Why we need to disrupt the tech industry
Thank you for the warm welcome. It’s an honour to be in the company of so many outstanding women. From the energy in this room, I can tell that we are going to have a phenomenal experience together today. I want to thank Vanessa and the wonderful team behind We Are Tech Women for elevating the status of women, bringing us together and creating this opportunity for dialogue and sharing experiences. Throughout my career it was the support of my peers, primarily women, that lifted me, inspired me and gave me the confidence to achieve much more than I could have ever achieved on my own.
Vanessa asked me to talk today about why we need to disrupt the tech industry, and with the revelations of the past several months from the giants of Silicon Valley, it’s clear that our industry has a lot to answer for. Just this weekend, a Facebook spokesperson admitted the company “wasn’t doing enough to prevent its platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.”
That is the quite an indictment, and it is time that companies and our industry responds. We as leaders and future leaders must ensure that responsibility and accountability are core values baked into the products and services we create, and we must have zero tolerance for companies that choose not to do so.
Over the past 30 years, I have seen many waves of technology disruption. Revolutions that have come and gone and left our lives changed in their wake. But this moment feels different. This one seems to be shaking society and challenging us in ways we have not been challenged before. Ways that we must understand and learn from in order to avoid repeating the kind of reckoning we are experiencing now as an industry.
Today, I would like to tackle two seemingly different topics which represent unprecedented hope but also unprecedented challenges to the tech industry and women in particular.
The first topic is power. Pure and simple, how do we get it and what are the responsibilities that come with it? The second topic is the rise of artificial intelligence - what it means for society and what perils it holds for the empowerment and equality of women. These issues may seem at odds, but they share common elements and both require our immediate attention.
Starting with power, and specifically women taking back power, earlier this month something magnificent happened across the Atlantic. In spite of the hate and vitriol women in politics face online and the daily drumming of misogyny and hate-filled tweets, women rose up in the 2018 US midterm elections, resulting in a massive win across the political spectrum. A win that included the historic firsts of not one but two Muslim women and two Native American women being elected to Congress. It’s about time! And whatever your political views here in the UK, no one can deny the true grit and determination of Theresa May as she fights on with a kind of tenacity and force of nature that is beyond impressive. We should be proud of all women who fight every day to serve their countries and to make a difference.
This is a powerful moment for women. We are rising, but to quote Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking female politician in the US, "No one gives you power. You have to take it from them." Ladies, let’s face it - the uncomfortable truth is that all too often because we are women, our opportunities are limited, our accomplishments are diminished, and our voices are talked over or man-splained. But this is changing, because we are coming together and supporting each other in record numbers.
And come together we must, because all too often women are judged by different standards. In Jen Palmieri’s book An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World, she calls out this widespread nebulous reality by an impossibly long acronym that stands for “There's Something About Her I Just Don't Like.” This prevailing attitude lurks under the surface, and we have to call it out because it truly holds us back.
But going back to Nancy’s quote - we cannot let this become a zero-sum game. An “I win, you lose.” Yes, it’s true, we must assert ourselves and claim what we rightfully deserve, but we must also approach this from a position of abundance, not deficit. That’s what men have always done.
It is my steadfast belief that real power is defined by how many women you take along with you. And I am not talking about followers on a social network - I mean the real women you stand by and who stand by you. The women you can call in the middle of the night when something happens. The women who laugh out loud with you and tell you honestly when you have made a mistake or done something that sucks. Women who would lend you their best outfit so you can feel great and confident to take on the world. This network, your real social network, isn’t about followers on Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn; it’s the real relationships that sustain us. And that’s the point - there is something more powerful than taking power, and that’s having it, sharing it and elevating all women in the process.
Looking back at my career, there are so many amazing women that I have worked with along the way. Women I still call my closest friends. I tear up with pride hearing of their accomplishments and the great women they have become. And I love them all dearly because we travelled along this path together, we helped each other and we made sure that as many others as we could enable came along with us.
