As a child, Anne-Marie Imafidon was curious about the video recorder in her lounge. Her family had a pile of video tapes in the corner; anything from home videos of people’s weddings to popular films, including the Lion King. She was fascinated how people and characters could come to life from a black box to a screen. She wondered: how did the machine know the songs they were going to sing? How did it know when they would appear?
She went in search of answers inside the black box. One of her earliest memories was taking apart the video recorder because she wanted to know how it worked. She remembers this moment as the start of her technical journey; and her curiosity would propel her to an A Level in Computing at the age of 11, and a master’s degree at the age of 20.
“I’m no longer four years old, but the curiosity remains,” she said. “It could be databases, HTML, object-oriented programming, and now intelligent systems – known as AI – let’s keep going. How does it work? What problems are we going to solve with it?”
Developing ethical technology
Anne-Marie is now 32 and the chief executive and co-founder of a non-profit called Stemettes. For the past ten years, she has been on a mission: to engage, inform and connect the next generation of women and non-binary people into science, technology, engineering, arts and maths (STEAM) careers. She is working hard to showcase diversity and believes a balance of voices will be crucial in the coming decades.
“We are definitely at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution with data-driven technologies at scale,” she said. “At this stage, we’re too far off the regulation and guardrails we need. But with the right people around the table, making the right decisions, there is an innovation and legacy we can be proud of as technologists. It’s the decisions you make early on which will set you up for the right kind of success.”
Building ethical technology starts with people’s intentions, she said, moving beyond the optimisation of technology in isolation, and considering the political, moral and social implications. When businesses develop a minimum viable product (MVP), for example, they should consider its context and impact early on. Technology doesn’t operate in a vacuum; it operates in real life, of course.
“We have to be intentional about AI because, in itself, it doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “AI is only following what it has been taught to do; it’s not working autonomously however much people would like to give that impression. We need a mix of technical and non-technical people around the table; a diversity of opinions and experiences to make rounded and balanced decisions.”
But how do businesses get to the place where diversity can help them to develop intelligent technology, avoiding bias and potential discrimination? According to Anne-Marie, there are three things for them to consider: the attraction, retention and promotion of diverse talent.
First, businesses need to have the right recruitment processes in place. People also need to feel valued as they go through these processes. The aim is to avoid the tech stereotypes and to move beyond, in Anne-Marie’s words, people who are “dead and white and male with a beard”. People who can blend science and the arts, for example, or those with transferable skills and a different perspective.
Secondly, businesses need to create environments in which people want to stay. Executive leaders should ask themselves: what are we doing to help different groups of people – whether it be women, people of colour, those with disabilities, or single parents? Anne-Marie shared the example of a single mother being invited to an evening work event. For most businesses, a hotel is an allowable expense, but childcare is not. “But that’s what they need, not a hotel,” she said.
Thirdly, promotion and support really matter for diverse groups to flourish. Not simply employing a diverse range of people, but actively promoting and valuing them; making sure they are paid fairly and celebrated. If businesses can do all these things better, then it will be possible to really shift the dial on diversity and inclusion, she said.
Anne-Marie also said the four-day working week, alongside a hybrid working, could help. Stemettes has been part of the four-day working week movement and she believes it has been a success. “We’ve had to change the way we do our work. But we have seen higher happiness, we’ve seen more productivity, and we continue to grow as an organisation.”
Tech for tomorrow
Once the right support structures are in place, everyone will need to develop a growth mindset. They will need space to experiment with new technology, before any long-term decisions are made about its use. Anne-Marie advocates listening to podcasts and reading newsletters on key topics to help develop knowledge.
“I wish more people were given the opportunity to try things,” she said. “They might surprise themselves with what comes next. If you are a ten-year-old who fails their GCSEs, who cares? You probably weren’t supposed to be doing them in the first place.” But for Anne-Marie, “being curious and wanting to solve problems was nurtured and supported”. It defined her professional mission.
As businesses embark the fourth industrial revolution, Anne-Marie’s message of diversity, experimentation and curiosity is a powerful one. She might not be dismantling video recorders anymore, but her suggested approach to the AI might just be the one we need to develop ethical innovations for the future.
Click here for more information about the use of AI at work. Click here to learn more about Anne-Marie’s work and her first book – She’s In CTRL.
The next event in Protiviti and Robert Half’s Tackling Tomorrow Today series – on Thursday 28 September – will feature writer and speaker Christine Armstrong. She will be asking: what makes a great place to work? Click here to register.