In a World Dominated by AI, Neurodiversity Matters More Than Ever

The rapid increase in the number of companies that have hired chief diversity officers (CDOs) over the last few years has halted. Companies are now laying off CDOs almost as quickly as they were hired or reducing the budget support for these offices. Individuals who have held these roles are moving into other fields because the roles are disappearing and are no longer being funded. This shift would be a sign of success if this transition were occurring because companies have figured out how to integrate diversity into their operations and that they no longer need an office focused on this effort. But that is not the case. The reduced investment in workforce diversity shows that more work is needed to explain to a skeptical public and business audience why workforce diversity matters and why it is critical to business growth and, importantly, national, economic, and social growth.

While diversity of all kinds is critical, one clear but less publicized way in which promoting diversity helps all of society is by engaging neurodiverse individuals in the workforce. Neurodiversity refers to “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.” In addition to autism spectrum disorder, the group also encompasses other conditions, including ADHD or learning disabilities.

Through extensive experience working in the industry, the authors recognize two constants: cybersecurity and tech innovation are about problem-solving and building solutions. To do both effectively, diversity of thinking should be engaged by including individuals in the workforce who look at problems from various perspectives based on their backgrounds and unique aptitudes.

Since November 2022, with the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, artificial intelligence (AI) has become the center square on everyone’s technology bingo card—and the ability to shape thoughtful, innovative AI demands diversity of thinking.

AI is only as good as the data that goes into it. For example, large language models, or LLMs, like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, if comprised of flawed or biased data, will produce flawed or biased results. Reliable datasets for LLMs are difficult to create; there is, therefore, an urgent need to build highly skilled workforces that can develop these data sets. Additionally, more needs to be done to ensure the data is trustworthy and does not have bias. 

Experience developing reliable AI models for critical national security missions shows how neurodiversity can lead to less biased data and that neurodiverse individuals excel at bias identification and elimination. Engaging neurodiverse individuals in AI development is imperative to create workforces that support and prioritize diversity of thinking.

Data annotation and analysis can be most effectively and successfully performed by neurodiverse individuals. As defined above, neurodiverse individuals experience and interact with the world in various ways. The unique aptitude of some neurodiverse individuals for detail orientation, pattern recognition, and focus during seemingly repetitive analysis helps ensure the training data used to develop AI models for defense uses is highly accurate and less susceptible to typical human biases. These types of teams have helped detect objects others miss, including camouflaged missile launchers and unexploded ordnances in Ukrainian farmland, protecting Ukrainians from potential harm. Their neurodiversity is a “superpower” as they assess millions of satellite images for that “needle in a haystack” detection.

Companies and organizations are desperately seeking talent to meet the challenges of an AI-enabled economy. An Accenture report, Getting to Equal: The Disability Advantage, found that “there are 15.1 million people of working age living with disabilities in the United States.” The report asserts that the economic output of the United States could be improved by up to $25 billion “if one percent more of persons with disabilities” enter the workforce. Additionally, the report found that “companies that have improved their inclusion of persons with disabilities over time were four times more likely than others to have shareholder returns that outperform those of their peer group.” This study emphasizes the importance and value of engaging diversity of thinking through diversity of experience. Disabilities afford individuals a unique perspective that must be included in the future of our workforce.

A key finding in a recent report by RAND, Neurodiversity and National Security, states how a national security organization can benefit from the inclusion of neurodiverse individuals whose unique strengths often include “recognition, analysis, visualization, problem-solving, memory, and achieving a state of hyperfocus to complete a project.”

Employing individuals with disabilities should not be a “check-the-box” exercise. The goal should be creating inclusive workforces that represent the demographics of the United States and the world and that lead to a more comprehensive, innovative, and robust approach to social and economic growth. Inclusivity is critical to the nation’s future and to competitive advantage.

Technological innovation and certain expansion of AI demand diversity of thinking, which comes from diversity of race, gender, socioeconomic background, and cognitive and physical abilities. Honoring each person for who they are and understanding what they can offer—by companies and the greater society—will lead to highly functional, effective, and ultimately revolutionary workforces.

Unfortunately, society is not currently structured for that process to happen naturally. Companies need to model, from the most senior executive office, the need and value of a diverse workforce; they need to incorporate the salience of diversity into their corporate strategy, prioritize it, and assert how it supports their performance, outcomes, and bottom line. The history of the United States touts several examples of how the nation’s imperfect, but evolving embrace of diversity has yielded unprecedented corporate success, military competitiveness, and social advancement. Business and policy leaders must believe in diversity as an advantage—including neurodiversity—and engage everyone and each individual’s unique capabilities, competencies, and aptitudes. Both hope for the future of society and the pressures to keep up with rapid technological growth and competition on the global stage demand it.

Kiersten Todt is a non-resident senior associate with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the former chief of staff of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Peter Kant is the CEO of Enabled Intelligence, Inc.

Kiersten Todt
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Strategic Technologies Program

Peter Kant

CEO, Enabled Intelligence, Inc.