Neurodiversity emerges as a skill in AI professions

  • By Katrina Manson/Bloomberg

Looking intently at the screen, Jordan Wright deftly selects a barely distinguishable shape with his mouse, bringing a vivid blue outline to life from a blur of overexposed features.

It’s a process similar to automated testing that teaches computers to tell humans from machines, by asking someone to identify traffic lights or stop signs in an image known as a Captcha.

Only in Wright’s case does the shape turn out to be that of a Tupolev Tu-160, a supersonic strategic heavy bomber, stationed at a Russian base. The sketch – one of hundreds he selects daily from satellite images – involves training an algorithm so that a US intelligence agency can locate and identify Moscow’s firepower in an automated flash.

Photo: Bloomberg

It has become a mundane task for the 25-year-old, who describes himself as being on the autism spectrum. Beginning in the spring, Wright began working at Enabled Intelligence Inc, a Virginia-based startup that works largely for US intelligence and other federal agencies. Founded in 2020, it specializes in labeling, training and testing the sensitive digital data on which artificial intelligence depends.

Enabled Intelligence chief executive Peter Kant said he was inspired to start the company after reading an article about an Israeli program to recruit people with autism for cyberintelligence work.

The repetitive, detailed work of training AI algorithms relies on pattern recognition, puzzle solving and deep concentration that are sometimes a particular strength of autistic workers, he said.

The main type of Enabled Intelligence work, known as data annotation, is usually done by technically skilled but much cheaper labor in countries like China, Kenya, and Malaysia.

That’s not an option for US government agencies, whose data is sensitive or classified, Kant said, adding that more than half of its 25 employees are “neurodiverse”.

“I can easily say this is the best opportunity I’ve had in my life,” said Wright, who grew up with an infatuation with military aviation, dropped out of college and has since experienced long stretches of unemployment between two poorly paid jobs. More recently, he has packaged frozen groceries.

For decades, workers with intellectual disabilities, particularly autism, have faced discrimination and disproportionately high unemployment rates. A significant shortage of cybersecurity jobs, along with a new push for workplace acceptance and flexibility – partly spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic – have begun to draw attention to the capabilities of people who think and work differently.

Enabled Intelligence has adjusted its work rules to accommodate its employees, ditching resumes and interviews for online assessments and staggering work hours for those who find it difficult to get in early.

It has built three new areas for classified material and hopes to secure government clearances for much of its neurodiverse workforce – something the US intelligence community has sometimes struggled to manage in the past.

Pay starts at $20 per hour, in line with industry standards, and the company offers health insurance, paid time off, and a promotion path.

Enabled Intelligence expects to achieve $2 million in revenue this year and double next year, while doubling its workforce.

The US intelligence community has been slow to seize this opportunity, critics say.

It falls short of the federal goal of 12% representation of people with disabilities in the workforce, according to statistics released this month.

Until this year, it has also consistently fallen short of the 2% federal goal for people with targeted disabilities, which includes people with autism.

“In other countries, it’s old hat,” said Teresa Thomas, neurodiverse talent enablement program manager at Miter Corp, which runs federally funded research and development centers.

She cites well-established programs in Australia, Denmark, Israel and the UK, where one state recently appointed an autism minister.

Thomas recently led a new federal neurodiverse workforce pilot project to establish a model for the US government to hire and support workers with autism, but so far only one of 18 intelligence agencies in the country, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) participated.

Now, the federal government’s cyber defense agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, intends to undertake a similar pilot project.

Stephanie la Rue, head of diversity, equity and inclusion at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the US intelligence community must recognize that it is “not where we need to be” when it comes to employing people with disabilities.

“It’s like shooting the Titanic,” La Rue said, adding that NGA’s four-person pilot would be reviewed and shared with the wider intelligence community as a “promising practice.”

“The change is going to be gradual,” she said.

Research shows that neurodiverse intelligence officers on the autism spectrum exhibit the ability to analyze large data sets and identify patterns and trends “at rates that far exceed non-autistic people” and are less prone to cognitive biases, La Rue said.

Yet obtaining clearance to access classified information can still present an additional challenge, some observers said.

If an office wallboard at Enabled Intelligence is any indication, experiences vary.

There, 18 anonymous handwritten notes answer the question: “What does neurodiversity mean to you?”

“Hard. Trying. It held me back a lot,” one says in an uncertain script.

“Strength,” said a second in careful cursive.

A third, in all caps, reads: “SUPERPOWERS”.

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