Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have rightfully taken on urgent significance in today’s polarized era of racial and gender inequities. These inequities go far beyond just police brutality: the evidence from multiple sectors of the economy and society, from the boardrooms of companies to skews in education and employment, shows that we still have a long way to go before all members of our society are properly and equitably represented.
I was delighted to be part of a panel of esteemed leaders from academia and industry organized by DataEthics4All in a summit that was held right before their inaugural hackathon using AI and data science to combat societal issues involving DEI. DataEthics4All describes itself as a “community of world leaders at the intersection of technology, data, ethics, policy, and social impact.” I was gratified to be part of a panel that was not only diverse in terms of race and gender but also exhibited significant cognitive diversity, with members of academia from various institutions (on both coasts) and departments, as well as representatives from industry.
Many languages (and along with them, indigenous cultures) are at risk of being marginalized, or worse, going extinct.
In the panel, we discussed a number of important issues, and I expounded at length on one that is near and dear to my heart, namely the preservation of languages, histories, and cultures around the world that are at risk today precisely because of wanton technological development. At its core, language preservation is the effort to prevent languages from becoming unknown. Language is a fundamental aspect of society and an integral part of culture and expression. When we use the word ‘extinction’, we often think of biological extinction caused by climate change and mass extinction events. However, it is just as true that today, many languages (and along with them, indigenous cultures) are at risk of being marginalized, or worse, going extinct. According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), more than half of the world’s population speaks the eight most common languages, even though there are more than 7,000 languages currently being spoken worldwide today. Distressingly, some researchers have found that about 417 languages are already on the verge of extinction. According to Karl von Habsburg, President of Blue Shield International, about 96% of the languages are ‘more or less at risk.’
What does language preservation have to do with DEI, or even with AI? Citing my own experience on the DARPA LORELEI program, which sought to develop machine translation and other natural language processing pipelines for ‘low-resource’ languages, one of the key facts that stood out was that today’s AI and computational toolkits are optimized much more for the world’s major languages (especially English) than for these low-resource languages. In order to survive, every language, culture, and race needs a critical mass. As these languages today stand on the precipice of extinction, we face an erosion of human culture, and with it, diversity. More needs to be done by AI practitioners to ensure that these languages are preserved, and I believe technology can play a proactive and positive role in this movement, rather than contributing to erosion.
What struck me about the panel was that others on it were as passionate about their causes as I was. It felt great to be part of a community of such people who were all, in their own powerful way, giving a voice to the broader cause of expanding DEI. We need this community to continue to grow and to pick up the momentum needed for ensuring that all members of our society have a voice, and are celebrated for their unique heritage and life journey. We must also continue to elevate the discussion by including those with lived experiences to share the richness of their journeys.