In Conversation With Kay Firth-Butterfield, Head of AI & Machine Learning
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World’s First Chief AI Ethics Officer, Member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum, Head of Artificial Intelligence, Professor, Barrister & former Judge

A lawyer, professor, entrepreneur, mother of Lt. Rohaise Isobel Firth-Butterfield of the USAF, Kay Firth Butterfield is a Member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum, Head of Artificial Intelligence, and the governance/use of responsible AI. She is renowned for her work in the world of AI and ML, International Relations, and Law. Kay has been honored with some of the esteemed awards to recognize her immense contribution and work on AI and Leadership, including the ‘Most Important 25 Women in Robotics’ in 2018. In the year 2020, Forbes awarded Kay with ‘Women Defining The 21st Century AI Movement’. She was also among the ‘100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics Hall of Fame Honoree’ during the same year. In 2021, Kay received the ‘New York Times 10 Women Changing the Landscape of Leadership’ award.

Kay Firth-Butterfield’s Early Life & Career

Kay began her career as a Barrister in the UK and later specialized around the topics of ethical AI. Sticking to her passion for helping the vulnerable in society and making the world a better place, Kay moved on to become a Professor, Judge and currently advises governments and non-profits about artificial intelligence and machine learning law, ethics, and policies.

With immense experience in socio-economic strategy, Kay Firth-Butterfield also plays a vital role in contributing her views to World Economic Forum. Since 2015, Kay has also served as the Executive Committee Vice-Chair of IEEE’s Global Initiative on Ethical Considerations in the Design of AI and Autonomous Systems and at the advisory board for UNESCO’s International Research Centre on AI.

With such solid experience in her professional life, Kay’s work is beyond legendary. Not to mention, she has been serving on the advisory panel of the Lord’s Chief Justice in London.

Recognizing the importance of social media in the modern world, Kay Firth-Butterfield introduced the AIEthics Twitter hashtag at a time when responsible use of AI was unknown and not well-informed. She was the world’s first Chief AI Ethics officer who co-founded the Responsible AI Institute in 2014. Kay’s intention for the globalization of Artificial Intelligence to meet and solve the risk factors of modern life using technology has captivated the eyes of global nations and tech lovers.

Kay’s dedication to working on her passion and skillful experiences in various roles has made this strong woman set new standards, achieve significant positions, win glorious awards, and break stereotypes. With her sincere interest in making the world a better place, Kay Firth-Butterfield is helping thousands of people find solutions for unsolved questions, including governments and organizations.

Kay-Firth-Butterfield-Interview-AlignThoughts-WallOfInspiration
Kay Firth Butterfield is a Member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum, Head of Artificial Intelligence, and the governance/use of responsible AI. She is the world’s first Chief AI Ethics officer who co-founded the Responsible AI Institute in 2014. Kay’s intention for the globalization of Artificial Intelligence to meet and solve the risk factors of modern life using technology has captivated the eyes of the world.

We are honored to have Kay with us amidst her busy schedule. Join us in learning more about Kay’s inspiring life journey, the challenges she faced along the way, the daily choices that led to where she is today, and her advice for being successful in life!

What were your dreams when you were a child, or what did you want to become as an adult?

I think I probably wanted to be what lots of girls want to be, and that was a vet. I’ve always been passionate about animals, both domestic and wild, and about the environment. Although I never ended up being a vet, I think you can see that I continued that passion for making a change in the world throughout my career.

Whether that was my career as a lawyer where I was an advocate for people who didn’t otherwise have a voice because I worked in human rights, particularly with children, or whether it is the work that I do now where I’m an advocate for the responsible use of AI, my childhood dreams were only partially fulfilled but definitely showed that trajectory.

If you retrospect it, you wanted to help people, be a voice, and advocate for them. It turns out you do the same, even in the world of AI. So, the intention of the dream has been fulfilled. It’s so incredible!

Yes, absolutely yes! And I’m privileged to be in a position to be able to do so.

Can you share with us a glimpse of what “A Day in Your Life” looks like? Do you have a specific morning routine that you follow when you wake up and how do you end your day?

Yes, sure, I think working at the World Economic Forum, every day is different.

