A children’s book about a young girl who becomes interested in coding, “Ara the Star Engineer,” was published by Komal Singh in 2018. Komal, a Google engineering program manager, wanted to show girls what they could become. Since then, she’s been researching how to make books more diverse for children using technology. “I put together my own team and pitched my ideas,” she says. “It was like setting up my own startup.”. While I was building and pitching and scaling, I realized that it’s time to write a book!”
“Ara the Dream Innovator” is a new book published by PageTwo Books illustrated by Ipek Konak and written by Komal. The latest episode in the series features Ara coming up with her own innovation and trying to make it inclusive “FTW” (which stands for “for the world”). In addition to his real-life experiences, Komal was also an inspiration.
Were you interested in tech at all when you were little?
The ‘80s were my formative years in India, and my father was an engineer. By using everyday objects, he instilled a sense of curiosity in us. He would ask, “How many rotations a minute do you think the fan makes?” if we were sitting under a fan.I became interested in the sciences because of that. My interest in logic and coding eventually led me to study computer science.
Do you find yourself having similar conversations with your kids?
Yes, of course! As a mom of two kids, I’ve tried to find opportunities to make them curious about science and the world around them. I’ve asked them, “How many atoms could fit into your lunch box if you filled it with atoms?”Alternatively, I will ask if they would like to come up with an algorithm for getting ready for school.
What have you been working on since your first book?
Based on my own experiences, both books were written. My daughter said something about thinking engineers were only men because that’s what she seemed to see – that triggered the first book. As a result of the first book, I wanted to see how I could improve storytelling with the help of technology, so I set up a 20 Percent Project, where Google employees are invited to spend 20% of their working hours on projects aligned with some of their career goals.
To make children underrepresented in media feel like they are represented in books, our team morphed popular characters from media into children. For example, we found that AI models did not recognize photos of children with alopecia, because they were not trained on that dataset. Children shouldn’t be left behind and unable to see themselves reflected in children’s literature. One day, this technology may be used to broaden the scope of characters in children’s books and movies.
Writing the second book was inspired by the process of turning ideas into reality. Not only do you learn what it’s like to build something from an idea, but you also learn how to ensure your innovations are inclusive and equitable.
What does Ara build?
Her best ideas come when she’s dreaming, so she builds a “dream decoder,” which captures your dreams. Then she founds a startup with her droid DeeDee to ensure the dream decoder works for all kinds of children around the world, such as children with disabilities or children of different ethnicities.
What does your daughter think of the new book?
Her favorite thing about Ara is that she builds her own team and tries to make it diverse – she likes the idea of having a range of people on a team. There’s something fascinating about that for her.
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Do we meet any new characters?
We meet some real-life female founders! It is important to diversify the characters so young BIPOC readers can identify with them. In a humorous turn of events, one of them is Maayan Ziv, who recently graduated from the Google for Startups program with a startup focused on accessibility.
There are also Ara’s friends, the Super Solvers, a diverse group of individuals. It was enlightening to create our Indigenous Super Solver; we wanted her to be perfect. As neither the illustrator nor I am Indigenous, I reached out to an Indigenous Googler, who was so helpful. When she saw the first version, she said, “this looks like it was designed by a Westerner.” And she was right! That was such a good test of our bias.
What’s the hardest part of writing a book?
Although the expectations for the second book were much higher than those for the first, it was easier! It was, however, my belief that such books ought to exist, that children should have them, that pushed me forward. There was a quote I read that said inspiration is necessary for learning, and these books are not about instructing children how to code or set up a startup – they are about showing them that they can code and set up a company.
Do you know what’s next for Ara?
I am influencing the next book in my new role as responsible AI for Media by explaining AI to children and parents in a way that they can grasp as well as tackling bias in AI in order to ensure it is fair.