Sarah Burnett and the BCSWomen’s AI Accelerator programme receives a nomination for the prestigious EQUALS in Tech Awards.

By day, Sarah Burnett is Executive Vice President and Distinguished Analyst at a boutique analyst and advisory firm called Everest Group. She’s responsible for research and advisory services on business automation trends, developments, technologies and adoption patterns by enterprises. Her work  focuses on the latest robotic and Artificial Intelligence (AI) based technologies. As ITNOW went to press, Burnett’s AI Accelerator project received a nomination for in the EQUALS Tech Awards.

Q. Tell us about the award and what the nomination means to you.

When I became chair of BCSWomen in late 2016, with my background in AI and seeing how AI is going to change the way that we live and work, I set up the AI Accelerator as a BCSWomen program supported by BCS SGAI. This is a series of free AI-focused webinars, seminars and workshops by experts, aimed at getting more women into the field of AI. The program reached circa 500 women in 2017 and we are running more courses and events this year. As far as I know this is a fairly unique programme that is free and makes AI accessible to anyone who is interested. We get men attending our sessions too.

I heard about EQUALS via Gillian Arnold, the ex-chair of BCSWomen. She had won the inaugural GemTech awards by the UN ITU for BCSWomen in 2014. EQUALS is a UN Women and  ITU-led global network delivered by a partnership of corporate leaders, governments, non-profit organizations, communities and individuals around the world.

So, I entered AI Accelerator into the EQUALS in Tech Awards in the Skills category and was absolutely thrilled to reach the finals. There were over 350 entries from 80 countries and AI Accelerator was one of 5 reaching the finals in the skills category.

This nomination means that our purpose is understood by people who care about the role of women in technology and that it is a viable and impactful programme. This has encouraged me and my team to do more to establish this relatively new programme to reach many more women and to prepare them for the changing world of work and new skills requirements.

Q. Why is it important that women - and indeed all groups - are represented in the teams that make and deploy AI products?

AI will be an incredibly impactful technology. It has the potential to have a huge impact on society, on how decisions are made about us and how we’ll do our jobs in the future. And so, we need to guard against bias in data sets and the decisions that are made based on those data sets. To achieve this we need diverse teams. Such teams, by their nature, are better placed to understand diverse customers and their needs. Diverse teams are best placed to make products that appeal to a wide variety of people and organisations.

Q. AI has huge implications for how we all live our lives. What role do you think professionalism plays in ensuring AI based products - do pinch Google’s line - ‘do no evil’?

Most organisations will use AI to fulfil simple business processes faster. The AI in these cases will learn by watching people and having some safeguards around its machine learning ability to ensure that its decisions remain legal and compliant with regulatory frameworks.

We can set ethical and professional guidelines for all activities, but these will not stop those who are so inclined to ‘do evil’. We just need to get better at protecting ourselves and detecting AI oriented cyber crime. Ironically, we will have to use good AI to fight the bad.