Was Rahman of AI Prescience: “Quality”

I wish I’d realized that the value of a promotion is usually over-rated, especially in the early years of work. In particular, a better job title is rarely as useful as gaining new skills and experience, although it might not seem so in the short term. As a part of our series about cutting edge technological […]

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I wish I’d realized that the value of a promotion is usually over-rated, especially in the early years of work. In particular, a better job title is rarely as useful as gaining new skills and experience, although it might not seem so in the short term.

As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Was Rahman.

Was has been working for over 30 years to help businesses across the globe understand data technology, particularly AI, and use it to boost performance. He is an expert in all things artificial intelligence and is working to demystify the technology we now see everywhere, from businesses and shops to transport and our homes. He is especially skilled in conveying complex technical topics and issues to non-technical audiences.

An experienced speaker, Was has participated in high-profile events organized by the IoD, Financial Times, the Governments of India and the UK, the World Economic Forum and tech hubs around the UK such as London’s “Tech City”, the “Cambridge Cluster” and “Silicon Gorge”.

He holds academic and professional education credentials in AI fields from institutions including Oxford and Stanford, and has been a guest lecturer at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, Cambridge’s Judge Business School, London Business School & IIT Madras. He is an AI researcher at Coventry University in the Centre for Business in Society, completing a doctoral thesis on “The Role of Ethics & Governance in Social Divisions Arising from Widespread Use of Artificial Intelligence” and is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Until a few years ago, I didn’t plan my career in terms of strategic goals or long term steps. But looking back, it all seems to fit together into a coherent bigger picture. I don’t know if that’s fate, coincidence or if there’s another, more appropriate label. Whatever the cause, the result is a series of chapters, each with own theme and purpose for that particular time.

I’m now fortunate to be at a stage where all those experiences, lessons and scars are proving to be useful. So my career path is about deciding how best to use what I’ve learned so far.

What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened to you since you began your career?

It’s impossible to pick a single most interesting thing, but there are several to choose from. Some centre on special people I’ve met or worked with, others are about working in fascinating places.

The professional memory that has stayed with me most vividly is working in Eastern Europe in the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A highlight from that time was being one of the first ten people at Poland’s first digital mobile phone operator, taking the company from license to launch in less than a year.

Are there any cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on?

My current focus is on researching discrimination in artificial intelligence, especially race and gender bias. AI now makes or influences so many business decisions, it’s crucially important to be confident those decisions are fair.

There has been much progress improving people’s attitudes and behaviours on this front in business, but many decisions — such as loan approvals or CV screening — are now routinely made without human involvement. Unfortunately, when AI is involved, there are too many illustrations of those decisions showing discrimination on grounds of race and gender among others.

We’re still in the early days of understanding how and why AI-powered decisions can be discriminatory, although it’s clear that this is generally inadvertent and unintentional. One part of the solution is identifying and correcting unfair AI decisions after they’ve been made. However, it’s of course equally important to prevent inappropriate bias happening in the first place. It’s in this latter area I’m currently working, and one of the most fascinating aspects is the use of AI to prevent unfairness in AI-powered decisions.

How do you think they might affect people and change the world?

AI is already affecting people and changing the world, becoming increasingly responsible for key decisions in our lives at work and home. If these decisions are prone to the kind of bias we’ve worked so hard to try to eliminate, even if it’s unintentional, then AI could represent as many steps backward as forward.

I believe addressing discrimination in AI is a fundamental priority for the technology industry. If we don’t deal with it successfully now, in the early days of AI, then we run the risk of not being able to do anything about it later, as the technology and its use scale and evolve.

So in my view, technology that could prevent and remove inappropriate AI bias is one way we will create and protect a fairer world in the future.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should be concerned about?

We’ve only seen the very earliest indications of how deeply AI is going to become embedded in our lives. Inadvertent discrimination has started to appear, but substantial benefits are also being obtained. What’s not yet clear is how the importance of addressing the risk of discrimination will be weighed against the value of using AI more widely, particularly by those who gain from that value.

