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“Be fearless and do it.” with Nikki Hallgrimsdottir Gonzales and Tyler Gallagher

To women that want to start work in developing AI: Be fearless and do it. Don’t let your male colleagues or a stifling and hostile environment hold you back. There are ways around these things and you are sorely needed in the industry. Believe that you are valuable and you will be able to get […]

To women that want to start work in developing AI: Be fearless and do it. Don’t let your male colleagues or a stifling and hostile environment hold you back. There are ways around these things and you are sorely needed in the industry. Believe that you are valuable and you will be able to get past whatever obstacles you feel might be holding you back in the industry network. Talk with the women that are already in the industry. They already understand how important it is to get more women into senior roles in AI development. It’s imperative for the future of AI that we have more gender parity and diversity as it relates to the decision making and the architecture of AI as well as qualifying and working with the underlying data.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nikki Hallgrimsdottir Gonzales. Nikki started her career at the age of 12, assisting in her father’s business and has since then catapulted to a jack of all trades. After graduating from the University of Texas she has since then held various leadership roles at automation-focused companies, fueling her passion for the topic and joining up with organizations such as Humans for AI. She is also the co-founder of Algo.ai and AlgoFace where she helps enterprises leverage Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, and Data Analytics to transform their business. She brings their business analyst bot to companies with supply chain challenges across the globe. Nikki believes that the way we work, shop and play is changing, and pairing Human and Machine Intelligence in a responsible way can create a better future for all of us. Nikki and her family recently relocated to Seattle after spending 10 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nikki works remotely with her teams located in Detroit and LA.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?

When I graduated from college my first job was as a Sales Engineer for a Japanese factory automation company whose operations were extremely data-driven. I became accustomed to relying on data to support my decisions, prepare for client calls, quote the right thing, etc. In my subsequent positions — although a move up by most measures — I had a major regression in my access to data and the ability to use it to help me make informed decisions. The irony wasn’t lost on me: I was helping my clients use automation and optimization to improve their business, but I was struggling to gain insight into my market and target my efforts. This was such a pronounced headache for me I thought there must be someone out there solving this problem. I quit my job and started freelancing and working with different startups for a while until I met my co-founders Amjad and Jason who were working on something that I saw as the perfect solution to my problems. I have always been a problem solver and I see AI as the ultimate problem-solving technology.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

If you have a need that the market isn’t fulfilling, I bet someone else is thinking the same thing! [1] I wasn’t an AI expert, but I was an expert in the issue I was trying to solve, and pairing that with AI was something immensely valuable. So for anyone that wants to get involved in AI development but lacks the technical expertise to code etc. that’s ok — AI developers need to work with SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) to create real solutions that the market needs. There are many other roles that need to be filled in any AI implementation or organization so if you have a passion for it there is always a way.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

One of the things we have seen in the last couple of years is a big delta between the AI methods that are being developed and honed in academia and what is available commercially in an enterprise setting. At Algo.ai we partner with both MIT and Cornell in some research, but what the partnership produces is usually far from being production ready. This led us to recently establish AlgoVision Lab at our HQ outside Detroit. The goal of the lab is to take cutting-edge methods trained on academic data sets, and proving them out in the real world using our proprietary data-robot for labeling and training and our proven B2B implementation methodology using the Algo platform.

We work with many retailers and their suppliers around the world. One of the most exciting things we are currently working on in the lab is an end-to-end solution for beauty brands that starts with an AI-powered virtual assistant that recommends looks, allows for a virtual try-on, product selection, and order. Then on the back-end our systems are working to optimize the supply chain to seamlessly meet the demand created by the immersive shopping experience.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am a big believer in the forces of the universe putting me in the right place at the right time. In this case I have to credit the universe with putting me together with Amjad Hussain, my co-founder and mentor. Through his encouragement I quickly immersed myself in the world of analytics, business intelligence, operations research, and everything AI.

What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?

1. The fast pace of innovation: There is constantly something new to learn and no way to get bored.

2. How AI is changing the way we work: Letting people work smarter and be more creative by automating the tedious and mundane.

3. The potential for AI to change our quality of life: Democratizing access to technology can lift people out of poverty and increase the quality of life for everyone.

4. The effect of AI on diversity and inclusion: We can use AI to combat our biases and increase fairness.

5. The untold technologies AI will bring that we haven’t begun to imagine: Each technological revolution has led to the creation of new jobs and fields of study, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.

What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?

1. The fast pace of innovation: It can be hard for organizations to keep up and can be a dilemma when choosing to develop using a certain technology, language, or platform.

2. How AI is changing the way we work: O.ne of the secrets of AI is the invisible human labor used by many companies to cover for the deficiencies in their systems

3. The potential for AI to change our quality of life: If we don’t make a deliberate effort to use AI for good, it can also potentially cause a further concentration of power and increased wealth inequality.

4. The effect of AI on diversity and inclusion: If we don’t consciously work to make AI less biased than we ourselves are, it has the potential to perpetuate oppression.

5. The untold technologies AI will bring that we haven’t begun to imagine: I am definitely an optimist, but there are plenty of potentially scary outcomes if we don’t find a way to work together globally to define a future where AI is used to benefit all people.

As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?

As evidenced by my responses above, I tend to see both sides of every debate. I think it is more likely that we will find a way to make AI a positive force for humankind and our planet. However, there is potential for AI to have either intended or unintended negative consequences. Either way, there is no turning back at this point in terms of the continued development of AI. Now it is our responsibility as creators and leaders in the industry to think through the more nuanced and complex ways AI impacts our lives and develop it for our own good. It is really up to us to build the future we want.

