In an industry in which their gender is still woefully underrepresented, three women are leading the charge to design a radical new future—and they say it is closer than we think.
Most of us already find ourselves looking down at a device many times a day. And as technology increasingly interlaces our lives, we will spend even more hours plugged into our personal machines, right?
“What we do need to work on is to make technology very seamless and be part of our humanity, rather than be something that is abstract and separate,” said Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco; she is also a painter and social media maven.
Explaining this integration of technology into daily life was the purpose of a panel at the Women in the World Summit on Friday. As Jeannine Sargent, president of innovation and new ventures at Flextronics, put it: “We want to keep our heads up, but we also want access to the information.”
Cynthia Breazeal, founder and chief scientist behind Jibo, a family robot, has devoted her life to this concept. Inspired by Star Wars, she has created a technological wonder that is intended to be more family member than personal device. Instead of our using our smartphones to access information, to look at our calendars, or to watch a show, she hopes every household will have a highly intelligent, multitasking Jibo to hang out with.
“We shut people out around us in order to engage with [technology],” Breazeal said. “What if you flip that?”
By 2020, there will be an estimated 50 billion connected devices in the world—five times more than there are now. Yet 99.4 percent of objects and people are still unconnected, said Warrior. “Imagine when 99.4 percent of our physical world wakes up and is intelligent.” Warrior said there is “$19 trillion of value that is as yet untapped” in businesses not yet on digital platforms. “That’s the potential in front of all of us,” she said.
Stephanie Ruhle, the anchor and managing editor of Bloomberg Television who was moderating the panel, then voiced a concern about the lost creativity and serendipity of happy accidents: “What about the value of human error?” Technology, she suggested, “sort of takes away the art of the human error.”
The women disagreed. The number of times that human error leads to a beautiful discovery should be weighed against the lives lost to it, said Warrior. Drivers who fall asleep at the wheel or blow past a red light won’t be a threat when self-driving cars take over, which is going to happen sooner than we think, she said. Sargent suggested that the intelligence provided by seamlessly integrated technology “enriches and elevates us, and actually gives us more freedom of choice…to help us make more intelligent decisions.” Breazeal said it’s not about technology “replacing us or competing with us, but really supplementing and enhancing what people are already so good at, which is creativity and inspiration.” She believes there are problems that neither humans nor tech alone can solve, but when they’re put together, “the solution comes to the fore.”
While the panel drew a vivid and hopeful picture of the future, Ruhle brought the conversation back to the present day—and the very real problem of too few women in the tech industry. Time and time again, girls excel in math and science when they are in grade school, but their numbers drop off before they get to advanced study. Each woman on the panel had a different explanation.
Warrior said technology is too often seen as a field in which women have to abandon their femininity; she thought so herself when she started her career. As she became increasingly confident, her attitude began to change, and girls need to know that, she believes.
“If you want to wear high heels, that’s great—you can be an amazing programmer,” she said.
Breazeal thinks that some girls don’t make the connection between helping people and going into tech, and Jeannine Sargent noted that tech is fundamentally blind. She said that anyone with good ideas is welcome: “We end up with better solutions when there’s diversity in the room.”
Certainly, they agreed, a future that looks very different from today is at hand, and women must be a part of creating it.