It’s one of the fantastic pleasures of this job. Sometimes I speak to people like yourself. Sometimes I’m up really early, tomorrow, for example, we are launching a pilot of our work on chatbots in healthcare with our affiliate in Rwanda. People are coming to that from Singapore, Rwanda, the US, and that’s a 5:00 AM call for me. So, sometimes I’m up really early to do things like that, sometimes on the other end, I’m up really late to do calls with our colleagues in Asia.

On top of these, I’m busy leading the projects at the World Economic Forum around digital transformation using AI but using it responsibly. So, I think we’re famous now for all the work we’ve done on Ethical AI or Responsible AI, but we don’t do it in a vacuum. We know that companies need to understand how to transform digitally responsibly. But governments need to do that, and so we’re there to look for those gaps and make sure that somebody is actually making a difference there as well.

I have a horse following my childhood dreams. We also have three dogs, so I always walk the dogs for 3 to 6 miles in the morning or run with them. You can also find me working or being with a horse every day. I always do yoga before I go to bed.

Wow, that sounds so much fun and definitely sounds like a lot of work as well.

Yeah, I think it’s crucial that when we work hard, we also have something that’s absorbing as a hobby to bring out the balance.

I agree.

I’d like to come back to the Ethical AI subject that you mentioned. AI and ML (Machine Learning) have been there for quite a long time but have not gotten as much attention as today. Some businesses are skeptical about using AI and reckon it would consume or even replace human jobs despite the awareness. There are a lot of myths floating around the world of AI. In this regard, what do you think should change or why?

I obviously started working in this right at the beginning, and I was the world’s first Chief AI Ethics Officer back in 2014, which now seems ancient history in this world. So, at that stage, I was just trying to get people to listen to me about these issues, and now, of course, we’ve got everybody listening to us. So, we’ve got Europe really sort of taking on the lead in terms of regulation of AI. America is apparently following suit, but perhaps differently, and many countries worldwide are actually thinking about this carefully.

So, my dream has partially come true. People are listening to us now, but as you say, that also means that people are becoming much more wary of using AI, and I think they need to stop being wary of using AI and just say, OK, we should be using AI.

How to use it responsibly?

Now we know what the pitfalls are, and so we can address the pitfalls. There’s now a huge body of evidence out there and tools for people to use to help them. I think the problem that many people are finding right now is not so much worrying about ML around things like bias or fairness.

I think people are more worried about spending their R&D money or buying AI right when they don’t know what the tolerance level of the government is yet. I hope that some of the work that we’ve done with governments and some of the work done out of Europe will help to stabilize people’s minds. For example, if the government of Chile is going to regulate, it’s likely to somehow incorporate some of these other things that are around, and I hope that that will free up the market.

I think this is the case with almost everything that comes new into the world. For example, the Internet also had speculations on its impacts, and even to date, there are downsides of technology that we can address. So there are always two sides to a coin.

I think ethical AI, regulating it, making it more aware are all critical subjects. So on that note, how do you think we can educate the younger generation and women in particular.

So, how do you think we can educate them about AI and tech, and what are your thoughts on this?

Yeah, I think it’s really hard. I am a lawyer by background, and when I started, there were not very many women lawyers, but now there are more women than men in the legal sector. So, we have to create that trigger that made women feel that they could be lawyers.

So, if I think back what made me think that I could be a lawyer, just the knowledge that I was as good as any of the guys and I didn’t need to be in a caring profession, for example, which is what most girls went into in back in those days.

There are so many pieces of this. Being a lawyer, and I would say being a computer scientist, is a great thing if you want to be a mother because you can take a career break. Or you can do it from home as we all now know and I would say that’s particularly true of computer scientists.

We have to make it cool. I would say that people like yourself, who’s young and the face of computer science, you’re the sort of person who makes this a cool thing. And we need to also make it the normal thing that kids do from kindergarten, so it’s not strange to be a computer scientist, it’s not strange for a girl to do science because they’re doing it right from the beginning, and it’s embedded into their consciousness.

And I actually think that those of us who are parents need to do the work ourselves as well. We need to encourage our girls to believe that science is something that can be a great career for them, whether it’s computer science or any other science for that matter.

And that’s certainly an experience that I had with my child because she’s a pilot in the US Air Force, a very unusual job for a girl, and took a lot of getting there in terms of her personal integrity and determination. I hope that I also gave her some encouragement along the way.

