The technology industry is inherently forward-looking. It’s all about development and transformation, with a constant eye on the future. And yet, how many of the campaigns and initiatives working to support the next generation are led by the target audience themselves?
Perhaps this explains why the technology industry is going a little mad for Kari Lawler. This fifteen-year-old with precocious STEM skills has recently founded Youth4AI to help young people better understand how artificial intelligence (AI) works and prepare for the impact it will have on their future.
Kari first came to the media’s attention a year ago when she was struggling to find a school following her diagnosis with autism. Quickly, an inspiring story emerged: this was an incredibly advanced, tech whizz kid who had created her own digital assistant in a week and was deemed capable of sitting her GCSEs two years early.
It didn’t take her long to prove her skills on a national stage. She won the UK Space SatelLife Challenge 2018 and was named as one of the top ten teen female tech talents in the InspiringJuniors UK competition. She was also the youngest ever winner of the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Future Face 2018 award for Technology & Innovation.
But it has not just been about gathering awards. Kari is now using her high-level understanding of technology – and her fascination with AI – to support young people who lack her easy comprehension of the digital advancements that will change their future.
“I fear there is a real lack of understanding of what AI really is or what it means, not to mention the time-scale for impact,” she says. “Too often when I give talks to my peers, I find the general perception is heavily influenced by how AI has been presented in popular culture over the last few decades. This is not always accurate.”
She rightly observes that the media “tends to overplay the negative aspects, like AI taking jobs, and too often focus on what could go wrong. The truth is that Skynet [Terminator] is not real and the future is a long way off.”
Kari hopes to re-dress these misconceptions through Youth4AI, an AI youth program that will encourage more young people to explore and understand the ‘wonderful world’ of AI. “It can definitely make our lives better, but only if we use it in the right way,” she says.
“My generation will be making the decisions on how we use AI, so we need to understand it and ensure we use it ethically, as a tool to assist rather than replace.”
Not only is she optimising her unique position to help others without her natural abilities to be better prepared for the future, she also hopes to use her minority status – as a female in the tech space – to inspire other girls to follow her lead.
“I think the best way to encourage more young people into tech is to provide them with good role models,” says Kari. “This is especially powerful for girls – it’s great for them to see other girls and women pursuing tech so they can see that it is possible and how rewarding it can be.”
Kari is now a sought-after speaker, recently at the Nominet-sponsored UK Internet Governance Forum, which was attended by MPs and influential industry players. “It’s great to have an opportunity to share with the wider industry what I’ve discovered about how young people perceive AI. Hopefully it will help to inform other work in this area.”
Importantly, Kari also brings a welcome air of optimism about the potential for AI to improve our lives. As she explains, “the most fascinating thing about AI are the endless possibilities that could be achieved with it. Right now, we are only just discovering what we can do with Narrow AI, so imagine the future if we as humans managed to solve the next stage of AI evolution: General AI or even Super AI. It’s really quite exciting.”