As Chair of BCSWomen, I am passionate about getting more girls into technology and especially into AI (artificial intelligence). And last week’s BCSWomen debate on the risks and benefits of AI highlighted just why girls should look at its career opportunities – not just for them but if we care about our society at all!

First of all, what was this event and discussion – and then I want to look at why it is so important for girls.

I was delighted that we had some of our top women thought leaders and experts in AI at an event hosted by Accenture at its Liquid Studio in London and with an audience of more than 50 women in IT. And one man – whom we were very pleased to welcome! This was our panel:

  • Pat Chapman-Pincher, who has built and sold tech companies all her life and is now a FTSE mentor
  • Audrey Mandela cofounded Multimap – an online mapping service later sold to Microsoft – and now invests in tech companies and chairs women in Telecom and Technology (WiTT) and Informilo
  • Laetitia Cailletau, the UKI Emerging technology and Artificial Intelligence lead for Accenture
  • Clara Durodie, chief executive of Cognitive Finance Group, an advisory and investment firm specialising in applied artificial intelligence in financial services

I had just come from appearing on a number of BBC and BBC World programmes, talking about a new report by 26 technology experts including Oxford and Cambridge universities, titled “The malicious use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention and Mitigation” which predicts doom and gloom from AI, if not the extinction of the human race!

So that was a good place to start. Were our panel optimistic or pessimistic about AI?

Laetitia was the most upbeat – see what she says in the FT about how Accenture is developing AI to help older people stay independent.

Pat was much more pessimistic, not least because she worries that our current generation of leaders has such a lack of knowledge and interest in technology and is sleepwalking into future problems that could possibly be managed.

Love it or hate it, AI is here to stay for the foreseeable future – and this is where the great job opportunities for girls and women lie.

According to BCS and WISE, there are just 17% women working in the IT industry – and last year that number fell while the number of men increased. So things are going the wrong way.

This is important on numerous levels, but particularly in AI. Because AI is being designed mostly by men, we are already seeing unconscious bias creeping in by gender and ethnicity – one example mentioned on the evening was in analysing CVs. We will never get more women into the sector if we unwittingly create machines that look to recruit people in ‘men’s likeness’!

The opportunities for women are considerable. Our panel discussed just some of the issues in AI where they felt women could be interested and make real contributions – this is not to exclude men from these areas, but they widen the scope of what people see as the ‘IT sector’.

These are a snapshot from tweets on the evening:

  • Picking up on the potential to create malicious intent in AI, there was considerable discussion around the need for guidance on ethics and regulation
  • Clara Durodie said ‘algorithms have parents’ and we need to ensure AI is taught manners
  • Pat Chapman-Pincher pointed out that AI has to work with people – and that is going to be a considerable challenge and opportunity to get robots integrated into the workforce
  • I commented that we don’t just need programmers but also people to test the integrity of AI

The audience said that we need more women who are working in AI to feature in the media – the panel kindly pointed out we are doing our best with my appearances in the BBC and Laetitia commenting in the FT just that week! But we need more. We are going backwards at the moment. We can all do our small bits – but we need a shift change in how teachers, parents and girls see this industry.

It is exciting and AI will undoubtedly be a key part of our futures – so how do we get more girls joining us to make the most of these opportunities and minimise the risks?