image for Diversity - some insights gathered at SxSW

Diversity - some insights gathered at SxSW

Published on Tuesday, 18th April 2017, contributed by ADLIB

One of ADLIB's most sobering takeaways from SxSW: the impact 'not addressing team diversity' could have.

By Gabby Shaw:

With the dust settling on this year’s trip to SxSW, we’ve been digesting what we learnt and wanted to share more insight around two of the conference’s core themes that are particularly relevant to our world at ADLIB – diversity in technology and the future of the workplace. First up, diversity.

Our industry’s struggles in building diverse and inclusive teams has long been in the spotlight and now, more than ever, it is critical that we look to address this. The imperative to have diverse teams is as much a commercial one as it is an ethical one. One of the more sobering takeaways from SxSW for us was the impact not addressing this balance will have. Regardless of your opinions on a personal level, lack of diversity in the technology world will have a stark impact in our lives. But why is this particularly pressing now?

One of the core themes of SxSW was around the rise of AI and machine learning. Focusing on this area alone, it is impossible not to see some worrying signs. A recurring concept in many of the AI-centred sessions was the challenge of creating algorithms free from human bias. How can you build an unbiased machine if the team involved in its creation are totally homogenous or lacking diversity? Kate Crawford in her brilliant (and bleakly named) session, AI and the Rise of Fascism, commented that an algorithm cannot be defined as without bias if it has come from human data as data reflects the social and political conditions in which it is collected. In other words, all AI will be affected by human bias even if this bias is unconscious. If the teams responsible for producing these technologies are imbalanced, we’re in trouble.

We’re in trouble because of what these technologies are already being used for. What happens when a prejudiced algorithm is being used to define your Social Credit Score in China? What happens if the algorithms behind Palantir’s big data products – currently enabling, among other things, predictive policing in the US and the UK – are prejudiced? With emerging products like Faception looking to use machine learning facial recognition software to identify possible terrorists, not based on individual identification but on analysing trends in bone structure or face shape (phrenology, anyone?) – are we really aware of the impact the current lack of diversity in technology will have on society? We only need to cast our mind back to Google’s 2015 blunder involving one of its image recognition AI products mistakenly labelling a black couple as “gorillas” to see how easy it is for these things to go wrong. These concerns reach industries beyond ‘technology’ – what could the dangers be of a non-diverse ethics steering committee guiding future use of the CRISPR technology in gene editing (something we were given a giddying insight to in Jennifer Doudna’s keynote session)?

As we say, though, these imperatives are as much a commercial concern for businesses as an ethical one. Every business delivers varied services and products to a rich assortment of customers whose needs and values must be represented. This was something Ingrid Vanderveldt shed light on in her session Empowering a Billion Women by 2020. In the US alone, women are responsible for over 80% of all consumer spending ($3.7 trillion in 2016) – worldwide that figure stays high at more than 70%. And yet, 91% of women are reported to feel misunderstood by corporates and advertisers. On the flip side, when women believe a business is authentically trying to help, 79% will buy goods or services. You can see, then, the commercial opportunities for companies able to build a diverse and balanced workforce.

Sadly, the stats reflect that there remains a long way to go yet. This is as true on a global level, as it is on a regional level. With inspirational and aspirational schemes running globally (EBW2020 for example), as well as the renewed focus Bristol Mayor Marvin Reese has brought to this theme more locally, it’s an exciting time to be having these conversations.

While we can’t offer any simple or easy solutions, the core takeaway for us is the importance of not being paralysed by the sheer scale of these challenges – but instead making a concerted effort to at least participate in these conversations.