Across industries, businesses are now tech and data companies. The sooner they grasp and live that, the quicker they will meet their customer needs and expectations, create more business value and grow. It is increasingly important to reimagine business and use digital technologies to create new business processes, cultures, customer experiences and opportunities.
One of the myths about digital transformation is that it’s all about harnessing technology. It’s not. To succeed, digital transformation inherently requires and relies on diversity. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the result of human intelligence, enabled by its vast talents and also susceptible to its limitations.
Therefore, it is imperative for organizations and teams to make diversity a priority and think about it beyond the traditional sense. For me, diversity centers around three key pillars.
People are the most important part of artificial intelligence; the fact is that humans create artificial intelligence. The diversity of people — the team of decision-makers in the creation of AI algorithms — must reflect the diversity of the general population.
This goes beyond ensuring opportunities for women in AI and technology roles. In addition, it includes the full dimensions of gender, race, ethnicity, skill set, experience, geography, education, perspectives, interests and more. Why? When you have diverse teams reviewing and analyzing data to make decisions, you mitigate the chances of their own individual and uniquely human experiences, privileges and limitations blinding them to the experiences of others.
One of the myths about digital transformation is that it’s all about harnessing technology. It’s not.
Collectively, we have an opportunity to apply AI and machine learning to propel the future and do good. That begins with diverse teams of people who reflect the full diversity and rich perspectives of our world.
Diversity of skills, perspectives, experiences and geographies has played a key role in our digital transformation. At Levi Strauss & Co., our growing strategy and AI team doesn’t include solely data and machine learning scientists and engineers. We recently tapped employees from across the organization around the world and deliberately set out to train people with no previous experience in coding or statistics. We took people in retail operations, distribution centers and warehouses, and design and planning and put them through our first-ever machine learning bootcamp, building on their expert retail skills and supercharging them with coding and statistics.
We did not limit the required backgrounds; we simply looked for people who were curious problem solvers, analytical by nature and persistent to look for various ways of approaching business issues. The combination of existing expert retail skills and added machine learning knowledge meant employees who graduated from the program now have meaningful new perspectives on top of their business value. This first-of-its-kind initiative in the retail industry helped us develop a talented and diverse bench of team members.
AI and machine learning capabilities are only as good as the data put into the system. We often limit ourselves to thinking of data in terms of structured tables — numbers and figures — but data is anything that can be digitized.
The digital images of the jeans and jackets our company has been producing for the past 168 years are data. The customer service conversations (recorded only with permissions) are data. The heatmaps from how people move in our stores are data. The reviews from our consumers are data. Today, everything that can be digitized becomes data. We need to broaden how we think of data and ensure we constantly feed all data into AI work.
Most predictive models use data from the past to predict the future. But because the apparel industry is still in the nascent stages of digital, data and AI adoption, having past data to reference is often a common problem. In fashion, we’re looking ahead to predict trends and demand for completely new products, which have no sales history. How do we do that?
We use more data than ever before, for example, both images of the new products and a database of our products from past seasons. We then apply computer vision algorithms to detect similarity between past and new fashion products, which helps us predict demand for those new products. These applications provide much more accurate estimates than experience or intuition do, supplementing previous practices with data- and AI-powered predictions.
At Levi Strauss & Co., we also use digital images and 3D assets to simulate how clothes feel and even create new fashion. For example, we train neural networks to understand the nuances around various jean styles like tapered legs, whisker patterns and distressed looks, and detect the physical properties of the components that affect the drapes, folds and creases. We’re then able to combine this with market data, where we can tailor our product collections to meet changing consumer needs and desires and focus on the inclusiveness of our brand across demographics. Furthermore, we use AI to create new styles of apparel while always retaining the creativity and innovation of our world-class designers.
Tools and techniques
In addition to people and data, we need to ensure diversity in the tools and techniques we use in the creation and production of algorithms. Some AI systems and products use classification techniques, which can perpetuate gender or racial bias.
For example, classification techniques assume gender is binary and commonly assign people as “male” or “female” based on physical appearance and stereotypical assumptions, meaning all other forms of gender identity are erased. That’s a problem, and it’s upon all of us working in this space, in any company or industry, to prevent bias and advance techniques in order to capture all the nuances and ranges in people’s lives. For example, we can take race out of the data to try and render an algorithm race-blind while continuously safeguarding against bias.
We are committed to diversity in our AI products and systems and, in striving for that, we use open-source tools. Open-source tools and libraries by their nature are more diverse because they are available to everyone around the world and people from all backgrounds and fields work to enhance and advance them, enriching with their experiences and thus limiting bias.
An example of how we do this at Levi Strauss & Company is with our U.S. Red Tab loyalty program. As fans set up their profiles, we don’t ask them to pick a gender or allow the AI system to make assumptions. Instead, we ask them to pick their style preferences (Women, Men, Both or Don’t Know) in order to help our AI system build tailored shopping experiences and more personalized product recommendations.
Diversity of people, data, and techniques and tools is helping Levi Strauss & Co. revolutionize its business and our entire industry, transforming manual to automated, analog to digital, and intuitive to predictive. We are also building on the legacy of our company’s social values, which has stood for equality, democracy and inclusiveness for 168 years. Diversity in AI is one of the latest opportunities to continue this legacy and shape the future of fashion.