“The future of AI is being built by a relatively few like-minded people within small insulated groups”
Amy Webb, The Big Nine.
Today I attended the a conference called SAS Analytics Day: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Symposium at University of Louisville. (Or as explained below, I attend part of the Conferance). This was a technical conferance for the most part; I grasped maybe 10% of what was discussed but I thought it would be worth the effort.
And it would have been….But right after lunch there was a panel discussion composed of Louisville businessmen who were using AI and machine learning in their daily work. Here’s a picture of that panel.
It took me about 5 minutes to notice something unusual about the panel. Then it hit me like the proverbial 2 x 4 across the head: No women. One person of color. I quickly glanced through the remaining and previous presentations: same thing. No women.
Now Louisville isn’t a big, big city but its not small. And the conference was hosted by an academic institution, the University of Louisville School of Business that proclaims, “We are a diverse community that values all members and their contributions, treats one another with civility and respect, and embraces inclusive leadership throughout the College.”
It was sponsored by SAS, a software company which labels itself as a “leader in analytics” and proudly proclaims that it “never shy away from the fact that our actions affect the world around us.” Says SAS, we have “a multidimensional culture that blends our different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives…We want everyone to feel confident in expressing their ideas, and know that they will be respected for their unique contributions and abilities.”
No women. And on a STEM program where women and minorities are woefully and famously under represented. Couldn’t find any women to speak on this topic? Did you look?
Are you telling me in a city of almost a million people and at a University with over 22,000 students and a academic staff of over 2300 you couldn’t find one woman? Not one?
More than that, the topic was AI and machine learning. And granted I didn’t catch much of the highly technical points but I did catch at least one concept: the amount and quality of data and how representative it is is critical to how well both AI and machine learning functions. No women. Are you telling me in a city of almost a million people and at a University with over 22,000 students and a academic staff of over 2300 you couldn’t find one woman to speak? Not one?
I tongue in cheek sent a pic out on instagram of a power point slide from the morning session with a bunch of formulas. My note said “I may be in over my head.” My nephew MBA/Engineer humorously chided me with a reply: “Remember Linear Regression from Stats 101?’”
Actually, I don’t. And I may not know much about algorithms, AI or linear regression. But I do know that no women is grossly out of proportion to the population as a whole and the scientific community. What is message that sends to women and persons of color? That you’re not in the club? That you’re not qualified? Try telling all that to Katherine Bouman. (Who, by the way, is disgustingly and sadly being subjected to repeated trolls that the black hole work was actually done by a male. Right).
I do pledge this: in the future if you want me to speak at or attend your conference, I’m going to look. I’m going to ask. And if I don’t like the answers, you ain’t getting me and you ain’t getting my money.
So I walked out. True be told, I doubt anyone even noticed. But I noticed.
Yes, I’m at fault for not looking at the program in advance and taking a stand sooner. I get it. But I do pledge this: in the future if you want me to speak at or attend your conference, I’m going to look. I’m going to ask. And if I don’t like the answers, you ain’t getting me and you ain’t getting my money.
Why did I walk out and why take this position? Easy and obvious answer is I have a daughter. But I also have a son and I want them both to know where I stand.
And I also have a 6 month old grandson. I don’t want him to grow up in a land of bias and prejudice. I don’t want him to grow up in a world where AI and machine learning algorithms are biased because the creators were all white men. As Amy Webb, author of The Big Nine, a book about the dangers posed by AI and machine learning put it, “Artificial intelligence has the mind of its tribe, prioritizing its creators’ values, ideals, and world views…The problem with tribes is what makes them so powerful. In insular groups, cognitive bias become magnified and further entrenched, and they slip past awareness.” That not a world I want my grandson to experience.
“If you want real change, you gotta finish the job.” Not just talk about it, not throw out fancy platitiutes about diversity and inclusion. Finish. The. Job
If this sounds like I’m picking on Louisville, SAS or the University of Louisville, that’s not necessarily so. All three talk the talk. Everyone is good at talking the talking. But that’s not enough; you gotta walk the talk if you want change.
Or as my friend Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon put it, “if you want real change, you gotta finish the job.” Not just talk about it, not throw out fancy platitiutes about diversity and inclusion. Finish. The. Job.
A few weeks ago I spoke at a conference of lawyers on AI and machine learning about the very dangers Webb identifies. I concluded by saying the track record for all male institutions of late fucking things wasn’t very good. This immediately brought a remark by someone from the audience of “Oh great, another progressive lib.”
Well ok, maybe so. But here’s a picture of a career day panel at a parochial high school for which I served as board chair for a few years.
I am proud to be a part of an organization that sends this message to its students. We need more of this.
And less of this