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Siri, tell us about artificial intelligence

Two Varsity writers dip their toes in the tech sector at National Learn to Code Day
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The fifth annual National Learn to Code Day took place on September 23, with an estimated 1,500 people from 25 communities across Canada taking part, both in person and remotely. This year, participants learned about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning through hands-on lessons from individuals working in the field.

The event was hosted by Ladies Learning Code (LLC), a Canadian nonprofit that focuses on promoting tech education for women and youth. LLC workshops are open to all persons, regardless of gender, and are facilitated by volunteer mentors passionate about digital literacy.

Elspeth Arbow and Teodora Pasca, neither of whom had any coding experience, attended the Toronto workshop on behalf on The Varsity. Here’s what they learned about the technology that’s predicted to replace 16 per cent of current jobs within the next decade.

def learn_ai(elspeth: babe_type, teodora: babe_type) -> all:

Elspeth Arbow: Computer science is a field that simultaneously interests and baffles me. Despite my wonder towards it, up until now, its sheer vastness has kept me away — read: scared me off — from learning more. LLC’s National Learn to Code Day seemed like the perfect opportunity to get my feet wet by approaching a single, specific topic at a very basic level. Up until now, my knowledge of tech has been limited to what I’ve seen in movies or on Reddit. Armed with a computer and an endless supply of coding jokes, I was ready to learn.

Teodora Pasca: Though I came into this workshop with no prior knowledge of AI, I was conscious of its increasing importance within the workforce. I am interested in pursuing a career in law, a field that has sometimes proven resistant to technological change. Legal experts have drawn attention to the pressing need to bring the court system into the digital age, particularly as the 2016 Supreme Court of Canada decision R. v. Jordan, which revamped the framework used to determine whether an accused has been tried within a reasonable time, has placed immense pressure on the system to put an end to unnecessary court delays.

At the same time, legal databases like LexisNexis and Westlaw, as well as organizations like Blue J Legal, have demonstrated a potential for immense progress that can come from intersecting law and technology. The ROSS platform, built on IBM’s Watson computer, was coined “the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney in 2016. With the help of AI, the law and tech movement has skyrocketed, creating new opportunities and generating a host of ethical concerns. It seems responsible for me to go into law school with at least cursory knowledge of the technology driving these changes.

return knowledge + skill + girl_power

EA: When we walked in, there was what I can only describe as copyright-free hacker music playing. I felt like I was at summer camp with my backpack and my homemade lunch — except none of the summer camps I went to were nearly as cool as this.

We started with some history to contextualize AI and machine learning. As this was an LLC event, they were sure to include key women in the field. The shout-out to Hidden Figures was much appreciated by me and probably me only. We then got a chance to play around with some data and make machines learn. Despite the fact that what we were doing was incredibly basic, I felt like I could totally take on Mark Zuckerberg in a fight.

TP: The session we attended focused mainly on visualization and manipulation of data, one of the building blocks of AI. We were taught how to use Dataiku, a platform for organizing, graphing, and analyzing data. Coming from a social science background, it was easy for me to see the applicability of the technology to projects within my own field of study, as well as the colossal convenience of having a computer perform most of the grunt work. I learned statistics the old-fashioned way — think Bart Simpson writing lines on a chalkboard — and while the linear regression formulae are now burned into my brain, I can only imagine the time I would have saved had I been able to use software in parallel to analog study.

I also appreciated that the organizers repeatedly emphasized the need to engage women within the tech industry. Take the example of voice recognition in AI. Apparently, because Siri was developed by a squad of older men, the platform completely lacked the ability to recognize women’s voices, which are typically of higher pitch. A similar problem was recently uncovered with Google’s speech recognition software. I don’t want to live in a world where my ability to access an app depends on the accuracy of my Morgan Freeman impression.


EA: This workshop was a great way to get to know LLC and develop my interest in tech. I learned some pretty neat stuff about AI and machine learning and got a taste of how the organization is making real change in our community. At one point in the middle, I got really confused and overwhelmed because my program wasn’t doing what I wanted it to, but I had this realization that I am not being tested on this. I am doing this for the sake of learning. It’s chill. There’s probably a kernel of wisdom in there somewhere.

I’ve already looked into the next workshop I want to take, and I’m pretty jazzed about it. My goal of the day was to explore a new interest, and while my musings on the event and its contents are not nearly as analytical as Teodora’s, I had a lot of fun.

TP: We always hear talk of technology killing jobs for future generations. Yet I walked away from National Learn to Code Day with new insight into the possibilities that are available to me. The complex and multifaceted world of AI demonstrates there is a place for people of all educational backgrounds within the tech industry: the ethical and legal implications of rapidly developing technologies alone have opened so many doors. Perhaps the working world will look different in 20 or 30 years, but as things change, so will we.

That’s why digital literacy is so important — especially for women, who have historically gotten the short end of the stick in the STEM world. Organizations like LLC can empower us to build up a tech résumé and help ensure we are just as prepared for future challenges as our male co-workers.