Shimona Mohan, Associate Researcher – Gender, Security & Technology, UNIDIR — UN Institute for Disarmament Research

Shimona Mohan is a versatile professional who focuses on the intersecting issue domains of technology, security, gender, and disarmament globally. 

Her research interests include policy and gender considerations around emerging technologies and their military implications, including lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS), AI (RAI, XAI, gen-AI), cyber security, disarmament, and broader tech and international security considerations.

She is one of the 100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics for 2024 and part of the #Leaders2Future programme under the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA).

Can you tell us about your AI journey? What is your area of expertise in AI, and what made you choose it?

My AI journey has been a bit unconventional. I completed a Bachelor’s (with Honours) degree in Political Science from Miranda House, University of Delhi. I did not know then that an entire subsection of geopolitics around technology existed. I only came into close quarters with this field in the first year of my Master’s in International Affairs programme at the Geneva Graduate Institute, when Professor Amandeep Singh Gill (the incumbent UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Technology) told us to write a paper on a topic of our choosing in a multilateral arms control class. I registered mine on a possible third world war, which led me to explore the scope of new and emerging technologies (to be) used in warfare and international security when examples of cybersecurity and AI being utilized in actual battlefields were sprouting up. I ended up writing my master’s thesis on the policy gridlock around AI-based lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) under Professor Gill, in addition to also simultaneously interning at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) on gender and its linkages to disarmament and technology.  

In the following few years, I honed my interest areas and nexuses around AI, including tech, security, and gender. The open research environment at my former workplace, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), mainly fuelled this. I worked on several interesting AI projects cutting across organizations, sectors, countries and application use cases while simultaneously retaining my links to the disarmament world. I had the opportunity to present a lot of my multifaceted work at several forums, including the UN General Assembly in New York, UNESCO in Nepal, the Ministry of Defence of India, the Department of Defense of the US, the Responsible AI in the Military (REAIM) Summit in the Netherlands, prime time news on NDTV, and academic conferences in Sweden, Denmark, Singapore and Germany.  

Recently, I was chosen as one of the 100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics 2024, and soon after, I started my incumbent position at UNIDIR as an Associate Researcher, researching and working on gender, security and technology. AI is endlessly fascinating for me, mainly when it is applied for security and defence purposes, and every new advancement that emerges from the field produces new avenues of opportunities and challenges to consider. I hope to continue making sense of the madness surrounding an elusive technology like AI while advocating for its peaceful and gender-sensitive applications. 

What is the role played by international organizations in overcoming the challenges that arise due to AI? 

I believe international organizations are instrumental in shaping AI systems’ design, development, deployment and governance. Since technologies like AI have no national or tangible borders, no concrete laws can encompass the full scope of AI use at any governance level. As a result, international organizations and forums, especially intergovernmental ones, become absolutely necessary to ensure that the conversations around tackling challenges evolving from emerging tech are being managed at a macro level. There is only so much we can practically control and regulate when it comes to ubiquitous tech like AI but having one (or several) international platforms to at least discuss and brainstorm ways of governing the technology is the sensible first step to ensuring we do not hurtle into effective accelerationism without putting critical tech safeguards in place. 

Describe some challenges you have faced in reaching where you are now.   

I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunities and catalysts I have had to proceed thus far in a professional space of my choosing – family and friends who believe in me, fantastic educational and academic experiences, supportive supervisors, and an accomplished network, to name a few. However, nothing worth having comes easy, and a professional domain like mine at the intersection of many different ones is often quite hard to navigate. 

Jumping from a political science and international relations background into researching tech and AI requires a lot of self-learning, which also has to be self-planned. When I started in this profession a few years ago, mentors were few and far between, and it was easy to doubt whether this was an optimum career path for someone without a technical background. Even after becoming reasonably comfortable with the subject matter around AI and speaking at defence and AI conferences, there have been times when my being one of the youngest (and sometimes, the only woman) at these gatherings has raised questioning eyebrows.  

I have since realized that an earnest desire to learn, the grit to stick to your goals, and a reasonable confidence in your capability does not go unrewarded.

How can we ensure more female participation in the AI sphere? 

The simple answer to this question is – hire more women. 

The more nuanced answer is – to set up and improve systems and structures that streamline the processes to hire, retain, and promote more women working in and around AI.  

The missing ratio of women in fields like tech, which still only has about 25% women, points to systemic issues that make it difficult for women to become or remain part of the tech ecosystem. Tech-related fields continue to be dominated by men, which perpetuates a culture of bias against the relatively much fewer women who find it harder to acclimatize and end up leaving the field at twice the rates of men. We need to ensure that girls and women have female role models in tech to look up to and be inspired by; educational setups that close the gender digital divide and allow them to participate actively and equally as their male counterparts in technical and tech-adjacent fields; professional cultures that are gender-sensitive and give women the extra leg up the ladder that decades of unequal participation in tech has robbed them of; and dedicated funding and investments in gender-specific tech programmes that ensure that women empowerment initiatives do not remain in name only.  

We cannot selectively change the hiring practices and professional perceptions of women in the workforce for the field of AI; this has to be a holistic process of breaking down stereotypes and making space for women across the board. Additionally, there needs to be more (and continuous) research into the gender-specific aspects of AI and related fields to figure out gaps and feedback loops that help guide higher female participation and better gender-responsive solutions. This is what I personally and professionally wish to advance through my current association with UNIDIR’s work on gender and technology. 

What do you want to say to women who wish to build careers in AI and other tech-related fields?  

I am still establishing myself in my field, which means that my advice for any other young woman is the same that I periodically tell myself – do not hesitate about passion. If you are consistent and focused enough, you will be recognized, and opportunities will come to you. Additionally, do not be afraid to talk about what you do or want to – the positive cascade effects of networks and communities are often overlooked. Still, they are highly relevant in developing fields like AI. 

Finally, I have benefitted immensely from mentors who have been the ‘initial’ women in their fields and now wish to pay it forward. Pursue the fields you want to, and there will be women like me who will be more than happy to help, support and guide you as best as we can! 


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