So, I think all of those things are very important.

If we’re going to have girls in STEM, I have been saying that a lot, it will take a generation to do this. It might take more. It certainly took more in law, for example, and certainly going back to that pilot analogy. The US Air Force has been trying to recruit girls for a long time, and it’s still not working.

We, in the meantime, have to remember that when we create algorithms, we should be creating them for a whole society. So, we should be getting women, persons of color, diversity into those teams that are creating the algorithms at the moment.

Yeah, that is such an important and responsible thing to do – to make sure the algorithms we use behind the principles of AI don’t fall victim to our biases and learn how diverse mindsets/people can help each other break such algorithmic stereotypes. It can also help us bring new perspectives and out-of-the-box thinking.

Now, I would also like to move on with the roles that you just mentioned. You’re the world’s foremost expert on the governance of responsible AI, Head of Artificial Intelligence and a Member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Foruma contributor at World Economic Forum, and you’re also a mother. So I can sense that you have a lot on your plate!

How do you align not just your day but also your life? How do you make the right decisions, and what is your approach towards decision-making and prioritizing your tasks?

It’s easier for me now because my daughter’s literally flown the nest, so now I prioritize work most of the time, because I’m deeply passionate about it and I tend to feel that I need to get on.

I’m not very good at prioritizing because I’m just proud of prioritizing the need to do this work.

When I was a new mum with my baby girl, I was lucky because my mother helped by taking care of her. So, I never worried about the care being given to my daughter, and that liberated me to be able to work as well as be a mum.

But at one stage, I actually gave up work for 18 months. My daughter and I traveled the world together, and I look back on that as one of the best times of my life; and I would certainly encourage people to realize that their children grow up really quickly and you have to have time with them.

How old was your daughter when you did that?

She was 6, going on to be 7 years old, and it was also a pleasure to educate her. We learned about glaciers when we were standing on a glacier. We learned about architecture and painting when we were in Italy, it was a great experience! And I don’t know whether she remembers, but she certainly talks about it, seeing pictures of how we made memories.

I think the maximum brain development occurs by this age. And a child’s experiences in this phase can have lasting effects on their overall development. So, perhaps, put as much information as you can in their brains until then, and let them absorb what they like.

Yes, absolutely!

That is such a great idea, and I would try that once I become a mother myself!

Now, let’s talk about the shifts in your career path. You started working as a Barrister in the UK, later as a professor, and currently, you work at the World Economic Forum. What made you move from one career path to another? And were there any factors that made the shift easier or harder?

I think the abiding thing is that I really care about how people live their lives now and how they will live their lives in the future.

And being a lawyer is really all about being reactive, so something goes wrong, and you’re there to try and help put it right for someone. But even when I was at university, I was very interested in the development of the law, and how law sometimes follows society and sometimes lags well behind society and as a human rights lawyer working with children, I saw a lot of how the law didn’t really meet the needs of the most vulnerable. And I always did ad hoc teaching whilst I was a lawyer, and I got to the point in my career where I wanted to develop these ideas of how we could promote human rights, how we could think about the future. And I was lucky to be offered a Professorship and went into that.

I did my 2 Master’s degrees (Law and International Relations) and started thinking through what the human rights challenges for the future would be, aligned my interest in AI and with my interest in keeping people safe. The risks of technology and its risks to the vulnerable, so I see it as a fairly obvious transition.

A number of people say, how do you get from there to here. That seems really odd. But for me, it was just and an obvious set of transitions.

So, it was a natural transition, and you didn’t explicitly go seeking your passion?

Yes, I mean, there’s this consistent golden thread of caring about people in society now and society in the future.

What are the characteristics that can help someone to thrive in this career field? Let’s say AI or tech in general.

First of all, you need a good moral compass because you are the people who do have in your hands the ability to change how we develop human beings.

This really means that you have to think carefully about the dual use of your technology.

Say you might think this is a wonderful thing that I can create. And then you need to weigh the benefits and problems of what you’re going to create before you do so. Is it brilliant, and it’s going to be hugely useful, and the risks are going to be minimal? Or is it something where the risks really outweigh the benefits of whatever it is that you’re doing?

And you need to think not just about now, but about the future. Think about your children. Would you want your children to live in a world where this thing that you have created is abundant?