What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?

In my opinion, it is imperative that we make the conversation more nuanced and more mainstream. I think right now there is so much hype and misunderstanding about what exactly AI is that a rational and informed discussion has remained elusive. We need to radically shift how our education system works to prepare the younger generations for dealing with the realities of a new and most likely rapidly changing AI economy. We need politicians and people in power to educate themselves so we can have meaningful discussions and govern the technology and its development in a responsible and realistic way.

I prefer not to get into this debate, actually, because the AI that we have right now and everything that is being built is so far from being any kind of general artificial intelligence that I think it obfuscates what we should really be talking about — which is the impact of the individual AI that we have available that businesses are starting to use. And we need to really look at these use cases and see what impact AI could have on our society as to how they’re used for advertising and affecting people’s behavior. Also important is the question of bias and the data that is behind them. I honestly feel like that whole debate about whether or not AI is going to destroy humanity at some point is not really relevant because we don’t have that technology right now. Some companies are working towards technology that can do that, but we are not even close.

Once we do potentially get close to there, we should think through these ramifications and make sure that we guard against them. But the debate on AI as good or bad is really taken in the wrong context.

To prevent such concerns from materializing and assure the public that there’s nothing to be concerned about, we need to shift our debate to the actual practical realities of AI. Since we’re not talking about them, most people only think about the Terminator when they think about AI. Therefore, this discussion about the looming potential dangers of AI taking over humanity is what people picture when they think about AI, which is counterproductive. So we really need to have an intelligent and fact based public discussion about the current state of AI technology and how we plan to guide its development in a way that benefits humanity. We also need to educate people — particularly in areas that typically don’t necessarily know about technology — on how it can and will affect their jobs and how it can potentially help their future employment opportunities as well. Then, it becomes a part of the discussion, rather than something big and scary out there that people don’t understand.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

In this case, I guess I would just highlight how we at Algo.ai have tried to produce content that can educate business people about the impacts of AI and what’s being implemented. This way they can have a more rational understanding of it, how it’s going to affect them, and can take more charge of their future as it relates to the AI economy. We’ve been extending the viewpoint that diversity is really important as well, that we need to be concerned about building AI that is ethical and explainable. We’re not falling onto the bandwagon of just advertising AI as some sort of magic bullet or black box that can do no wrong, but rather we’re trying to be realistic in our marketing efforts while partnering with organizations that aim to increase diversity and educate people around the impacts of AI.

As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?

To women that want to start work in developing AI: Be fearless and do it. Don’t let your male colleagues or a stifling and hostile environment hold you back. There are ways around these things and you are sorely needed in the industry. Believe that you are valuable and you will be able to get past whatever obstacles you feel might be holding you back in the industry network. Talk with the women that are already in the industry. They already understand how important it is to get more women into senior roles in AI development. It’s imperative for the future of AI that we have more gender parity and diversity as it relates to the decision making and the architecture of AI as well as qualifying and working with the underlying data.

On the flip side, I’d like to say a lot of women might not think that the AI industry is for them, particularly if they’re not a developer that is in a position to devote so much of their time to learning all of the new skills and all of the fast paced research that’s going on in AI. You absolutely need to pair all kinds of different talents in order to produce the products that are powered by AI. So if you were in product management, a lawyer, an accountant, or some other position, then you have the potential to work with a team that’s developing AI for that specific area and to guide them in their development. There are a ton of different roles around the development of AI that need your input and your expertise. If getting into AI is a passion of yours, put yourself out there, get in touch with people that are working on interesting projects, see what you can learn or offer them, and get out there and make yourself visible. At this time, there are so few women in AI that if you make it known that you are working or interested then you can certainly find projects that you can join in on.

Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?

Women are also underrepresented in tech and AI has these same forces in play that keep women down. We need to change our culture and from early on make this career path just as available and just as visible to women and girls by making it known to them that they can be valuable in this area. And that’s not a singular problem that relates to women in to the AI industry: It’s the same in tech and a lot of other industries in general.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?

My favorite life lesson quote is my own quote: The answer to everything is it depends. It means that there is no easy black and white answer for anything — it always depends on the context of the situation. And with me, this is very relevant. Because understanding intent and understanding how to communicate like a human, to hand off tasks, or to automate work is very context dependent. Especially things like natural language, understanding, and generation. It really depends on the user’s intent when they say something — what they actually mean versus what they just say. It also really plays into architected AI solutions. And I found this to hold true in the AI industry just as any other tech industry that I’ve been in. The perfect solution depends on what the goals are, what inputs are, and who the stakeholders are. Implementing AI is no different. The appropriate AI technologies and architecture for given business problem are going to depend on what that problem is, who’s implementing it, what technology they have available, what resources they have available, and what talent is developing them. So in my mind that quote really just reminds me that there is no magic answer to anything: You always have to evaluate the situation and come up with an appropriate solution.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like for there to be an AI prosperity coach for every person that wants access to one. Ideally, this coach would help people make decisions that are in their best interest based on data and help guide them to fulfill their goals and things like that. And I feel like people in high positions utilize a lot of help to manage their decisions, their life, and their business. With the invention of AI I think it could be possible for every person to have somebody that helps them make good decisions and brings them the information that they need in order to make those decisions. Especially with the complexity and inequality that we have in our economy. I think it could drastically help people achieve their goals if they had access to such a system assistant or somebody that they know can help them wade through all the different things that they have to figure out in their lives. Now there are so many distractions and I think people need somebody to hold their hand and guide them through the tough parts of life. So some kind of a life coach could be a really cool thing that would help a lot of people.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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