And when we meet again sometime in the future you will all, no doubt, be able to take great pride in the progress you have made in your careers. The technological advances you will develop and bring to the market. The products you will create that will help us live better lives. But we must ensure that what we do and what we build leads to a better society. We must anticipate the unintended consequences and act responsibly when things go wrong. And we must become more defiant in our quest for equality.
Women’s equality and advocacy are issues close to my heart, not least because, as a woman and a working mother, I have lived and experienced the struggles and challenges gender inequality poses first hand. I have worked my way up in this male-dominated tech industry and brought up my son alone, and I have put a lot of pressure on myself to do it all perfectly. So many of you here today have also defied the odds and accomplished so much whilst trying to be perfect mothers, daughters, sisters, spouses and friends.
And the mantra these past few years has been all about leaning in. About women advocating on behalf of themselves, speaking out and actively participating in the conversation. This is great, but what happens to those who can’t get a seat at the table in the first place?
One of the most inspirational women in tech for me is Katherine Johnson. Her story was depicted in the recent film Hidden Figures. She and her fellow African-American female mathematicians were truly the ‘hidden figures’ behind NASA’s successful Apollo space program. There is one scene in the film that I could watch over and again - when Katherine tries to gain entry into the control room full of high-ranking white male officials and is told by her superior that “There is no protocol for women attending…” Her response was, “There’s no protocol for a man circling the Earth either!” And that says it all.
Needless to say, without Johnson’s calculations, that spacecraft would have skipped past the earth’s orbit and never returned. But the real lesson is what her boss says next, “That is just the way things are…” Well, that is only true until someone stands up and says “No, not on my watch.” No, “this stops here and now.” Or no, “#MeToo.”
If we want to escape from a world of “the way things are,” we can’t be content with slight improvements along the same trajectory.
Inclusion, diversity and equality are more urgent than ever today. That’s because we are at a point when technology is changing our lives in ways we could have never imagined.
Let me explain.
I am 7 months into a remarkable new journey as CEO of BenevolentAI. I work with some of the brightest minds in the world who are applying science and technology to accelerate drug discovery and find treatments for the estimated 9,000 diseases that currently have no cure. It’s a remarkable company, and every day we push the boundaries of artificial intelligence and machine learning to unlock the power of data to identify and understand the underlying causes of disease and develop new treatments for patients.
At a time of dystopian prophecies of machines ending humanity, it is important to see the positive potential of this next wave. AI applied in the right ways will advance and improve lives and meet some of the world’s greatest challenges, from providing adequate health care to clean energy, climate change, food security and poverty eradication.
But we must ensure that the application of AI will be an expression of the very highest ethical standards known to humankind. The risks are obvious. This new technology will reflect our biases, whether we intend it to or not. And if you thought bias was hard to weed out in the real world, imagine when bias is baked into an algorithm that powers basic needs like health care, hiring decisions or loan approvals.
There are real concerns that society’s gender equality problems could be reinforced, and amplified, by machine learning, and that biased data will influence the decisions that machines make on our behalf in the future. To understand the risks of not thinking ahead, we just need to remember what happened when we forgot to anticipate the unforeseen consequences of the tech revolution in which we are now living.
We were so focused on all the wonderful things that social platforms would do that we never stopped to think about the things they would undo. Things that would challenge and upend our way of life. Things that matter, like facts, truth, equality and respect for one another. Human civility. And while our industry, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, is paying the price for that now, so is our society.
As we develop the next wave of technologies and apply AI to literally everything that we do, use and experience, we have to be careful what we optimise for and who benefits from this optimisation. We need to be cognizant of the biases we bake into AI. We need to think about how we ensure beneficial outcomes for all, and how this time, we keep power in check. We cannot leave these decisions to others. We cannot abdicate our responsibilities.
As AI ethicist Shannon Vallor said, “There are no independent machine values. Machine values are human values.” And we need to protect these values, now more than ever.
The way to protect these values is not just by fighting our own battles or by standing our ground as individuals. The way to protect them, and protect ourselves, is by standing together as fellow travellers on this brave journey to make something of ourselves and to leave the world a better place.