The women in AI making a difference

Tech Crunch highlights MIT dean for Open Learning Cynthia Breazeal as one of the women who has contributed to the AI revolution. Cynthia is a roboticist and co-founder of Jibo a startup that developed one of the earliest social robots in the late '90s and early 2000s. As dean of MIT Open Learning, Cynthia oversees the work of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab, which collaborates with universities around the world to share MIT ideas and transform universities into engines of local economic development.


To give AI-focused women academics and others their well-deserved — and overdue — time in the spotlight, TechCrunch is launching a series of interviews focusing on remarkable women who’ve contributed to the AI revolution. We’ll publish several pieces throughout the year as the AI boom continues, highlighting key work that often goes unrecognized. Read more profiles here.

In a New York Times piece late last year, the Gray Lady broke down how the current boom in AI came to be — highlighting many of the usual suspects like Sam Altman, Elon Musk and Larry Page. The journalism went viral — not for what was reported, but instead for what it failed to mention: women.

The Times’ list featured 12 men — most of them leaders of AI or tech companies. Many had no training or education, formal or otherwise, in AI.

Contrary to the Times’ suggestion, the AI craze didn’t start with Musk sitting adjacent to Page at a mansion in the Bay. It began long before that, with academics, regulators, ethicists and hobbyists working tirelessly in relative obscurity to build the foundations for the AI and GenAI systems we have today.

Elaine Rich, a retired computer scientist formerly at the University of Texas at Austin, published one of the first textbooks on AI in 1983, and later went on to become the director of a corporate AI lab in 1988. Harvard professor Cynthia Dwork made waves decades ago in the fields of AI fairness, differential privacy and distributed computing. And Cynthia Breazeal, a roboticist and professor at MIT and the co-founder of Jibo, the robotics startup, worked to develop one of the earliest “social robots,” Kismet, in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

Despite the many ways in which women have advanced AI tech, they make up a tiny sliver of the global AI workforce. According to a 2021 Stanford study, just 16% of tenure-track faculty focused on AI are women. In a separate study released the same year by the World Economic Forum, the co-authors find that women only hold 26% of analytics-related and AI positions.

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