City AI and IEEE SA Join Forces to Foster Diversity by Design


By definition, diversity implies active and inclusive participation. When it comes to Artificial Intelligence Systems (AIS), it’s even more critical to establish strategies and partnerships that can foster genuine and holistic inclusion regarding design for these important technologies.

Since 2016, City AI has become the world’s leading non-profit connecting the AI community globally and supporting local AI ecosystems to develop further. Here’s an excerpt from their mission statement:

AI provides one of the greatest opportunities for humanity. Yet the access to its expertise and resources is limited. AI’s development is driven by a few, directing the way AI is applied not taking into account the diverse needs. Even more, the driving forces of AI’s development don’t reflect the world’s cultural and environmental diversity, risking abuse and imbalance. Therefore City AI started out as an organization to enable everyone to apply AI by democratizing its design, development and use.

Likewise, IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA), a part of IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity, has multiple projects, programs, and standards (working groups and completed standards) focused on AIS, many designed to address applied ethical issues regarding these technologies head on. A core aspect of all of IEEE SA’s work is based on consensus-driven design, where anyone can join Standards Working Groups to offer their insights to create the soft governance, tech-driven instruments helping to build a modern society. Diversity in thought as well as background and region is a key goal for IEEE SA at all times to ensure technology gets built honoring stakeholders with deep relevance and impact.

City AI and IEEE SA are collaborating to further amplify their collective efforts. Co-Founder and AI Education Lead at Zaka and Vice President of City AI’s Beirut chapter, Reem Mahmoud and Alpesh Shah, Sr. Director, Global Business Strategy & Intelligence at IEEE SA provide details on the vision and specifics of this new partnership.

Reem, How Did You Get Started at City AI?

I got introduced to City AI back in 2018, through my local city branch in Beirut. There was a local event happening where I met the founder, Christophe Zoghbi, and got more acquainted with what City AI was doing. I found it really exciting to the point that I’ve been with that local Beirut branch now for two years as the Vice President of the Chapter.

I’m also the co-founder of Zaka focused on democratizing AI in the Middle East and North Africa.  We have a focus on building AI communities, and one passion my co-founders and I have is to identify ways we can push AI communities, like City AI, to further their local and global societal impact.

Alpesh, How Did You Get Started at IEEE SA?

What attracted me most to the IEEE was their motto, “Advancing Technology for Humanity.” It wasn’t just talk. They were demonstrating a commitment to pragmatic change by implementing certification systems and standards. I knew I could help make a genuine change in the world that was both scalable and meaningful.

The volunteers are incredibly brilliant and sharp. What has made the journey even more interesting is that over time, the organization also started to look at “how can we make a difference collectively in our work?” Specifically, as part of the Standards division, we’ve been focusing on key impact areas like children’s data governance. These issues have technological elements with the proper framing to provide collaborative opportunities and results that can bring real positive change.

This logic is also part of my role to foster ecosystem growth through proper impactful frameworks and outcomes. We not only support communities to help them solve problems, but support their abilities to scale through a partnership with common-minded organizations such as City AI. City AI has a wonderful group of leaders and volunteers committed to looking forward to the implications on AI regarding cities. Their bottom-up approach is similar to how IEEE SA works in many ways.

Reem, How Does City AI Support the Local Programs and Branches of Your Partners?

We like to think of City AI as the bridge that works to map local efforts and bring them into a global spotlight. We aim to provide cities with support to push their efforts to a much bigger scale. We do this by partnering with other communities or different global efforts, like this IEEE partnership. What we’ve discovered and what we foster is that different societies get exposed to AI technology while also making use of it for local problems or local issues that are particularly significant to them. So we’re not necessarily defining things for them; we’re supporting and amplifying them.

Most of the programs happen through local ambassadors. These efforts include different types of events, ranging from discussion panels to meetups, workshops, bootcamps, and hackathons. A lot of the work is focused on bringing awareness to AI and applying this knowledge to solve local problems for each specific city based on their context and needs. We also support efforts where different cities collaborate with one another. This is where City AI is both a bridge and an incubator pushing things onto a larger scale.

In terms of specific projects, one example is Podcast.AI. This is run with several local cities where leading AI experts discuss different topics for an audience of both technical and non-technical backgrounds. A project I’m involved in and proud of is the University Program that was established in Beirut. The goal of the project is to support higher education students through a network of student ambassador programs while also ensuring all universities have access to education and awareness about AI technologies. We recently launched an end-of-year local hackathon, where students can build and test AI solutions from all they learned throughout their academic year.

We also have an AI Wiki that mirrors each city’s regional ecosystem online where anyone can access resources and other information all in one place. Many more projects and efforts exist across the cities and are always growing.

What Inspired You To Create AI Wiki?

City AI is formed by our different local communities. Most of the effort and embodiment of our vision happens through these local branches. We’re just there facilitating. Creating the AI Wiki platform has provided resources for our community and branches, but also provided a direct platform for everyone to connect with each their city or region directly and learn more about their ecosystem. The platform also showcases our reach in multiple regions, as we have branches in the US, EU, Middle East, and Asia. There’s a lot happening everywhere and most of the time, even though these communities are quite active, they’re not aware of what other communities are doing. This Wiki platform got them engaged.

Reem, your mission statement talks about cultural and environmental diversity. Diversity is a huge societal focus these days, but how do you actually pragmatically design AI or think about the work you do with your city partners in terms of diversity?

When talking about aspects of diversity, we’re tackling the most important and most attractive feature of our City AI community. Diversification of the efforts that we’re doing is naturally evolving in the way that the community is being shaped over time. And just by having these different branches joining us from around the globe, we have been able to connect people from different backgrounds, communities, and mindsets into a common platform.

