Chinasa T. Okolo Explores the Transformative Power of AI on the Global South

"Women in AI, AI's impact, Chinasa T. Okolo, Global South

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.

Chinasa T. Okolo is a fellow at the Brookings Instutition in the Center of Technology Innovation’s Governance Studies program. Before that, she served on the ethics and social impact committee that helped develop Nigeria’s National Artificial Intelligence Strategy and has served as an AI policy and ethics advisor for various organizations, including the Africa Union Development Agency and the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute. She recently received a Ph.D in computer science from Cornell University, where she researched how AI impacts the Global South.

Chinasa T. Okolo’s interest in AI began during her undergraduate years at Pomona College when she saw the potential of computational techniques in advancing biomedical research and democratizing access to healthcare for marginalized communities. This exposure to human-computer interaction research also made her aware of the challenges of bias within AI. This realization led her to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science at Cornell University, where she focused on understanding how these issues would impact people in the Global South, who are often excluded and underrepresented in AI development.

One of Okolo’s proudest accomplishments in the field of AI is her work with the African Union (AU) on developing the AU-AI Continental Strategy for Africa. This strategy aims to prepare AU member states for the responsible adoption, development, and governance of AI. The drafting of the strategy took over 1.5 years and was released in late February 2024. It is currently in an open feedback period and is expected to be formally adopted by AU member states in early 2025.

As a first-generation Nigerian-American who grew up in Kansas City, MO, Okolo has faced the challenges of navigating the male-dominated tech and AI industries. However, she emphasizes the importance of finding community with like-minded individuals who share her values. Okolo has been inspired by the leadership of Black women scholars in the field of AI, such as Timnit Gebru, Safiya Noble, Abeba Birhane, Ruha Benjamin, Joy Buolamwini, and Deb Raji. Connecting with these influential figures has motivated her to continue her work and has shown her the value of making a meaningful impact by going against the grain.

When asked about advice for women seeking to enter the AI field, Okolo emphasizes that a lack of technical background should not be a deterrent. The field of AI is multidimensional and requires expertise from various domains, including sociology, anthropology, cognitive science, philosophy, and other humanities and social sciences. Okolo believes that diverse perspectives and interdisciplinary collaboration are crucial in addressing the pressing issues and challenges of AI.

According to Okolo, one of the most pressing issues facing AI as it evolves is the equitable representation of non-Western cultures in language and multimodal models. Currently, the majority of AI models are trained in English and on data that primarily represents Western contexts, leaving out valuable perspectives from the rest of the world. This lack of representation perpetuates biases and reinforces existing inequalities. Additionally, the race towards building larger AI models contributes to the depletion of natural resources and exacerbates climate change, which disproportionately affects countries in the Global South.

AI users should also be aware of the limitations and potential harms of AI tools and systems. Many AI tools overstate their capabilities and simply don’t work as expected. Some tasks can be solved through simpler algorithms or basic automation. Furthermore, generative AI has the potential to amplify existing biases and harmful decision-making against vulnerable communities. Improving AI and data literacy within the general public is essential as AI tools become more integrated into society.

To responsibly build AI, Okolo believes it is crucial to critically evaluate the intended and unintended use cases of these tools. AI developers and researchers have a responsibility to object to the use of AI in harmful scenarios such as warfare and policing. Seeking external guidance and being cautious in building and curating datasets used to train AI models is essential to avoid amplifying existing social inequalities.

In terms of investors, Okolo argues that they have a role to play in promoting responsible AI. The current VC interest in AI has led to the rise of questionable AI tools, often referred to as “AI snake oil.” Investors should take leadership positions, along with academics, civil society stakeholders, and industry members, to advocate for responsible AI development. This includes investing in AI expertise to vet companies and requesting external audits of tools demonstrated in pitch decks.

In closing, Okolo highlights the need to be critical of “AI experts” who may detract from important conversations on the risks and harms of AI. It is important to seek reputable sources of information and educate oneself on AI from reliable and trustworthy sources. As the AI field continues to evolve, responsible development and usage of AI technologies will become increasingly important for ensuring a fair and equitable future.

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