Engaging more women in the AI industry is one thing. Engaging more women from diverse backgrounds, across race, gender identity, disability, etc., is another. First, we need to ensure that our workplaces are inclusive. Second, we need to make sure that our hiring practices are inclusive, from the application software that auto filters candidates, to addressing the personal biases of hiring managers. Third, we need to eliminate biases in our education pipeline to stop discouraging women, and other marginalized groups, from pursuing STEM education and careers.
As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Betsy Beaumon, CEO of Benetech, a nonprofit that empowers communities with software for social good. As CEO, she leads Benetech’s work to transform the way people with disabilities read and learn, enable human rights defenders to pursue justice, and increase access to information on social and human services.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?
When I decided to become an electrical engineer, I did it with the firm resolve that technology should make the world better. After a mix of engineering and product management roles, I co-founded two software companies. The first was Social Online Service, the first web-based information and referral service for human services organizations. Many of my roles focused on new products, scaling, and improving services, such as at Cisco, BEA Systems, and my second start-up, TradeBeam, Inc. was an early player in leveraging the web for global trade and logistics management. It was still clear to me that technology could (and should!) also be scaled to drive maximum social good. I combined what I had learned from all of those experiences to pursue what I believe is my true calling and a big need in the world: Developing and scaling technology at for-profit companies and applying it to developing and scaling technology for social change.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
Don’t be afraid of a challenge. Find opportunities to match your passion with your skillset. I like to work on interesting and challenging problems, where my technical understanding and leadership can make an impact. Focusing on impact has enabled me to work in both for-profit and nonprofit ventures, startups, and larger corporations. The expertise that I developed working at for-profit companies provided a strategic outlook I could apply and scale in the non-profit sector.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
One of Benetech’s software projects, focused on supporting marginalized communities and others, is being developed to support the investigation of war crimes. It used to be very difficult to collect evidence of war crimes, but now with the proliferation of smartphones, we have access to huge troves of video and photo evidence. Human rights defenders have struggled to absorb and analyze these increasingly large volumes of data. We have built artificial intelligence (AI) tools to sort and cluster data specific to human rights abuses, creating video fingerprints that make it easier to chart a path for civil society organizations to pursue prosecution with relevant and credible evidence.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am very grateful for our Founder, Jim Fruchterman, for bringing me into Benetech and fully supporting my transition to nonprofit social enterprise, open-source software for social good, and impact over profit. I have learned many things from Jim and enjoyed a wonderful partnership of ideas along the way.
Jim and I tell the story of our meeting differently. We met at the first Social Capital Markets (SoCap) Conference in San Francisco. I was there to look seriously at social enterprise after deciding if not now, when? I had experienced two major changes nearly simultaneously: my company (BEA) was sold to Oracle, and I lost one of my sisters very suddenly. I thought about life’s brevity and set my sights on a path toward impact. After being introduced to Jim (“You two are both techies”), he introduced Benetech, said I should check out the website, and gave me his card. His version of the story involves him giving me a very hard sell!
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
Looking at the world with an inclusion lens makes the possibilities of AI very exciting. I also see AI as an inevitable and fundamental toolset for dealing with an increasingly data-centered world, where the creation of significant amounts of data causes new challenges.
- Smart homes & smart cities create new possibilities for all citizens to live better lives, and I see particular benefits for seniors and people with disabilities to live more independent lives. The technology could allow seniors to live independently in their homes longer, ease the chronic shortage of caregivers for the most vulnerable people, and enhance their services. I can imagine particular benefits when combined with specialized assistive devices. AI-powered smart city infrastructure and self-driving cars pose huge potential for enabling people with disabilities to navigate the cities in which they live. For those who can’t afford self-driving cars, smarter public transportation can better map to changing community needs and help users leverage the best route for their particular situation.
- Products that work for all: AI has the potential to make all digital product interfaces and digital content more user-friendly for a wider range of users, by learning a person’s unique needs and preferences, and tailoring their tech experience to meet these needs. Rather than being limited to 80% in the middle, systems can self-calibrate for 100% of people. This requires a different mindset for many developers and a thoughtful approach to where personal data is stored.
- Access to information: Similar to user interfaces, individuals consume information in different ways. Digitizing printed words and pictures in ways they can be consumed auditorily, for example, helps people who are blind, or perhaps just need their eyes on the road. While it isn’t there yet, AI promises to describe complex pictures that a student can’t see or understand, which will help in STEM learning. Benetech is working on a number of projects to analyze, digitize, and describe math and science content for non-visual learners.
- Analyzing data for justice and transparency: Data is growing exponentially and we are all now-massive data creators. AI can help us utilize it for good, by analyzing, filtering, and categorizing in the pursuit of truth. Two significant areas are in human rights and journalism, where data in the form of photos, videos, documents, financial records, etc., can now be too voluminous for humans to process. Benetech’s work using machine learning on videos from the Syrian conflict is an early example of such applications. Because so many Syrian citizens captured the conflict on their mobile devices, there is literally more evidence than investigators and prosecutors can analyze manually in order to pursue cases against war criminals or seek restitution for citizens.
