When Terah Lyons arrives at the Flywheel Coffee Roasters in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, she is greeted so enthusiastically that she laughs with surprise. But this can't have been the first such welcome. Even if you don't know who she is, the ease and poise with which she walks and the warmth of her smile make it hard not to be struck by her presence. And as if on cue, from the speaker overhead comes Alicia Keys' hit song "You Don't Know My Name."
In October 2017, Lyons was appointed founding executive director of the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, a nonprofit started by the world's leading AI companies with the goal of ensuring AI is applied in ways that benefit people and society. The partners are among the largest companies shaping society today: Apple, Amazon, DeepMind, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and IBM. Its board of directors, with whom Lyons works closely, reads like a who's who of AI pioneers: Tom Gruber (co-inventor of Siri), Eric Horvitz (director of Microsoft Research), Yann LeCun (director of AI research at Facebook), Greg Corrado (co-founder of Google Brain) and Mustafa Suleyman (co-founder of DeepMind and founding co-chair of the Partnership on AI). But it's not solely a group of tech titans - board members also include representatives of universities, foundations and even the American Civil Liberties Union.
What was it that helped Lyons win such an important job? The fact that she chooses to "live her values in practice," says Suleyman. That's what most impressed him when he met her during the interview process. "She's got phenomenal energy, good technical understanding, good instincts and she's massively driven," he says. "She could do anything. She could work anywhere. She could run any organization."
Previously, Lyons served as policy adviser to the U.S. chief technology officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where she co-directed the White House Future of Artificial Intelligence Initiative. A Harvard alum, Lyons also spent time as a postgraduate researcher in Cape Town, South Africa. All of this and she's still in her 20s - which explains why "Terah Lyons age" comes up as a popular keyword search.
Lyons will need all of her smarts and expertise for what Suleyman calls a "really hard job" in a sector under great scrutiny from the public and increasingly under pressure from government to hold itself accountable. Anxieties around AI range from existential fear mirrored in the proliferation of dystopian sci-fi books and movies to more immediate concerns about safety, misuse, and algorithmic and data bias, as highlighted in the work of Julia Angwin and her colleagues at ProPublica.
These issues - especially those with the potential to create or deepen social divides - are ones that Lyons is keenly aware of. "I think technology is one of those fault lines that in ways that are extremely damaging, can stratify populations to a degree unconscionable previously," she says. To illustrate, she points to the fact that just 18 percent of today's computer science graduates are women. She also mentions that the percentage of startups founded by women currently receiving VC funding is in the single digits. "The tech industry is notoriously homogeneous - white and male - and the AI field is reflective of that, and in fact, worse," she tells OZY. "I think unless we proactively intervene, there's a real danger of us creating a world that none of us really want."
Lyons says that she spends many hours of her day thinking about "how to align incentives for the creation of a world that we all want to live in." While she believes technology is a tool that can be used for enormous good, she also knows that this outcome can't be taken for granted. "That's why I do what I do," she says, adding: "We will have to work very hard to make it so that the benefits of what we are creating are broadly distributed and that technologies like AI are applied to solve grand challenges instead of being wielded exclusively by privileged and narrow special interests. It's a tough question, and it implicates a lot of different systems and issues." She hopes, in her new job, to "build an organization that reflects the constituency that technology serves and not the constituency of the technology industry itself."
Lyons describes herself as a "fierce advocate" who never shuts up about causes that she cares about. Her concerns around income disparities and racial inequalities are evident as she describes her childhood hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado, where she attended public high school. The city was "very much between two worlds" she explains: urban and rural, migrants and locals.
The question of gender parity is another of Lyons' primary concerns and, considering she's often the only woman in her work settings, it's something she knows a lot about. She names her mother and Megan Smith (former chief technology officer at the White House and "the most radically inclusive person," says Lyons) as two of her greatest female mentors, but she wishes she had more. She believes that gender "is still an obstacle and probably will be until I die, unfortunately, just because of the world in which we live."
For someone so immersed in the world of AI, it is striking to observe how people-centered Lyons is and how she thinks about human intelligence. Again she points to her mother, who read a thousand books a year to Lyons and her sister when they were young, for her academic success and intellectual curiosity. Tracy Lyons, a former elementary school teacher and bookstore owner, confirms this startlingly large number, saying, "It wasn't that hard when they were toddlers: three picture books a day."
Alicia Keys is still playing when Lyons leaves the cafe. No doubt a little AI would have helped retrieve the name of the song, but I like to think it was "Girl on Fire."