Yeah, think about the long-term impacts.

Yes, absolutely.

Great! Were there any ‘lightbulb’ moments or a turning point in your whole in your entire career?

I think for me, the revelation that I had been doing my very best as a lawyer, but I was really only helping one person at a time. And that’s the same when you’re a professor; you are changing the world one student at a time. I think that in an organization like the World Economic Forum, you can help to bring change to the world. For me, it was that lightbulb moment, that we needed this change now and not tomorrow.

In 2014 when I was the world’s first Chief AI ethics officer, there were very few of us talking about responsible AI. Now there are lots of people talking about responsible AI, and so this may be not a light bulb moment, but it’s extremely satisfying to have been part of that movement that did benefit humanity.

Also, since you started something for the benefit of society and now people are following suit, it can be rewarding and at the same time provide a sense of satisfaction that I am doing the right thing.

Yes! It certainly verifies in my mind that it was the right career change.

Who is your greatest inspiration in life?

My mother. My mother was truly inspirational because she was an entrepreneur. As you know, I’m old, so she was an entrepreneur in an age when women really were not. She had her own business, and she qualified to be an accountant which was unusual for women at that time.

There were a handful of women being accountants, and so she really created a path for me to follow. She was my best support. She was there to help me do my homework. She was up there to encourage me to go to university, to really achieve the things that I could achieve. My mother had a hand in raising my daughter, and I suspect we both are equally responsible for laying the foundations for my daughter’s career.

What motivates you during tough times or at the weakest spots of life?

Number one is that I just have the best team in the world, and I’m always happy to go to work with that team. I consider myself fortunate to be in the job that I have. I’m lucky to have found my passion in every job that I have had.

Second, I would say it’s about passion. I am passionate about what I do. So, it’s easy to go to work, whether it’s a bad day or a good day. Because it’s work that needs to be done, and I am fortunate enough to be in a position to be able to do it.

What are your favorite books or quotes that inspire you? And are there any recommendations for our readers?

Well, I’m not very good at inspirational quotes. But yes, I have a veracious appetite for reading, and actually, I’m on a self-imposed ban at the moment. I’m not reading any fiction or non-fiction that isn’t about AI because otherwise, I get into it.

Instead, I can tell you what I’m going to read next. The name of the book is ‘Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot.’

How do you reward yourself after accomplishing your set goals or milestones? So what is your mechanism to reward yourself?

I think I reward myself by, oh, I can go onto the next challenge now. I think that’s very much me. I try to build in as much time as I can for my family, but mainly, oh good, we’ve done that now we can do the next thing. Because, you know, I’m always scanning for what’s the next thing that we should be talking about. What’s next?

Yesterday I spoke to one of the world-leading AI academics, and we were talking about disinformation and the need to really think about that at a global level.

So that might be the thing that we think about next, but yeah, I’m always having those conversations. What’s the next thing we should be looking at?

How do you personally manage digital distractions, especially now since the pandemic has changed the dynamics of work and education? Can you share some tips or thoughts on staying focused?

Yes, as I was saying, I’m on the self-imposed moratorium from reading. And that’s how I manage it. I just say OK enough.

I would say I manage distractions by putting them in boxes and allotting myself time. As I said earlier, I always do yoga before going to bed. And I always walk the dogs in the morning or run with them.

That means that my distractions are limited. If I know that I’m going to have this time and then there is a bit of work, I act on it and cannot afford to stay distracted. Having said that, I love going to work, so it is easy for me.

In terms of helping young people, we have this project called Generation AI, and the aim of it is to come up with good governance of some of the things that are taking up our children’s time and are frankly shaping them into the human beings that they will become as they grow.

Yeah, about the daily choices they are giving to their kids?

When Parents give their children AI enabled devices and toys they should be asking what will my children learn from this device, how will it protect my child’s data or will it sell that data to third parties, how is their security protected, where is the data stored and a host of similar questions which help to address that issue of will this toy do more harm than good to my child. Parents SHOULD not accept these devices at face value.

So, think about the risks?

Yes absolutely. Are you giving your children access to something that will shape their values in a way that will harm them in the future?

I think that is such an important point.

Now, I would also like to discuss self-confidence issues. For instance, a lot of us face confidence and body image problems. 70% of girls tend to avoid school if they don’t feel good about their bodies, which is shocking and can be dangerous for us as a society.

