It’s computer science, not rocket science – keynote Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon

Published on Wed, 20/10/2021 - 17:06

Mathematician and computer scientist Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon called on people to innovate but to keep questioning technology, continually expanding their comfort zones.

An inspiring keynote from Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon closed Airmic’s Annual Conference, underlining the importance of constantly questioning how new technology is being used, learning from it to continually expand comfort zones for innovation.

Technology is just a tool in the hands of innovators, and AI is neither a force for good or bad, she emphasised.

“It’s important to see technology as a sharp tool that reflects the people using it. See it like you would a knife; it’s really about the person holding the knife,” she said.

This is particularly apt at present, she suggested, with so many businesses readier than ever to engage with digital transformation, after “we’ve effectively been talking to inanimate objects for the past year” during pandemic and remote working.

Television viewers will soon see Anne-Marie managing the numbers in December editions of  Channel 4’s Countdown, but the mathematician and computer scientist is also a trustee of the Institute for the Future of Work, closely involved in its new Equality Task Force, launched to ensure that artificial intelligence (AI) is being used appropriately by businesses and not to encourage discrimination.

With three case studies outlining “when algorithms go wrong”, Anne-Marie illustrated that, if left unquestioned, AI can be misused with harmful results.

Examples included a system used to shortlist candidates for jobs and promotion, which relied on historical data for what success looked like – leading to the algorithm continually recommending lists made up solely of white male candidates.

In another instance, an expense policy discriminated against a single parent by allowing one person to expense the cost of a hotel room and transport to attend a meeting, while another would-be attendee would be unable to expense the cost of a babysitter for their childcare needs to attend the same meeting.

New technologies carry risks as well as opportunities, and there are societal impacts of innovation to consider, as we build a better future, she suggested. While it isn’t a cause for outright concern, it’s vital that innovators continue to question technology, she stressed.

“We should be expanding our comfort zones to be better at something, not to just trying to be an expert at something, but to continue to grow,” she said.

She called on innovators to be iterative in their processes, continually questioning.

“Build, measure, iterate,” Anne-Marie urged. “Change and upgrade as you go, rather than see technology as one grand project. Allow people to make mistakes. Do this as an individual and an organisation. It’s not rocket science, it’s just computer science.”