Ada-AI Seeks to Build a Diverse Artificial Intelligence Community

Xconomy National — 

Artificial intelligence innovation has become part of our everyday lives—retailers use it to tailor the product recommendations they make; biotech companies hope it can create customized medicine. But its shortcomings, born of human biases, are becoming apparent as well.

Take, for example, facial recognition technologies that work best on white people and make the most errors on black people. “Like a human, AI’s learning is only as good as the data it is fed,” said Manoj Saxena, former head of IBM Watson in Austin, TX, and a prominent investor in AI startups.

A new organization called Ada-AI, which is based in London, is focused on making sure the data used to build these technologies come from diverse sources. Specifically, the group seeks to make sure that non-Western, non-white parts of the world are included in influencing AI innovations. “We want to be thinking about who are the next generation of tech leaders,” said Madeline McSherry, Ada-AI’s policy lead. “A lot of them will be in Silicon Valley, but how can we encourage them in other areas?”

The Ada-AI effort has attracted to its board a number of prominent leaders in AI representing organizations such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, XPrize, and the World Economic Forum. “This is not about top-down, ‘we’ll first solve the problems in New York and Palo Alto and then export the solutions everywhere else,’” Amir Banifatemi, the AI lead for the XPrize Foundation, which runs a $5 million AI contest with IBM Watson, said in an interview. “The problems have to be solved as close as possible to the sources.”

The first project Ada-AI is tackling is setting up a high school specializing in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) in Herat, a city in the northwestern part of Afghanistan. The group is crowdfunding the effort and so far has raised just under $2,000 of its $500,000 total goal. (Ada-AI is also looking to raise funds from corporations and foundations for the effort.)

Ada-AI was founded by Sarah Porter, founder of Inspired Minds and World Summit AI. She connected with Roya Mahboob, an Afghan software entrepreneur who runs a program bringing computers and the Internet to young schoolgirls in her country. Last summer, Porter offered to bring an all-girls robotics team from Afghanistan to the World Summit AI in Amsterdam.

The team, which was being sponsored by Mahboob’s nonprofit, Digital Citizen Fund, was denied visas to enter the United States to attend the FIRST Global Challenge, an international robotics contest being held in Washington, DC. (The team was eventually granted visas and participated in the competition.)

I first met Mahboob in 2012 during reporting trips I made to Afghanistan, which resulted in my writing about her challenges in being a woman entrepreneur and a founder of a tech company in that country. The next year, she was included in Time magazine’s top 100 influential people in the world.

The sort of tenacity needed to persevere as an entrepreneur in Afghanistan prompted Gary Marcus, the CEO and founder of Geometric Intelligence and the former director of Uber AI Labs, to join Ada-AI’s board. And, he added, as a white male, he felt it was important to lend his voice and support to an effort focused on bringing a more diverse set of people into technology.

Marcus told me that he’s seen the lack of diversity in the labor pool of those with AI skills first-hand. While building up Geometric Intelligence, he said prospective employees skewed heavily male. “Individual companies must do everything they can to have more diverse staffs,” he said. “I think what Ada-AI’s trying to do is important.”

The issue, he adds, also hits close to home. “I have a three-and-a-half year-old daughter who is showing signs of wanting to be an engineer,” Marcus says. “I want her to feel like that’s a reasonable thing for her to do if that’s where her talents lie.”