyse the world for risks. In the world of AI, this means staying one step ahead of the machine.
The way I see it, this new wave of technology could be a tsunami that knocks you down, or it could be the wave that we ride together to a brighter future. The moment I began to truly understand this, I knew I had to share what I’d learned about its possible risks as well as its rewards – and why it is that women were more likely to suffer the negative effects.
It’s really crucial for women to challenge the tendency to sometimes see tech as “boring”, “scary” or “for someone else”. I’m not a scientist, engineer, developer or techie. It takes me a long time to understand technological ideas because they’re mostly founded in complex mathematics. It was a really liberating moment when I realised that I didn’t need to understand the precise inner workings of AI machines in order to understand the ramifications of this technology.
All you need is to get a good grasp on how to adapt and thrive in this new world and what you can do to support others to do the same.
There are simple ways of achieving this and one of them is learning how to talk to technologies which use AI. You don’t need to rush out to the shops – there is AI you can talk to in products you may already have. If you’re an Apple user, talk to Siri, or Cortana if you use Microsoft and Google has an assistant too. Set your alarm to be voice-activated or use a voice assistant to add appointments to your calendar, or to search the internet for you. My friends tell me that they’ve given up on their home system, or that they can’t bear that their car is trying to talk to them. My response is always to tell them: this technology isn’t going anywhere. So instead of avoiding it, find ways to make the technology work for you before you end up working for it.
How to Talk to Robots by Tabitha Goldstaub is published by 4th Estate at £12.99. Buy it for £11.30 from guardianbookshop.com