Request Information from Booth

Loading...

  • Select
  • Submit
  • Success

In June, the Bank of England started distributing a new £50 note that features the likeness of Alan Turing—a mathematician who helped crack German encryptions during World War II, saving untold numbers of lives. After the war, Turing worked on designs for early computers and explored artificial intelligence, laying the foundation for modern computing.

Yet Turing’s achievements were little-known during his lifetime—in part because they were classified during the Cold War, but also because he was convicted in the 1950s of homosexuality, a criminal offense in Britain at the time. Turing was ordered to undergo chemical castration, and he lost security clearances he needed to continue his groundbreaking work in cryptology and technology. Within two years of his conviction, he was found dead of an apparent suicide, at age 41.

“Alan Turing was an outstanding mathematician whose work has had an enormous impact on how we live today,” said Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England, in announcing the new £50 note. “As the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, as well as a war hero, Alan Turing’s contributions were far ranging and path breaking. Turing is a giant on whose shoulders so many now stand.”

To celebrate Turing’s incredible contributions and shed light on the value that diversity brings to technological innovation, Chicago Booth hosted From Alan Turing to Today: How Diversity and Inclusion Can Drive Innovation in Technology, the latest event in the school’s D&I Dialogues series.

The talk was supported by two Booth research centers with missions that tie directly into the connections between innovation and social equity—the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, which promotes research that accelerates social change, and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which in part promotes the commercialization of ideas that have a meaningful impact on society.

Moderated by deputy dean Randall Kroszner, the Norman R. Bobins Professor of Economics and a former governor of the Federal Reserve, the event featured two London-based experts: Erika Brodnock, cofounder of Extend Ventures, a not-for-profit using big data and machine learning to diversify access to venture capital, and Juergen Maier, former CEO of the tech company Siemens UK and chair of Digital Catapult, a nonprofit driving the early adoption of A.I.

Both Brodnock and Maier have had broad impact in their fields and brought their own diverse perspectives to the conversation. A Black woman who came from a disadvantaged household, Brodnock started a family at a young age and only finished college later in adulthood. Inspired by her children’s love of computer games, she left the public sector after a decade to develop an app from her kitchen table—a multi-award-winning digital game that helps children build their emotional intelligence skills to set them up for success later in life.

Maier grew up as a gay man under Section 28, a former British law prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality. He kept his sexual orientation private for the first 15 of his 30 years at the tech company Siemens UK. Maier finally decided “enough is enough,” and that he would bring the “real Juergen Maier” to the C-suite.

Things No One Can Imagine

The group emphasized that for diversity to truly work, companies have to do more than simply hire employees from diverse backgrounds. Their cultures have to be such that often-marginalized people’s voices are respected and considered in ways that they haven’t been for many decades.

“A wonderful quotation that is attributed to Alan Turing is, ‘Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine,’” Kroszner said. “That’s a really beautiful and wonderful way to try to get at the themes that we want to try to address.”

Brodnock echoed this sentiment, noting that some people might have underestimated her based on where she came from. “I agree wholeheartedly with Alan Turing that talent comes from anywhere and everywhere and, actually, sometimes it can be in the places that you may well least look for it,” she said. Brodnock developed her hugely successful digital game before earning an MBA at the top of her class. She’s now pursuing a PhD in psychological behavioral science at the London School of Economics.

Maier said that disclosing his sexual orientation made him a much better asset for Siemens because he was able to bring his whole self to work—and champion others to do the same.

“There is another part of me, which is my difference, and my difference was growing up as a gay man,” Maier said. “We started quite a big movement in the company around inclusion. I found that we can raise performance, we can raise innovation through a much more inclusive and, quite frankly, more fun working environment.”

“We started quite a big movement in the company around inclusion. I found that we can raise performance, we can raise innovation through a much more inclusive and, quite frankly, more fun working environment.”

— Jeurgen Maier

Technically Sound Diversity

The field of A.I. that Turing himself pioneered offers avenues by which technology can improve diversity across fields, the panelists noted. For example, A.I. can help ensure fair hiring practices for all candidates and improve medical diagnoses for patients of all backgrounds. But in order to do so, A.I. mustn’t contain the biases of its creators.

“A.I. is based on data. If the data that you train an A.I. with is skewed—i.e., it’s data that’s been collected only from males, and particularly white males, as is most medical data—then you’re going to create algorithms that learn the bias that already exists,” Brodnock said. “I think it’s imperative that we have ethnically- and gender-balanced data sets that are being used to train A.I., and that usually comes when there is someone on the team that remembers to think about that.”

In other words, having a more diverse team can help increase awareness of the kinds of data a company uses so it can pivot to more representative datasets when needed.

Maier added that the government will need to play a stronger role to ensure fairness as technology advances.

“I do think there is going to be a strong requirement for regulation here. This is such a critically important point. There is going to have to be some regulation about companies’ responsibility in this space. Regulators will, for example need to test some code before it comes to market,” Maier explained.

“I think it’s imperative that we have ethnically- and gender-balanced data sets that are being used to train A.I., and that usually comes when there is someone on the team that remembers to think about that.”

— Erika Brodnock

The Diversity Dividend

In addition to opening doors for historically underrepresented people, embracing diversity can also benefit a company’s bottom line, the panelists argued.

“It’s very important to have inputs that are diverse, so you’re not leaving someone out, you’re not leaving important groups out, and you’re actually satisfying the broad set of customers or population that you are trying to satisfy,” Kroszner said.

Brodnock pointed to statistics that suggest the significant gains companies can make by diversifying their leadership and employee teams. “Double-dividend diversity produces results,” she said. “The yields are anything up to 35 percent if you are able to make teams more gender-balanced and ethnically diverse.”

Maier argues that these gains not only benefit the company, but also consumers and the economy as a whole.

“Diversity and inclusion means you create better innovation, and you create products that broader communities will buy into and purchase,” Maier said. “There is no question—better inclusion means better outcomes, enables organizations to sell more, and ultimately must increase GDP.”

Recommendations