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Girls Who Code’s Reshma Saujani on the dangers of Amazon’s Alexa

Reshma Saujani is the founder of Girls Who Code, an organization working to close the gender gap in technology by teaching high school girls skills in computing, robotics, and web design. Her book “Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder,” was published last year.  

Name one way that technology has improved your day-to-day life.
Technology keeps me connected to my family. I travel often for work — most months, I’m on at least one flight a week —and I love that I can video chat with my son Shaan when I can’t be there for school pickup or at bedtime. 

What are three things your industry needs to do to adapt to technological change?
Before anything else, we need the tech industry to be intentional about hiring, retaining, and promoting women. Big companies use excuses like “it’s a pipeline problem.” It’s simply not — it’s a culture problem. Industry-wide, women hold only 25 percent of computing jobs and women of color make up even less, at 18 percent. 

What’s the biggest ethical conundrum we face when it comes to AI?
As AI systems become more intelligent, they will begin to take on more and more complex tasks. The more complex the task, the higher the stakes. We need people of diverse backgrounds on AI teams who are prepared to address these stakes and ethical concerns.

One of our students recently reminded me that one of the most troubling uses of smart devices like Alexa or Google Home is by perpetrators of domestic violence to turn the volume up, to lock partners out, etc. It’s unlikely that any member of those development teams had experienced domestic violence or had even thought about it, so they couldn’t predict that it might be used that way. That’s hugely problematic and harmful. 

What’s a technology, that, as a kid, you thought we’d have by now, but we don’t?
I thought we’d be living like the Jetsons! We might have robot vacuums and video calling, but we’re not flying around in cars yet.

Facebook: Net positive or net negative?
I think one of the best parts about Facebook, and social media in general, is that it can be used to create  community and movements. That said, I think that most tech companies — Facebook included — have a long way to go to be more diverse and equitable employers.  

What industries are overlooking the potential of AI?
I think every industry could benefit from AI. Done the right way, AI can transform our world for the better, from making hiring practices more equitable to preventing epidemics. 

What’s the most underrated way AI will change our lives in the next 20 years?
AI will make our decision-making easier. 

What’s one strange or surprising app you have on your phone?
An astrology app. I love Susan Miller of AstrologyZone. 

What’s your favorite movie about AI, and why?
I loved WALL-E when I saw it because I love anything by Pixar. I thought it presented ideas of consumerism, technology, and love in a really beautiful way. 

Could a robot do your job?
I spend a lot of my time preaching the [Girls Who Code] mission, whether that’s speaking in front of large crowds at a conference or giving interviews about topics in technology. I rely on the stories of our girls and the success of our programs and while a robot could repeat them, I don’t know that audiences would feel them.

Saujani talked with Experience while in Boston to speak at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in December.

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Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Fast Company

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