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6 Key Takeaways From the Book That Empowers Women in AI

10 minutes
March 29, 2021

Tabitha Goldstaub's book, 'How to Talk to Robots', addresses how AI impacts the daily lives of women. Here's what we learned.

In her book, How to Talk to Robots: A Girls’ Guide to a Future Dominated by AI, Tabitha Goldstaub discusses AI and its relationship to diversity, gender, innovation, and history.

British tech entrepreneur Tabitha Goldstaub wrote a book about artificial intelligence that looks at the long, overlooked history of women in AI. How To Talk To Robots: A Girls’ Guide to a Future Dominated by AI features a brief history of women in AI, how it influences our online spending and social media, and features interviews with today’s female leaders in AI. Why don't we know these women in the same way we know men in tech? Goldstaub says: “I’ve searched far and wide for all the women who played a role in the development of AI, but many were simply never recorded in the archives.”

Women in AI may have been unknown or under-represented in the past, but this book is a testament to all the women who are changing the game today, like Martha Lane Fox, the chair of WeTransfer’s board of directors. In addition to serving as chair of the AI Council for the UK government, Goldstaub is co-founder of CognitionX, a knowledge network of AI experts. She encourages women to be part of the AI conversation, as we don’t have enough in tech leadership. The book asks: “How can women specifically talk to robots when we don’t trust the companies who build that tech?”

It isn’t a self-help book, though there are encouraging factors. It isn’t a dry textbook either, nor is it a collection of articles or essays. It’s part diary, part history book that includes personal anecdotes and Q&As with women experts from across the field. It also includes a jargon-free glossary that explains tech terms from a “filter bubble” to “gender data gap” and “neural networks”.

Here are the takeaways that we think make this book a worthwhile read.

1. Diversity is a Necessity in AI

Goldstaub points out that 80% of large companies are looking at how to use AI to increase productivity. Citing her hero, NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, who taught herself how to use computers, Goldstaub suggests women do the same with AI. ‚ÄúMy challenge to you is [to] be involved in some way with how change happens,‚Äù she writes. ‚ÄúAt the moment, decisions about AI are being made in rooms mainly filled with white men. This is not only a problem for diversity of the workforce, it‚Äôs about diversity of experience.‚Äù 

Goldstaub may encourage women to consider their individuality when it comes to the ever-changing face of technology today, but she also draws attention to how tech will affect people in other parts of the world. “I’m writing this book from my position as a privileged woman living and working in London,” she writes, encouraging grassroots groups and teams to fuse forces and work together to be heard as a collective. “Your voice is much louder and even more relevant when it’s representing more people.”

2. AI can be a Double-Edged Sword for Climate Change

Women in AI are working to help climate change and Goldstaub listed a few organizations doing this work. Open Climate Fix is a non-profit research lab focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Matter More, hopes to solve climate problems by using data. “Find a way to reach out and get involved,” Goldstaub writes. But how can tech companies curb their own impact on the environment? What about the extra electricity needed to power computers that solve these complex problems? Emma Strubell, a tech professor at Carnegie Mellon University, estimates that the carbon footprint of training a single AI is equal to as much as 284 tons of carbon dioxide.

3. Women in AI are Changing Mental Health with Chatbots

AI is making headway with chatbots in the mental health sphere, not only with customer service, but therapy, or as Goldstaub calls it, “our emotional wellbeing.” Take AI technologist Kriti Sharma from the London group, AI for Good, which developed a chatbot called “rAInbow” to help people in abusive, controlling, unhealthy relationships in South Africa. The texting-based interface helps users feel less alone by sharing their experiences. “It gives advice about the next steps towards protecting themselves,” she writes. “There are also a number of chatbots aimed towards youth mental health, and these can be especially important because stigma can be silencing, and these chatbots provide a non-judgmental and confidential space.”

4. AI can Help Speed up Paperwork at Hospitals and Care Homes

Canadian company BlueDot is a software company that offers COVID-19 insights with AI. They detected the virus early on with an AI that reviews news, airline tickets, demographics, climate data and animal populations. Goldstaub sees it as an opportunity to bring more machine e-learning into hospitals and care homes‚Äîespecially those faced with staff shortages. There are women-led initiatives like, algorithms for medical imaging, like for X-ray systems detecting Covid-induced pneumonia. Kheiron Medical uses AI alongside human radiologists to speed up the process of detecting breast cancer. Machine learning tools like LifeLight, provide a  camera that records heart and breathing rates and relays this data to health care workers. Goldstaub also mentions Joanna Shields, the CEO of Benevolent, who is helping detect diseases with no cure and has entered a trial with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

5. Women in AI Are Leading Change in Healthcare

Over the past few years, hospitals around the world have started using robots as part of their administrative staff. “The idea is that if doctors and nurses can outsource admin tasks to robots, they’ll have more time to provide human quality care, which is proven to be a critical part of a person’s recovery,” writes Goldstaub. She cites a new app called Pocket Vision that works as a visual aid for people with impaired vision, using camera and text data to explain the visuals in front of them. Goldstaub mentions Maxine Mackintosh, the co-founder of One HealthTech, a community that empowers women and people of color to be the future leaders in health innovation. “The femtech market has exploded, with everything from AI-based breast pumps and pelvic floor exercisers to period and menopausal symptom trackers,” she writes.

6. AI Could Simplify Education 

“One reward of AI is that when it comes to work, it promises to do away with the over-complicated,” writes Goldstaub. She mentions teachers, who are so bogged down by bureaucracy, they don’t have the time to spend tutoring students, one on one. “Imagine a machine that could automate the scoring of tests, or streamline finicky tasks outside the classroom,” writes the author. “This would free up time that could be spent planning and delivering lessons, ones that are better tailored to the needs of their class and the needs of individuals. A machine cannot understand the psychology of each young person in the room in the way a skilled teacher can.”

The Erasure of Women’s History in AI

One chapter of Goldsatub’s book is devoted to the history of recognizing women in AI, like early computer scientists, Jean Bartik and Betty Snyder, who programmed the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which was the first electronic, programmable digital computer. “These women taught themselves how to operate the 150-foot-tall machine, as the engineers had no time for programming manuals or classes,” writes Goldstaub. “These women were drawing on their mathematical ability, but I think the extra skill was their determination to get these machines to work for them.” She also cites Grace Hopper, a woman with a Ph.D. in mathematics, who was one of the early programmers of the MARK 1 computer in the 1940s, and helped develop one of the earliest coding languages, “COBOL.” She also worked to make programming more accessible. Hopper once said: “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.” This book is a testament to that.

A portion of proceeds from the book’s sales will be donated to Rosa, a charity that benefits women and girls in the UK. Get the book here.

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