So the “black mirror” concern is that businesses choose to quietly allow inadvertent unfairness in their AI-powered business decisions, in order to reap the commercial benefits.

What makes this a greater concern is the possibility that customers choose to accept that because they are seduced by the convenience, cost savings and other benefits AI offers. They would need to accept that someone pays a price for this in the form of unintended discrimination. History has shown us this can become a possibility if the “someone” who pays such prices is “someone else”.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this realisation?

There was no single tipping point about this, but a gradual awareness that businesses and people can learn to accept things that previously would have been unacceptable, especially if the perceived benefits are great enough.

Having said that, I’m inherently optimistic about technology and our ability to use it responsibly, so I don’t believe fictional dystopian scenarios are our most likely future. I think an informed, aware public is the best defence against technology being used inappropriately by business.

What needs to happen before this technology becomes widespread?

Unfortunately we’re some way from AI technology that can be used to prevent, detect and correct discrimination in AI decision-making. So the first thing that needs to happen is the research and development to convert the concept to something tangible.

In the meantime, educating business leaders and the public on inadvertent discrimination in AI is a crucial prerequisite to addressing the problem, regardless of any technology used to solve it.

Is there a particular person you are grateful for, who helped you get to where you are?

There is a small set of people who have been important to me professionally and personally over the years, and without them, I would not be where I am today. They know who they are, and also know how much I value their support. If I needed to remind them of that, I’d prefer to do it in private rather than in front of an audience.

How have you made a positive impact on the world, during your career?

I’d like to think I’ve made a difference by helping people I’ve worked with achieve more than they would have done if they hadn’t known me. This isn’t necessarily about businesses or technologies they’ve built, but more often about how they’ve behaved and treated others.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started”?

I wish I’d realized that the value of a promotion is usually over-rated, especially in the early years of work. In particular, a better job title is rarely as useful as gaining new skills and experience, although it might not seem so in the short term.

Something I eventually figured out for myself but could have done with finding out earlier is the importance of tools. When I approach a new challenge now, one of the first things I find out about are tools that will help me do it better or faster, and I invest time learning how to use them well. It’s made a huge difference to my ability to take on new things today, and I wish I’d realized it earlier.

The third thing is something I’ve actually known since my postgraduate days, but didn’t realize the implications and how to use them until much later. It’s that in business, “quality” is about fitness for purpose rather than the highest levels of excellence. In other words, once something is good enough for its intended use, it isn’t necessarily a good idea to spend time making it better.

The next one is about the challenges of work-life balance, something about which each of us has to make our own choices for ourselves and those around us. What I hadn’t realized until late on is that when we make choices in favour of work over life, we may not get another opportunity at whatever we turned down. In an age of climate change, that could mean places we decide not to see will be lost or changed beyond recognition by the time it’s convenient for us. It could also mean mistakenly assuming people will be around indefinitely, whether that’s musicians giving live performances or friends who’s company you take for granted.

Finally, I wish someone had told me that the power of compound interest is more useful than it sounded at school, but also easy to overlook when you first start earning and have to think about saving versus spending!

If you could inspire a movement to change the world for the better, what would it be?

I’m fortunate enough to have found a career that allows me to work on things that are personally important to me. So if I could inspire a movement to change the world for the better, it would be to eliminate discrimination, particularly around race and gender.

What’s your favourite “life lesson” quote? And can you share how it’s relevant to your life?

“Look carefully at the people you most admire, and do what they do. Look carefully at the people you don’t respect, and don’t do what they do.”

It’s advice I received in my twenties, and my most successful times have coincided with when I’ve followed it. Conversely, when I’ve reflected on the less positive times in life, I’ve realized I’d forgotten it.

If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

There’s nothing I need from a VC at the moment, and certainly not in return for anything a VC would value. So I’d spend the 60 seconds exploring if they’d like to work with me to find firms to invest in that are trying to address inappropriate discrimination in AI.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can stay in touch with my work and writing at wasrahman.com, and follow me on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/wasrahman

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