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Women in AI and How They Shaped the Industry

Throughout the history of AI, women got little to no credentials for their work in mathematics, physics, engineering, mechanics, machine, and data science, all being AI’s constructive fields and dominated by men.

As hinted in the previous paragraph, in AI, much like in the technology industry overall, there is a gender gap, with data suggesting roughly 10-25% of the AI industry is made up of women. 

But the weather is looking sunny!

In recent decades women in science indeed started being recognized as valuable playmakers and for being able to change the face of the present with their passion, knowledge, intelligence, creativity, and dedication, and spearheading to the future.

The Historians

No matter how discouraged any group of people might be, there are always the ones who follow their dreams against all the chances, walls, and forces that way becoming the pioneers of large-scale changes.

Let’s introduce a few significant women who greatly contributed to computer science being like we know it today by setting sound foundations in the past century.

Ada Lovelace – The Enchantress Of Numbers (1800s)

Ada was a woman ahead of her time, a visionary. In the mid-1800s she wrote the first instructions for the first computer program.

Through working on the Difference Engine project with Charles Babbage, Ada could see that it could be used for much more than crunching numbers and that it could, in the future, translate any content to digital form, including music.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that her notes were reintroduced to the world after which Ada has received many posthumous honors for her work.

To be precise – B.V. Bowden republished them in Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines in 1953. 

Mary Lucy Cartwright – Oxford’s First Math Head (1900-1998)

An Oxford University graduate of 1923, Cartwright attained a Mathematics degree in only the second year that women were allowed to take Final degrees at Oxford. 

Cartwright built a career among analytic function theory and university administration, published over 100 papers on classical analysis, differential equations, and related topological problems, was one of the first to study Chaos theory, and to this day, also is the only woman to become president of the London Mathematical Society.

Spacewoman – Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

Katherine began her journey when selected to join the West Area Computing Unit, a group of Women who manually performed complex mathematical calculations for the engineering department, considered an essential piece of the computations that enabled space flight.

In her later career, she was the first woman to receive credit for a research report in her division. It was for calculations for placing a spacecraft into orbit at NASA.

Johnson was also part of the team that calculated where and when to launch the rocket for Apollo 11.

Edith Clarke – Simplifier Of The Complicated (1883-1959)

Clarke invented a graphical calculator that greatly simplified the calculations necessary to determine the electrical characteristics of long electrical transmission lines. 

Throughout her career, Clarke was often the first in her endeavors, whether the first professionally employed female electrical engineer in the United States, the first female full voting member of what would become IEEE, or the first full-time female professor of electrical engineering in the country.

Margaret Hamilton (1936- ) – Penny For Your Software Engineering

It is hard to imagine that such a respected term and occupation actually came from a joke. Once upon a time, software wasn’t taken seriously as hardware did.

Margaret coined the phrase software engineering while working on early Apollo missions when compared to other engineering, software development wasn’t considered a science.

Among many awards, Hamilton received for her work is the Presidential Medal of Freedom received from Barack Obama in 2016.

In 2019, on the 50th Apollo landing anniversary, Google paid Margaret a tribute by configuring the mirrors of the Ivanpah plant to create Hamiton’s picture and the Apollo 11 by moonlight. 

Frances E. Allen – Awarded Advocate (1932- )

The first female recipient of the Turing Award and also awarded the Ada Lovelace Award, Computer Pioneer Award, and several fellowships including ones at ACM and IBM, Frances E. Allen is considered a pioneer in computer science, aiding in the development of a multi-source, multi-target, cascading compiler for the machines at IBM and very high-level code-breaking coding language for the national security agency.

On top of her achievements, Allen is also recognized for her advocacy of women and minorities working in the field, fighting for recognition of their work.

ENIAC Women Hall of Fame – From Human Machine to Machine Operators

ENIAC was imagined as a machine that would calculate bomb trajectories in World War II.
In order for such a machine to be created, some manual computing work, which men considered clerical, had to be done. 

Many war-driven decisions later, the team of initially hired 100 human computers in 1945 became 6 machine operators. The six women whose knowledge, intelligence, and ability to understand the operation of highly complex hardware whose software should give quick results, went unappreciated and unacknowledged.

However, more than 30 years later, Kathleen McNulty, Frances Bilas, Betty Jean Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Elizabeth Snyder, and Marlyn Wescoff were all inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997 as original ENIAC programmers.