On another front, locally there are a lot of efforts where diversification is needed. For example, two years ago in Beirut, we hosted a Bootcamp event that was mostly composed of a male audience. We had only 11 female applications out of 150 in total. This was a concern for us since we knew that in our country women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) actually composed close to 50% of higher education classrooms. So we worked to understand what women were feeling and why they weren’t attending. We tried different ways to show them that AI and our programs would be welcoming to them. And we got to the point last August (2020) where our latest Bootcamp had almost a 50% female audience. We’re really happy with this result. We’re also seeing diversification in age groups where now High School students are attending and exploring ways to evolve, when we’ve seen Professors who are sixty years old starting with us to see what the field is all about. Similar efforts are taking place in many of the city branches as well.

Alpesh, How Do You View Diversity in Relation to Your Work at IEEE SA?

Diversity is important on multiple levels. It is important from a human-centric design perspective. This helps avoid decisions being made by systems in isolation that may have bias elements and also in the way the logic in the way problems are framed. In addition, diversity in thought at the data level and the governance level. And, its value is further compounded as AI systems are applied to problem sets in finance, healthcare, energy, education, connectivity, and a host of other areas.

It is important to have an open process that allows for diverse and evolving input – especially in domains where the application and risk basis are unknown or are known to result in inaccurate or life-impacting outcomes, but even in those areas where we consider mundane part of our lives.

The question is how to enable diversity in perspective, thought, and application. This reflects part of the beauty of IEEE. We have an open standardization process; the ability to create open source outcomes, including source code and designs; we offer the ability to explore and innovate under the auspices of our industry connections program; and to create stratified and acceptable formal criteria to certify through our ICAP program. Every one of these approaches offers the ability to engage diverse perspectives to result in a form of consensus.

And beyond an engaging environment that supports diversity in consensus and collaborative outcomes; the IEEE is committed to diversity through terrific programs such as Women in Engineering (WIE). The IEEE WIE is one of the world’s leaders in changing the face of engineering. The IEEE WIE global network connects nearly 20,000 members in over 100 countries to advance women in technology at all points in their life and career. There are over 900 WIE Affinity Groups worldwide that organize and host diverse activities including guest speakers, workshops, and/or seminars.

Furthermore, through its Educational Activities, the IEEE offers TryEngineering and dedicated STEM Mentorship programs to continue to encourage digital literacy and encourage capacity development globally.

These are simply a few examples of how the role of diversity contributes to the role of IEEE and its mission to advance technology for humanity.

Reem, Why Do You and City AI Want To Work With IEEE SA Specifically? You’ve Already Touched on Some Thoughts but Wanted To Dig Into This a Bit Further.

One of City AI’s key goals with our mission is to connect local efforts so they can have a global impact. One of the ways we do this is through partnering with global communities. That’s where this collaboration started with IEEE. We want our local communities to partner with IEEE and their regional and technical communities. The collaboration we’re doing with IEEE is a way for us to expand beyond the efforts we’ve had so far where we can raise awareness about AI technology and use it for positive and inclusive means. This includes discussions on the ethical aspects of AI, which have always been on the horizon but now we can really laser focus on these issues as part of our collaboration. We can now focus on democratizing AI “responsibly” and reach an impactful outcome together with the two organizations, rather than separately.

How About You, Alpesh? What Are Your Thoughts About This Collaboration?

Reem characterized the basis of our collaboration well. And in terms of a specific application of our work on human-centric, values-driven design, we’re excited to explore how our paper, Ethically Aligned Design will be applied by the City AI audiences. The issues and frameworks explored in EAD demonstrate the importance of human-centered design principles and we really want to continue engaging direct members of the community to help us bring that important work to the forefront.

As traction in the principles outlined in EAD grew, there was ongoing interest to understand how to apply these ideas on a practical basis. As a result, communities instantiated and evolved to focus on the development of standards. This focus on pragmatism brings us together.

The aim to innovate in a responsible manner with human-centric design and values based engineering at the center is needed. The IEEE SA AI + Data portfolio of work is reflective of this as well the necessary technical elements to enable such outcomes. Engaging the City AI community in such activities offers an opportunity to further diversify and contextualize outcomes in a pragmatic manner.

Reem, Picture a Year From Now and This Partnership Is Wildly Successful, What Does That Look Like in Terms of Changing Society for the Better and What Pragmatic Outcomes Would Be the Result of This Work?

My hope for this collaboration is that it can achieve a step in the direction of building trust in AI through the participation of different communities around the world. Building trust in AI really happens initially by getting everyone on board who has an interest in or is affected by the technology and showing them they have a role in how AI can impact their life. They need to be aware that they’re also involved in and are responsible for the decisions of how AI can impact them and their societies in the future.

I would also aspire that the efforts we raise in terms of the ethical use of this technology focus on solutions that are being built inclusively for everyone. Essentially the end goal would be to get us to a point where the AI technology is trustworthy and inclusive and that the trust in the technology can bring about positive solutions.

Alpesh, How About for You?

Reem painted a nice picture here. Cities play an important role to meld theory into practical outcomes. Our community sees this as well. Programs focused on Smart Cities and AI Systems Governance, The AI Earth Living Labs, and the Global Initiative explore how to offer AI in a sustainable way.

Further, our adaptable AI systems oriented risk-based framework for certification processes (ECPAIS) provides value chain members an opportunity to demonstrate greater transparency, accountability, privacy and reduction in bias in relation to AI systems and networks.

With over 50 standardization efforts in our portfolio, the interesting prospect is how we work together with City AI to scale the work of our communities to realize more responsible innovation utilizing the principles and standards that the international and global IEEE Community has created.

To learn more about Responsible Innovation, AI Ethics & the role and impact on Cities, please make sure to:

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