(WOMENSENEWS)–Tiny cars buzz around a classroom in the Stanford Gates Computer Science Building as eight teen girls look on, laptops in hand. These young programmers at SAILORS, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory Outreach Summer program, are testing code for their mini self-driving cars.

These girls are part of a group of 32 females, all rising high school sophomores, who come from 10 states and five countries to be a part of the world’s only summer artificial intelligence camp for girls. Similar programs will run next year at the University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton University.

Developed in 2014 by co-directors Fei Fei Li and Olga Russakovsky, both leaders in artificial intelligence (AI), SAILORS aims to fix the gender disparity in AI by inspiring girls to pursue it. (The story’s author is a participant in this summer’s program.)

AI, the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, is rapidly becoming the most important and disruptive technology in society, according to analysts and industry representatives across the globe. Oxford University research estimates over half of all human work will eventually be taken over by machines. Their future capabilities, to sense, monitor, recognize and respond, depend on the insight of their builders and designers.

“One of the most critical and high-priority challenges for CS [computer science] and AI” is the shortage of women and minorities, states the National Science and Technology Council’s report “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.”

Unequal female involvement in AI can lead to conscious and unconscious sexism proliferating and imprinting on society as it becomes more reliant on advanced technology, according to Foreign Policy.

Girls Outnumbered

Starting from high school, girls are outnumbered 4-to-1 in Advanced Placement (AP) CS exams, despite the fact that they make up over half of total AP test-takers. Female students’ achievement in mathematics and science is on par with their male peers, but their CS participation is much lower, according to the National Science Foundation’s 2016 report “Science and Engineering Indicators.”

This is a story SAILORS participant Anne Li knows all too well.

“Every single meeting for the robotics team, the other girl and I were assigned to sanding woodblocks instead of actually building the robots,” said Li about her high school club in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Li is not related to the camp’s director.)

With SAILORS, Director Fei Fei Li wants to make sure girls like Anne Li turn into the next generation of female leaders to “become the AI technologists of humanity,” she said during the welcome dinner. She is the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence and Vision Lab, as well as chief scientist at Google Cloud. The other founder, Russakovsky, is a computer science professor at Princeton University.

“I saw SAILORS as an opportunity to grow as a person and as a contributor to the world,” said Archika Dogra, from Seattle. “Everyone can make a difference if they have the right platform, and SAILORS provides just that.”

Participants vary in their exposure to AI and computer science, but they all express interest in these fields. “AI is the industrial revolution for our age,” said Maheen Mirza, a high school student from Pakistan. “To be able to be part of that is really fascinating.”

The girls credit SAILORS for helping them develop confidence in the field. “Initially I was kind of scared because I didn’t know anything about AI,” said Irene Yang, from San Ramon, California. “But coming here, and meeting all the other girls, I feel comfortable.”

Hands-On Learning

Besides the self-driving car robotics research project, participants also get a taste of AI through hands-on projects, including “Mapping Poverty in Uganda with Computer Vision” and “Assisting Disaster Relief with Natural Language Processing.” Speakers, ranging from Google engineers to science policymakers, explore topics like AI sustainability, being female in STEM and giving back to the community.

“It’s important to realize AI has the potential to help a lot of people,” said camp participant Kathy Xing from San Jose, California. “It’s very broad with a lot of applications.”

Janice Yang, from San Ramon, California, was interested in learning how AI can apply to social issues, including environmental issues.

“AI has the ability to change the future for every component of our life,” said participant Sarah Chun, who came for the two-week program from London, Canada.

In addition to learning more about the field, the camp helped the girls learn more about themselves. “This program inspired me to achieve what others may think is impossible,” said Joanna Liu, from Chandler, Arizona.

It also helped Ariel Bachman find her tribe. “I finally get to talk about STEM things that my friends don’t really care about,” said the San Jose, California, student.