Women in AI: Tara Chklovski is teaching the next generation of AI innovators

To give AI-focused women academics and others their well-deserved — and overdue — time in the spotlight, TechCrunch has been publishing a series of interviews focused on remarkable women who’ve contributed to the AI revolution. We’re publishing these pieces throughout the year as the AI boom continues, highlighting key work that often goes unrecognized. Read more profiles here.

Tara Chklovski is the CEO and founder of Technovation, a nonprofit that helps teach young girls about technology and entrepreneurship. She has led the company for the past 17 years, finding ways to help young women use technology to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues. She attended St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, before receiving a master’s at Boston University and a PhD at the University of Southern California in Aerospace Engineering.

Briefly, how did you get your start in AI? What attracted you to the field?

I started learning about AI in 2016 when we were invited to the AAAI (Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence) Conference taking place in San Francisco, and we had a chance to interview a range of AI researchers using AI to tackle interesting problems ranging from space to stocks. Technovation is a nonprofit organization and our mission is to bring the most powerful, cutting-edge tools and technologies to the most underserved communities. AI felt powerful and right. So I decided to learn a lot about it!

We conducted a national survey of parents in 2017, asking them about their thoughts and concerns around AI, and we were blown away by how African American mothers were very interested in bringing AI literacy to their children, more so than any other demographic. We then launched the first global AI education program — the AI Family Challenge, supported by Google and Nvidia.

We continued to learn and iterate since then, and now we are the only global, project-based AI education program with a research-based curriculum that is translated into 12 languages.

What work are you most proud of in the AI field?

The fact that we are the only org that has a peer-reviewed research article on the impact of our project-based AI curriculum and that we have been able to bring it to tens of thousands of girls around the world.

How do you navigate the challenges of the male-dominated tech industry and, by extension, the male-dominated AI industry?

It is hard. We have many allies, but typically, power and influence lie with the CEOs, and they are usually male and do not fully empathize with the barriers that women face at every step. You become the CEO of a trillion-dollar company based on certain characteristics, and these characteristics may not be the same that enable you to empathize with others.

As far as solutions, society is becoming more educated, and both genders are becoming more sophisticated in empathy, mental health, psychological development, etc. My advice to those who support women in tech would be to be more bold in their investments so we can make more progress. We have enough research and data to know what works. We need more champions and advocates.

What advice would you give to women seeking to enter the AI field?

Start today. It is so easy to start messing around online with free and world-class lectures and courses. Find a problem that is interesting to you, and start learning and building. The Technovation curriculum is one great starting point as well, as it requires no prior technical background and by the end you would have created an AI-based startup.

What are some of the most pressing issues facing AI as it evolves?

[Society views] underserved groups as a monolithic group with no voice, agency, or talent — just waiting to be exploited. In fact, we have found that teenage girls are some of the earliest adopters of technology and have the coolest ideas. A Technovation team of girls created a ride-sharing and taxi-hailing app in December 2010. Another Technovation team created a mindfulness and focus app in March 2012. Today, Technovation teams are creating AI-based apps, building new datasets focused on groups in India, Africa, and Latin America — groups that are not being included in the apps coming out of Silicon Valley.

Instead of viewing these countries as just markets, consumers, and recipients, we need to view these groups as powerful collaborators who can help ensure that we are building truly innovative solutions to the complex problems facing humanity.

What are some issues AI users should be aware of?

These technologies are fast-moving. Be curious and peek under the hood as much as possible by learning how these models are working. This will help you become a curious and hopefully informed user.

What is the best way to responsibility build AI?

By training groups that are not normally part of the design and engineering teams, and then building better technologies with them as co-designers and builders. It doesn’t take that much more time, and the end product will be much more robust and innovative for the process.

How can investors better push for responsible AI?

Push for collaborations with global nonprofits that have access to diverse talent pools so that your engineers are talking to a broad set of users and incorporating their perspectives.

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