Don’t allow yourself to be interrupted. I recommend using the phrase “May I finish?” Feel confident in completing and owning your knowledge. Often we are interrupted perfectly innocently during the enthusiastic discourse. Engaging with it in a polite but firm way ensures that your thoughts are expressed as intended.
As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Naomi Beckett.
Naomi Beckett has been a Data Scientist Team Lead in the United Kingdom for over three years. Prior to joining SparkBeyond, Naomi focused on the AI space by working at Mastercard (5one) and Symphony Retail AI. She earned her degree for the University College London.
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?
Ifirst stumbled into statistics out of fear of a maths degree. The field of AI is very multidimensional and my Statistics background gave me a good landing point to explore the other aspects. My Master’s thesis (also Statistics) was on the topic of Brownian Motion — which tells us that even the seemingly unpredictable events in our world can be modeled. This unpredictability is very relevant in the finance and retail sectors, which marked the beginning of my professional career at Mastercard (5one) and Symphony Retail AI. Four years ago, a friend of mine told me about an incredible company he was working for who was building an AI-powered problem-solving platform. When I joined SparkBeyond it was a company of fewer than 30 people: today we number over 200 and have offices in 5 countries. Joining an early-stage company and participating in its extraordinary growth has been full of opportunities to develop personally and professionally.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
My philosophy is that success is a mixture of luck and attitude. AI often uncovers unexpected results if you make the effort to find them. A career setback, a personal failure or an unexpected pitfall, can all be viewed as opportunities with the right attitude. When it comes to luck — I’m still trying to accurately predict that one!
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
As a domain-agnostic technology company, SparkBeyond offers us opportunities to help our clients solve problems in a whole range of areas. Most recently my team has been monitoring and improving domestic energy consumption, optimizing retail locations, and through our AI4Good initiative, bringing the power of AI to a mental health texting service run by a charity.
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?
Having someone else with whom to thrash out a problem — especially for an Artificial Intelligence solution — makes a world of difference. It brings clarity, new perspectives and ultimately resolves your challenges. My husband does precisely this in all other aspects of my life.
Once, when I was struggling for a solution to a problem in my personal life, my husband took off his socks, hid behind the sofa, and performed a hilarious sock-puppet show outlining the situation for me. Not only did he put me in a great mood, it also allowed me to reconsider the situation from a more objective standpoint!
What are the 3 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
- Climate Change — we often think of AI as “predicting the future”, but as all historians know, in order to understand the future we must first understand the past. The work being done to look back at the long history of our planet allows us to draw out the root causes of climate change and come up with innovative solutions.
- Freeing up compassion — the technological revolution will allow us to spend more time utilizing our uniquely human skillset. If we have trust in AI to make the smaller decisions effectively and without bias, then we can focus on the arguably more difficult task of building understanding between one another.
- Making the world accessible for all, AI allows for inexpensive solutions; enabling real-time conversations between speakers of different languages, allowing the blind to navigate the world, or in a recent project, I worked on, offering banking products to those previously unable to access them.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
- Lack of transparency — when using AI we should first ask ourselves what precisely are we trying to solve? Often the desired solution also requires us to gain a greater understanding of our subject matter. If AI isn’t built with actionability and clarity at its core then it can be obtuse to the end-user.
- Fear — lack of understanding about the nature and intent of AI has created a somewhat negative perception. While AI has been a known entity for many decades now, the public isn’t always informed that AI isn’t about killer robots.
- Availability to hostile parties — much like weapons, in the wrong hands, AI can be extremely dangerous.
As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent stakeholders, (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?
Firstly I think it is great that this is discussed in the public domain. AI already surpasses human skills in some areas, such as the famous Alpha-Go example, so it is natural to extrapolate that in the future we may not hold the balance of power if AI holds the ability to develop truly autonomous decision-making.
I take a more optimistic outlook, where we develop AI to supplement human ability rather than supersede it. Without presenting the benefits to humanity alongside the concerns, I find that some of these “soundbite” debates can just be fear-mongering.
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?
To ensure we have AI which works for us, not the other way round, we need a system of checks and balances. For which there is both a technological and human solution:
- Focus on developing “glass box AI” solutions, where the model is able and willing to explain why such a decision or action has taken place.
- Write and implement technological “codes of conduct”, clarifying the intended use of AI. In the future consumers will be able to select who they trust to use their data responsibly and shun those who seek to exploit. Businesses may choose to add an “ethical memorandum” to contracts to ensure their solutions are utilized for appropriate purposes.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
The North Star of SparkBeyond is “doing well while doing good”, which isn’t just a mere statement we give lip-service to. In fact, we devote our time and technology to it and we are always keen to engage in AI4Good projects. Personally I have provided a small social action charity with actionable insights to grow their movement, who otherwise would never have had the opportunity or resources to utilize AI within their organization.
As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise other women in the AI space to thrive?
- Always ask questions, in a fast-moving field like this, no one person can hold supreme knowledge. The “democratization” of AI is a very hot term right now — to me, this means that we must collate our distributed knowledge in order to be successful. AI learns and succeeds through the collection of as much information as possible. AI would never be ashamed to ask a question and neither should you
- Don’t allow yourself to be interrupted, I recommend using the phrase “May I finish?” Feel confident in completing and owning your knowledge. Often we are interrupted perfectly innocently during the enthusiastic discourse. Engaging with it in a polite but firm way ensures that your thoughts are expressed as intended.
- Give and receive effective feedback. Perfection is very much in the eye of the beholder, but if you request feedback given with good intent, you can arm yourself with information which may benefit your future development
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
Fortunately, at SparkBeyond we have had no trouble finding smart and motivated women to join the team. By definition, AI is artificial intelligence, but it wouldn’t exist without the intelligence of people to make it happen, which is why we have a “people and culture” team rather than “human resources”. This subtle difference ensures that we are people-centric in our approach and keeps us aware of potential unconscious biases, which may put off top female talent. Candidates pick up on the cultural considerations we have made as a company and consequently, I believe we have been able to recruit an incredibly talented and diverse team.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Your readers are most welcome to reach out to me via LinkedIn, I don’t participate in other forms of social media as I haven’t yet worked out the optimal way to sift through all the negativity to reach the rare gems!