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Coronavirus sparked a need for employees in this emerging field — especially women

Experts say getting girls interested at an early age is key to success.
Some coffee for a late night shift
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/ Source: CNBC

The coronavirus pandemic has upended countless jobs and even entire industries, leaving many wondering which will emerge out of the other side.

One industry likely to endure — or even thrive — under the virus, however, is artificial intelligence (AI), which could offer a glimpse into one of the rising careers of the future.

“This outbreak is creating overwhelming uncertainty and also greater demand for AI,” IBM’s vice president of data and AI, Ritika Gunnar told CNBC Make It.

Already, AI has been deployed sweepingly to help tackle the pandemic. Hospitals use the technology to diagnose patients; governments employ it in contact tracing apps and companies rely on it to support the biggest work-from-home experiment in history.

And that demand is only set to rise. Market research company International Data Corporation says it expects the number of AI jobs globally to grow 16% this year.

That could create new opportunities in an otherwise challenging jobs market. But the industry will need more women, in particular, if it is to overcome some of its historic bias challenges.

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“In order to remove bias from AI, you need diverse perspectives among the people working on it. That means more women, and more diversity overall, in AI,” said Gunnar.

The industry has been making progress lately. In a new report released Wednesday, IBM found the majority (85%) of AI professionals think the industry has become more diverse over recent years, which has had a positive impact on the technology.

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Of the more than 3,200 people surveyed across North America, Europe and India, 86% said they are now confident in AI systems’ ability to make decisions without bias.

However, Lisa Bouari, executive director at OutThought AI Assistants and a recipient of IBM’s Women Leaders in AI awards, said more needs to be done to encourage women into the industry and keep them there.

“Attracting and retaining women are two halves of the same issue supporting a greater balance of women in AI,” said Bouari. “The issues highlighted in the report around career progression, and hurdles, hold the keys to helping women stay in AI careers, and ultimately attracting more women as the status quo evolves.”

For Gunnar, that means getting more women and girls excited about AI from a young age.

“We should expose girls to AI, math and science at a much earlier age so they have a support system in place,” said Gunnar.

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Indeed, IBM’s report noted that although more women have been drawn to the industry over recent years, they did not consider AI a viable career path until later in life due to a lack of support during early education.

A plurality of men (46%) said they became interested in a tech career in high school or earlier, while a majority of women (53%) only considered it a possible path during their undergraduate degree or grad school.

But Bouari said she’s hopeful that the surge in demand for AI currently can help drive the industry forward.

“The AI opportunities from this crisis are numerous and the career opportunities are there if we can successfully move hurdles and adopt it efficiently,” she said.

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This story originally appeared on CNBC Make It.