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Is AI immune to bias? Anastassia Lauterbach answers our questions

As a highly sought-after board member for internet and financial companies, founder and CEO of 1AU-Ventures, and Senior Advisor, Artificial Intelligence and Analytics at McKinsey, Dr. Anastassia Lauterbach focuses on strategies in growth and partnerships in businesses that seemed like science fiction in the not-too-distant past. Lauterbach, lead author of The Artificial Intelligence Imperative. A Practical Roadmap for Business, believes that “AI technology reflects its creators” and is not immune to bias. She answered a few of our questions about gender and AI, as well as her career path as a top tech strategist.

"Just remember the navigation system in your car, or last time you dialed your bank or your telecommunication provider. Female voices are everywhere."

- Anastassia Lauterbach

Anastassia Lauterbach (photo courtesy of Anastassia Lauterbach)

Who were the people who influenced your tech career the most? Can you tell us about one or two mentors who helped shape your intellectual path? My first professor Nikita Tolstoy (the grandson of the great writer Leo Tolstoy) was one of the biggest influencers. He encouraged me to learn new subjects without angst or constraints of University schedules. “You can’t fail, your mind is your biggest asset”, he used to say. I met him at the age of 16, and I consider myself very lucky. Sandi Peterson, former Johnson & Johnson Group Worldwide Chairwoman, Board Member at Microsoft, is another person who influenced my path in the last eight years. We were together on the board of Dun & Bradstreet. Sandi is a real role model and simply gets things done. She takes time to listen and is very generous to share her experience. Given the low numbers of women in ICT leadership globally, how do you see women’s perspectives being included in development and use of new technologies such as AI? As AI technology reflects its creators, it is not immune to biases due to lack of diversity in gender, age and ethnicity, or lack of involvement of non-engineers to consider important aspects of usability, ethics, and ultimately, safety. Involvement of women is an absolute necessity. For example, when translating from Turkish—a language that uses a single gender-neutral pronoun ‘o’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’— Google Translate attributes ‘he’ to soldiers, doctors and entrepreneurs, and ‘she’ to nurses and teachers.

"AI technology reflects its creators.... AI shows us a mirror, with no Einstein staring back at us."

- Anastassia Lauterbach

A 2016 report from the Obama Office of Science and Technology Policy warned that the impact of Machine Learning powered algorithms on work has the potential to worsen inequality. Today banks routinely refuse loans, because ‘an algorithm decided so’. Some population groups are being treated unfairly by health insurance companies and law enforcement, as they have a ‘challenging zip code’. Unsettling as these examples might be, they ‘only’ reduce individuals to statistical averages. In a sense, AI shows us a mirror, with no Einstein starring back at us. As artificial intelligence technologies approach a level of interactivity that feels “human,” why do you think the two most obvious current examples – Siri and Alexa – were given women’s voices? And do you predict that this will set a precedent in AI development? When I was writing The Artificial Intelligence Imperative, I talked to Amazon and founders of Siri. There were some background discussions around the gender. Consumers and businesses, however, are still used to female assistants.

Just remember the navigation system in your car, or last time you dialed your bank or your telecommunication provider. Female voices are everywhere. The situation is better in chatbots. There we have ‘male’ and ‘female’ helpers. Who are some of the women you admire the most in technology, whether digital or not? Rioch Edwards-Brown is fabulous. She created a wonderful program focused on helping kids with difficult social background to develop their talent and get jobs in TV or in agencies businesses. I’ve already talked about Sandi Peterson. Paola Bonomo is wonderful. She is one of the most influential female angel investors in Italy. How about your favorite overall role models, male or female? There are a lot of scientists and innovators I truly admire. They are all from very different scientific fields. Antonio Damasio and Michael S. Gazzaniga in brain research, David Deutsch and Max Tegmark in Physics, Thomas Metzinger and Peter Singer in Philosophy and Ethics, Jaron Lanier in Philosophy, Yuval Noah Harari in History, Jennifer Doudna in Biology and Genetics are huge influencers. I read work from multiple fields, as innovation is quite often appearing in between the borderlines of one single discipline. I can recommend to everyone – young or otherwise – to do the same.


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