Writing for the Guardian, Ian Tucker talks to Genevieve Bell, the Australian anthropologist working at the Intel headquarters in Oregon, to explore our anxieties about rapidly developing technology, and artificial intelligence:
Genevieve Bell is an Australian anthropologist who has been working at tech company Intel for 18 years, where she is currently head of sensing and insights. She has given numerous TED talks and in 2012 was inducted into the Women in Technology hall of fame. Between 2008 and 2010, she was also South Australia’s thinker in residence.
Why does a company such as Intel need an anthropologist?
That is a question I’ve spent 18 years asking myself. It’s not a contradiction in terms, but it is a puzzle. When they hired me, I think they understood something that not everyone in the tech industry understood, which was that technology was about to undergo a rapid transformation. Computers went from being on an office desk spewing out Excel to inhabiting our homes and lives and we needed to have a point of view about what that was going to look like. It was incredibly important to understand the human questions: such as, what on earth are people going to do with that computational power. If we could anticipate just a little bit, that would give us a business edge and the ability to make better technical decisions. But as an anthropologist that’s a weird place to be. We tend to be rooted in the present – what are people doing now and why? – rather than long-term strategic stuff.
A criticism that is often made of tech companies is that they are dominated by a narrow demographic of white, male engineers and as a result the code and hardware they produce have a narrow set of values built into them. Do you see your team as a counterbalance to that culture?
Absolutely. I suspect people must think I’m a monumental pain. I used to think my job was to bring as many other human experiences into the building as possible. Being a woman, being Australian and not being an engineer – those were all valuable assets because they gave me a very different point of view.
We are building the engines, so the question is not will AI rise up and kill us, but will we give it the tools to do so?
Now, the leadership of Intel is around 25% female, which is about what market availability is in the tech sector. We are conscious of what it means to have a company whose workforce doesn’t reflect the general population. Repeated studies show that the more diverse your teams are, the richer the outcomes. You have to tolerate a bit of static, but that’s preferable to the self-perpetuating bubble where everyone agrees with you.
You are often described as a futurologist. A lot of people are worried about the future. Are they right to be concerned?
That technology is accompanied by anxiety is not a new thing. We have anxieties about certain types of technology and there are reasons for that. We’re coming up to the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the images in it have persisted.
Shelley’s story worked because it tapped into a set of cultural anxieties. The Frankenstein anxiety is not the reason we worried about the motor car or electricity, but if you think about how some people write about robotics, AI and big data, those concerns have profound echoes going back to the Frankenstein anxieties 200 years ago.