- Medicine: Technology overall, and AI most recently, are offering vast new capabilities in medicine. Cracking the genome and the increasing accuracy of imaging and vision technology have opened up an entirely new frontier of data-driven possibilities for prevention and cure. Computers are extremely useful in pattern recognition learned from large data sets.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
The things that concern me about the AI industry boil down to three:
The downsides of the wonderful benefits for consumers in AI-driven consumer products is that they are giving up significant amounts of personal data in the process. Our lives are increasingly tracked through our devices, with little or no option to opt-out if you want to take advantage of their benefits. Most individuals have no idea how much of their data is being captured and what is being done with it. For vulnerable people, who might be most able to benefit but who often have less agency to fight back against wrongs, that’s particularly troubling. The same smart home that could save the life of a senior could also lead to their abuse, depending on who has access to their data and how they are used.
In machine learning (ML) applications, the algorithms that lead to decisions are driven by the data they’re fed. So, it’s another case of, “you are what you eat.” Far from the utopian idea that machines aren’t biased, these machines are as biased as the data, which come from a biased world. There have been some significant, well-publicized negative results that are leading to lots of questions, companies hiring AI ethics officers, etc. We’ve seen significant issues, especially in systems involved in hiring, where people with disabilities and others who don’t conform to outdated norms are automatically rejected.
- There’s another form of bias that creeps in, which is an over-reliance on machines. In the case of medicine, for example, a doctor who has reason to believe her diagnosis of an edge case scenario must be willing to argue against a computer-generated result that was arrived at based on 95th percentile data. It is likely to be wrong 5% of the time.
- Secrecy/ lack of Transparency:
Most of the algorithms impacting lives every day are completely hidden from view. This is due in part to understandable competitive concerns. In some cases, however, the organizations using them (or creating them) also don’t know exactly how they are making decisions or reaching conclusions. In order to prevent abuses, there must be an increased level of transparency, including the training data itself, without further violating privacy.
As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?
As with any new technology, I think it can be both a benefit and a danger. AI is perhaps even more of both than earlier technology breakthroughs because it is moving incredibly fast and resulting algorithms are not always fully understood, even by their creators.
What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?
Transparency, privacy for individuals, and significant attention to data and algorithmic bias must all happen in order to avert the potential for danger to humanity, especially those already marginalized by society. It seems one answer must be smart, targeted regulation that happens very quickly, because we are witnessing what an unregulated market looks like in this space, and it’s only the beginning. In order to achieve this, we also need education of the public and our public officials so they understand the technology better, as well as its consequences, both positive and negative. Finally, we need more diversity in technical and leadership positions making such consequential decisions.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
I’m very lucky. As the CEO of a global nonprofit focused on software for social good, I get to spend every day working toward ensuring an equitable and inclusive future.
I have a specific story of one of our users that I think of often. This student was in middle school, struggling to read due to severe dyslexia. His Mom used to read him his homework — holding a book with one hand while cooking dinner with the other. After finding Bookshare (one of our inclusive education software tools), he shot to the top of his class, was accepted to Cornell University, and ultimately went on to become a program manager at Microsoft. I’m so proud to be able to be a part of that, and to keep working on the next breakthroughs to help even more people achieve their dreams.
As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?
- Find your passion and pursue it. You’ll perform better and be happier if you have a real interest in the area of work you’re pursuing. You may be most turned on by the tech itself, which is ok, but if it’s applied to something you believe in — that’s even better!
- Find allies. Even if there are no women in leadership in your organization, look to peers who you can learn from and use as sounding boards. Cultivate a network across the industry.
- Believe in your ideas and pursue them. It’s still early days in a very big shift in technology and its applications, and people innovating in this space now are the pioneers we’ll read about in years to come.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
I’m going to take this question one step further. Engaging more women in the AI industry is one thing. Engaging more women from diverse backgrounds, across race, gender identity, disability, etc., is another. First, we need to ensure that our workplaces are inclusive. Second, we need to make sure that our hiring practices are inclusive, from the application software that auto filters candidates, to addressing the personal biases of hiring managers. Third, we need to eliminate biases in our education pipeline to stop discouraging women, and other marginalized groups, from pursuing STEM education and careers.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” — African Proverb
Show me any story of a successful company, nonprofit, or public movement, and I’ll show you a team who made it happen. This flies in the face of the typical Silicon Valley glorification of the individual entrepreneur. For social sector change it even goes one level further — where it takes a community, and engagement, not usually a disruptor.
In my first startup, my business partner and I created the first web-based information and referral service for human services (food, shelter, clothing, counseling, etc.). It was sorely needed then, and many issues around information remain in the complex web of service providers. I learned that important lesson about going far together — in our Service Net initiative today at Benetech, we work within the social safety net to help solve this problem, rather than being a typical disruptor form the outside.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Universal. Inclusive. Design.
One movement that I’m most proud of is starting the movement for Born Accessible books. For many people who experience barriers to reading such as dyslexia, visual impairment, or physical disability, accessible ebooks are the only way to read. When the publishing industry began making the shift to digital publishing, I recognized an opportunity to ensure that these “Born Digital” books would be “Born Accessible” as well. Born Accessible is now a watch word across multiple forms of digital content.
More broadly, inclusive design, across all areas, including apps, digital tools, games, AI, transportation, etc., has the potential to improve the lives of billions of people. While it isn’t a new concept, it still hasn’t gotten the traction it needs in the product design world. The move fast and break things mantra that governs much of tech development means that a lot of people are only thinking about inclusion after the fact, when it’s many times more expensive to implement, if at all. Inclusive design means better products for everyone, and it’s time for it to catch on.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me at @betsybeaumon on twitter. To stay up to date on Benetech’s work more generally, I encourage you to follow our Facebook: benetech.org, Instagram: benetech_org, and Twitter: @benetech.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!