In the Now

Fei-Fei Li – Even The Smartest Machines Are Blind

Among and between her numerous accomplishments, Li is Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab and Vision Lab director.

In one of her TED Talks, she pointed out that pictures and videos are being generated at an unimaginably fast pace, but even though cameras are everywhere they are not alerting humans when there is danger in sight.

As a prologue to explaining ImageNet she said “To take pictures is not the same as to see, and by seeing we really mean understanding.”

What is ImageNet? Li’s most extensive project and a database of billions of sorted and labeled images that has a mission to teach computers to see using convolutional neural networks.

Joy Buolamwini – Voice To The Most Vulnerable Communities

Joy’s Gener Shades project made Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM suspend their facial recognition offerings in 2020, acknowledging that the technology was not yet fit for public use as her research discovered facial recognition systems don’t see dark-skinned faces accurately. 

In 2016 she founded Algorithmic Justice League, an organization that combines art and research, in order to detect bias in code that leads to discrimination against certain groups.

Buolamwini’s work is depicted in the documentaries Code4Rights and Algorithmic Justice League: Unmasking Bias.

Rana el Kaliouby – Humanizing Technology Before It Dehumanizes Us

On a mission to create the KISMET of the 21st century? Maybe.

Kaliouby co-founded the startup Affectiva in 2009 to work on a deep learning platform capable of understanding human emotions. 

While she worked at MIT as a research scientist her goal was to improve human-computer interaction, but she soon realized that human-human interaction could be improved as well, especially for autistic people. 

Daphne Koller – Rethinking Drug Discovery

Koller is a Stanford professor at the Computer Science Department who co-founded the online education platform Coursera in 2012.

After leaving Coursera, Daphne found her joy at Insitro, a startup where, as Koller wrote on her blog, “big data and machine learning applied to the critical need in drug discovery can help make the process faster, cheaper, and more successful”.

Falon Fatemi – A Professional Nerd

On her blog, Falon Fatemi described herself as a professional nerd which shouldn’t be far from the truth as she was the youngest person Google hired. By the age of 25, she even became a YouTuber! Jokes aside, she is one of the reasons why live streams of all kinds are possible on YouTube.

When decided to fly solo, Falon created the first AI-as-a-service platform by founding in 2015. The platform was built with the intention to help businesses augment sales, marketing, and HR teams with machine learning-powered customer predictions and lead recommendations, enabling users to connect with better sales leads and potential customers.

In 2019, Goldman Sachs recognized Falon as one of the top 100 intriguing entrepreneurs, while Inc Magazine saw her as a Science Pioneer among the top 100 Women Building America’s Most Innovative and Ambitious Businesses.

The following year, was acquired by SugarCRM for an unknown amount.

Crystal Ball – The Future

Even though women make up only one-fourth of the overall percentage in the industry, the future is looking brighter than ever.

Many big companies like IBM, Google, Amazon, and Facebook have trusted women to occupy leading positions bringing diversity to the table, at the least. 

As always, there is a legacy being passed down to the younger generations to tear down the walls of biases, fill the gender gap and therefore create better products as AI is transforming our everyday lives whether we like it or not and there is just not enough space for saying girls don’t belong in tech. Lesly Zerna,  Google Developer Expert for Machine Learning and Google Launchpad mentor for Latin America startups, has already worked on encouraging more and more girls in Bolivia to start learning about science and technology. At the same time, Reem Mahmoud, Co-Founder and Education Lead at the AI-driven company Zaka, has devoted herself to accelerating the mission of seeing more use of AI in business and education in Lebanon.

Companies, organizations, initiatives, non-profits, but especially universities and official channels of education are all due to encourage and support women of all ages who have a dream and ability to impact the world of AI in any way, intentionally changing it for the better, making sure they are treated based on their knowledge, ambition, and vision.You can already hear about the implementation of AI in the computational chemistry domain that Andreea Deac from Université de Montréal and Mila has made. 

Pamela McCorduc, American journalist and author of ‘Machines Who Talk’, in the interview with Somi Arian maybe expressed the key sentence:
“Women don’t actually need to be encouraged to step into the industry. There are plenty of women in the field. They just need not to be stopped.”, referring to women being looked down on and their invisibility over the years.