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By Rhonda Moore, Practice Lead, Science and Innovation
Shingai Manjengwa is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Fireside Analytics Inc., a data science education solutions company that develops customized programs that teach digital and AI literacy, data science, data privacy, and computer programming. On 23 October, I sat down with Shingai to talk about what motivates her, and her recent appointment to the IOG Board.
After just a few minutes of speaking with her, it became clear that education is a driving force in Shingai’s life, starting in Zimbabwe where she was born and raised. Education took Shingai from Zimbabwe to South Africa where she completed a Bachelor’s degree at the University of Cape Town. After working in Cape Town for several years, Shingai moved to Canada and soon after, completed a Master’s of Science in Business Analytics at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Shingai says “Education is my story. That’s who I am. If I didn’t have education, where would I be?” In speaking about her proudest moments, Shingai describes bringing her parents to her university graduations. “Those [moments] in Cape Town and New York stand out in my life because they saw the whole thing. [My parents] made incredible sacrifices to get me through school, [and provided a] healthy amount of ‘pushing’ at times when I could not see what was possible. That matters. I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Now, Shingai lives in Toronto,“in a whirlwind nexus of technology, education, and entrepreneurship.”
“Education is a very easy thing to fight for, to get up every day, address large audiences or write a book about because it changes the lives of individuals and families.” Yes, Shingai has written a book. A random encounter in Germany at the G20 Young Entrepreneur’s Alliance led her to meet Marilyn Cormier, a Montreal-based illustrator and publisher. Together, Marilyn and Shingai collaborated on The Computer and the Cancelled Music Lessons: Data Science for Children.
Through this book, Shingai and Marilyn are working to give parents and children the tools to talk about technology. “The devices and technologies are all so new to all of us, we haven’t actively socialized them for ourselves let alone for young children. We wanted to provide families a way to discuss how the internet works and how technology can be used to solve problems.” Shingai and Marilyn also have plans to translate the book into French (and maybe more languages?).
Shingai thinks about future generations, and these considerations intersect with both the promises and the risks that AI presents. Shingai notes that human interests have not always served humanity well. To illustrate her point, she uses the example of weaponized technologies in the wrong hands. Another risk, says Shingai, is the risk of a new wave of colonization that separates the technology ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. In a world where cybersecurity dominates national security agendas globally, what would this mean for a continent like Africa that is still solving basic challenges of infrastructure and essential services? Even if we use technology for good – to fight climate change and ensure food and water security – what disparities and unintended consequences are we creating? Closer to home, what does low technology participation mean for Indigenous communities in Canada? Is technology advancement a rising tide that lifts all ships?
The dark side of AI is balanced by opportunity. We are making great strides in healthcare thanks to AI. Our ability to see 3D images of COVID-19 proteins is because of AI. “If we find a viable vaccine for COVID-19, and perhaps a cure”, Shingai says, “no one will question the use of AI in medicine”. But even when the goal is noble, one has to be aware of the implicit and explicit examples of bias in AI that result in unfair outcomes for those groups not reflected in the data sets upon which the algorithms are built. Case in point, “the next time you open an internet search engine, type in ‘beautiful face’ and note the homogenous faces looking back at you. Are you reflected in those images? If you are, who is not?”
If that sounds unfair, you’re in good company. Shingai agrees to being motivated by a sense of social justice and a desire to be part of the solution. This is why she recently brought policy into her nexus of technology, education, and entrepreneurship, and why she agreed to join the IOG Board of Directors. “Policy is an integral part of what I do,” said Shingai. “Technology and education cannot exist, thrive and serve everyone without good policy.”
And Shingai does mean everyone. On the occasion of Women’s History Month and Person’s Day, Shingai reflected that humans around the world are living parallel realities. While women in Canada were fighting to be recognized as persons under the law in 1929, her paternal grandmother in Zimbabwe was growing up without the freedom to walk down certain streets because of the colour of her skin. Both were plights to be recognized. Ninety years later, we still have work to do before all humans will be recognized as equals, with the freedom to express their full range of emotions and thoughts.
This article is the second in a three-part series of conversations with IOG’s three new female board members, on the occasion of Women’s History Month.
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