So what do you think can we do about it, especially for girls so that they can become powerful, empowering women of the future who are capable of taking real-world problems?

Having confidence is a critical factor, also for girls to pursue STEM careers, for that matter. So what can we do to combat this problem?

Yeah, sure, it is perennial. The problem I think I talked about is long-term. And we have to see it in pieces – long-term and short-term solutions.

In the long term, we have to encourage parents to actually fully support their daughters into a science career. That’s not being a doctor or vet; there is this stigma amongst women of being a scientist.

The other thing is, there are some truly amazing women scientists, and we should talk about them more than we do now. I think that when we’re giving prizes like the Nobel Prize, for example, there should be some proactive work in looking for women who are doing outstanding things so that girls have role models for them to follow and say yes, I can do this.

Because then you have the confidence that there are women who’ve done this before and they’ve been successful. And I think we need to address some of these issues around misinformation, so what they are consuming is also crucial.

I’m not sure that we can actually deal with the body image problem, but certainly, as parents, we should be encouraging our children to believe that our girls do not have to conform to other people’s stereotypes.

But this is just a part, but it doesn’t stop there. We also have to encourage our boys to think that girls could also do science and that you know there aren’t any girl jobs and boy jobs, and that we are all equal in our chosen parts.

In the short term, it’s about making sure that women get awards, making sure that we are highlighted in our work, and also mentorship is so important. When you’re a young person like yourself coming into an organization where there’s nobody who looks like you, you need a mentor. You need somebody who’s been there, so I think we all owe it to the women who come after us to mentor, to just share our experiences. And some of us have had horrible experiences.

Yeah, that is so true. I completely agree with that.

And so, that’s something that we need to do. Also, I’m really proud to sit on the Advisory Board of AI4All, which actually funds young women from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to college to get qualified in AI. We need to have more programs like that to really get into the community with young women who are at that 11 to 12-year-old age point where they’re beginning to be turned off science.

Yeah, I think you mentioned stigma as well. Unfortunately, being an engineer or scientist can be depicted as an introvert or a geek, not that any of it is bad. But setting such stereotypes around the people with STEM careers can make students lose interest in pursuing these studies. What are your thoughts on this?

Absolutely, I think it is mainstream media. So the big movies that we all see need to celebrate women scientists, and we are beginning to see a bit of that change. But we’re nowhere near there.

No, we have a long way to go.

Yeah, we need a female Tony Stark.

Yes, we need to see the likes of Pepper Potts and Black Widow.

I’ll leave you with probably one of the most awaited questions from the audience. How far or how close are we to mimicking human brains?

I’m not probably the right person to ask, but in a way, I know so many scientists working in so many areas, and I can give you an average of what people say to me, but I’m certainly not an expert in that area at all.

What I would say is in 2014, Nick Bostrom wrote a book called Superintelligence, and he surveyed a whole bunch of scientists about when we would have superintelligence, and they said 2090.

What I have done is sort of leave the scientists, the amazing, clever people who are working on that to do that work, and I’ve concentrated on the obvious problems that we have with ML at the moment and what they cause to society. And maybe if we could introduce empathy and things like that we might not have so many of the problems that we have, but equally, we may be creating a whole bunch more. So, I’ll deal with the policy as you scientists come up with the tech.

Well put, Kay!

I can imagine how hard it must have been to do all that you have done and for doing the things to change and make this world a better place. On behalf of AlignThoughts, I extend a big thanks to you.

Finally, what is the advice that you would give to the young generation to be successful or to be happy?

I would say find your passion. Just as I said, I didn’t end up becoming a vet. But I still found my passion to advocate for people who can’t advocate for themselves and to change the world for the better. So, I’d say find your passion because we work for a large part of our lives, and nobody wants to work in an area that doesn’t fulfill them. Many of us are lucky to have the opportunity to find what we’re passionate about.

And I think the other thing is to make sure that you do think about that balance. I’m not sure that I balance motherhood and work properly. I think it’s an old adage that when we go to our grave, we don’t say we wish we’d worked more. We say we wish we’d spent more time with our family, so making sure that you have that balance is essential. It’s so important that you do.

Thank you so much for sharing your journey with AlignThoughts! It was a pleasure talking to you.

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