Early during the recent petrol crisis, I drove into the third garage that had no fuel. I was still 58 miles from my destination but by now had only a mile’s worth of gas in my tank. As I panicked, I remembered the conversation I’d had with Tabitha Goldstaub, author of How to Talk to Robots. I picked up my phone and asked Siri where the nearest station was. ‘Here’s what I found,’ came the instant reply. Two minutes later I was filling up at a tiny garage off the main road, which I’d never have found without Siri.
So who is Tabitha Goldstaub? I once described her as a prodigy, and she insisted she was not. However, for a woman who has not turned 35, she’s certainly achieved a prodigious amount. At 24, she co-founded video streaming platform Righster, which floated for £20.4 million two years later. She went on to co-found CogX, which started hosting small dinners to help people understand AI, and quickly mushroomed into a festival attracting more than 100,000 in person and online. Today, she chairs the government’s AI Council, is an advisor to the Alan Turing Institute, and is a mother as well as finding time to write How to Talk to Robots.
How to Talk to Robots is a gift for AI novices and technophobes, written in such a way that persuades us of AI’s benefits and smashes through the gobbledygook barriers erected by what Goldstaub describes as ‘tech-bro culture’. ‘AI should be accessible to everyone, especially as we use it all the time without realising,’ says Goldstaub. ‘Life is so much easier when you can just ask Alexa to turn on your TV without the palaver of a complicated remote control.’
The book came about in 2018 when statistics showed that of the 1.5 million people at risk of losing their jobs to AI in England, 70 per cent of them were women. ‘I felt fearful about the impact of AI on women,’ Goldstaub says. ‘I gave a talk to a group of creative women at Riposte magazine, urging them not to miss out on the next wave of technological advances. I knew how vulnerable their jobs were unless they really got on board with AI.’ Michelle Kane, publicity director at HarperCollins, was in the audience and sought out Goldstaub afterwards. ‘I’m severely dyslexic, so never thought to write a book but Michelle shamed me into it. I was persuaded by the idea of women being able to carry it around in their bags like a handbook to get one-up on machines. The reality is that the world is sexist and society’s rigged against us from childhood. We give our sons make-your-own clocks but our daughters hairdressing or make-up kits. Data is skewed towards men, given tech teams are largely white homogeneous males, so AI just exacerbates sexism. I saw my book as a useful sword in the battle for equality and as a primer.’ As well as being a practical guide to the basics of AI, the book has interviews with such women as Martha Lane Fox, Sharmadean Reid and Hannah Fry.
The more I talk to Goldstaub, the more I realise her book is born from a philanthropic instinct. She gives proceeds from it to Rosa, a charitable fund that supports a variety of initiatives that equip women with the skills and confidence to compete better in the workplace.
‘Jobs are going to be very different very soon, so women need to navigate what they’re good at,’ she warns. ‘Meanwhile, activate your Siri or Alexa and start talking to them. Learn to protect yourself and know what questions to ask about data protection. You have more agency than you think. Then think/consider those women who haven’t had access to education or good jobs. Data collection can affect them in ways very different to working women in developed countries. Whatever you do, stay part of the conversation. Find other books or podcasts that resonate and join a local group or start one and invite an AI expert to come and talk to you.’
With climate change posing a huge global threat, Goldstaub urges us to harness AI to seek solutions. ‘Some people think AI is the biggest threat to the next generation,’ she says, ‘but it’s the future and inescapable, so let’s get it working for us rather than feeling intimidated by it. We need to get AI into the school curriculum so kids can ask questions that encourage cognitive reasoning so they can apply it to an unknown future.’ It needn’t be difficult or frightening to take the first step into the future – just ask Siri.
How To Talk to Robots: A Girls’ Guide to a Future Dominated by AI by Tabitha Goldstaub (£8.99, HarperCollins) is out in paperback now