Remember that great success is often preceded by adversity, but adversity also brings an equivalent advantage. Never give up on your dream.
As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Madelaine Daianu, PhD. Daianu is a Senior Manager of Data Science at Intuit, reporting directly to the Intuit Chief Data Officer and managing a geographically diverse team of more than 10 data scientists and engineers. In her role as a data science leader, Daianu is responsible for generating and executing on a multi-million dollar portfolio of technology solutions and services through the development and application of machine learning into Intuit products. Daianu is known for leading a company-wide data science initiative to make data entry for personal finance, small business and taxes obsolete using computer vision and machine learning. Daianu has been published in 37 peer-reviewed publications for her research in applying computational neuroscience and machine learning to neuroimaging, and has received several honors and awards.
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?
I started my career in bioengineering, exploring the intersection of neuroimaging and machine learning, and finding new ways to apply machine learning techniques to brain imaging to predict brain health and identify biomarkers of disease.
I found that the computational techniques that I applied in neuroimaging during my postgraduate degree translated well to the large financial datasets at Intuit. At first I started working on personalized machine learning techniques to enhance the self-help experience for customers in TurboTax. However, it quickly became apparent that one of the greatest datasets to unlock was the millions of documents that the company receives from uploads each year. As I was devising ways to extract information from these documents with my team, I realized that analyzing images of documents is not that different from analyzing images of the brain, especially when it comes to applying cutting edge computer vision methods that delineate and understand their content. Today I run a company-wide initiative that aims to understand a wide spectrum of documents in an effort to eliminate data entry from all Intuit products through the application of computer vision and machine learning.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
One of the key takeaways is that it is very feasible to transition across disciplines and continue to work on transformational projects. Making the transition from academia to a public company has been very rewarding. It is a perfect time to influence the evolution of AI. The opportunities to use machine learning and AI to better the world are endless — from bioengineering and healthcare to personal finance and taxes.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
I’m excited to be leading a technical team that works on many exciting projects, some of which are in the Customer Care space aimed at using machine learning to provide personalized and contextualized self-help capabilities to our customers by leveraging natural language processing and understanding. The largest initiative that I drive is document understanding, which spans across all organizations at Intuit and requires efficient orchestration from various people. Our vision is to make data entry obsolete for all of our customers.
Currently, the average tax professional spends 75 minutes entering and prepping data from a variety of financial documents. Through this innovation, we can support our tax professionals using machine learning techniques that can automatically save substantial time in organizing documents and extracting key information from them. This is one of the first of its kind in the industry in not only data extraction, but applying contextual understanding to data to minimize inaccuracies and improve automation — allowing Intuit to instantly recognize and understand the documents uploaded by customer and mapping them back to user 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 completely agree — I would have never been able to come this far without all the amazing support I received throughout the years from my loved ones and mentors. I am particularly grateful to my mentor, Alex Balazs, Intuit’s Chief Architect, who has been an enthusiastic champion of my career every step of the way. Alex is known to have positively influenced the careers of many people, which is why I quickly introduced myself to him a few weeks into my job at Intuit and asked him to be my mentor. He encouraged me to consider a management role to unleash my potential in leading talented people toward successful careers. He repeatedly helped me find the confidence to stand tall in a male-dominated industry and fearlessly drive the change I wish to see in this world.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
- I’ve always had an intrinsic curiosity for the human brain — our most complex yet least understood organ. It is fascinating to be able to work on AI that will eventually mimic human intelligence, and someday, help uncover the intricacies of our own brain.
- AI is hugely unsolved and I get to be part of its evolution. The space is extremely complex, and thus attracts some of the greatest minds — who I get to work with on a daily basis.
- Augmented intelligence is advancing our intelligence, rather than replacing it, dramatically increasing the convenience of our lives.
- The sustained demand for machine learning skills brings a promising future for many technologists.
- The amount of data produced in the past few decades have allowed us to unleash the full potential of AI, and find new capabilities.
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?
I anticipate that these debates will only intensify as we advance our technologies. Some argue that these debates are premature, mainly because today’s AI systems are very limited. We haven’t yet discovered what it entails to build superintelligence, therefore, we do not have all the right information yet to determine how best to mitigate any potential harm.
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?
I’d encourage the tech community to think about the ramifications of AI end-to-end — both short and long term. It is our responsibility, as contributors to this technology, to plan for the potential implications that AI can have.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
Like most people, I also have the burning desire to leave this world a better place than I found it. I dedicated my education to studying the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, hoping to eradicate the disease that took the life of my dear grandfather. I led research studies, gave numerous talks to raise knowledge and awareness across the broader community, volunteered with the Alzheimer’s Association and much more. These experiences taught me something very valuable: while I may not be able to cure Alzheimer’s disease, I can give back to the world in many other ways. I realized that we rarely need big accomplishments to infuse meaning into our lives, and the lives of others. Every thoughtful gesture, no matter how small, has profound meaning and can bring out the good in others in unforeseeable ways.
I spend every day uplifting my team, encouraging them to be bold, boundary-less and inclusive. I encourage them to live by Intuit’s values that have proven to bring out the best in our culture. Most scientists and engineers tend to be grounded in realism, which can sometimes obscure their imagination. Therefore, I instill in them the desire to dream big and apply their imagination to make technological breakthroughs. In addition to work, I also enjoy giving talks to women technologists and raising awareness about the opportunities that can change the course of their career. Overall, I like to think that I bring goodness into the world through my daily interactions that can cumulatively positively impact the community we are part of.
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?
My three pieces of advice are:
- Go above and beyond — not because you are a minority in the tech industry — but because you truly believe that hard work is what will bring you closer to achieving your dreams.
- Trust yourself. Never let others tell what you can and cannot do.
- Remember that great success is often preceded by adversity, but adversity also brings an equivalent advantage. Never give up on your dream.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer. At Intuit we have an organization called Tech Women at Intuit, which aims to attract, retain and advance women in the technology organization. They offer a variety of different programs, including Intuit Again — a returnship program that helps those who took a career break to take care of others get back into the workplace.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
“Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with big dreams is more powerful than the one with all the facts.” (Einstein)
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’m really inspired by Intuit’s mission to power prosperity around the world. When you think about the number of people who are in debt or living paycheck-to-paycheck, innovation takes on a deeper meaning. We want to use technology to make finances easier and more accessible to people, including artificial intelligence.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow Intuit on Facebook and Twitter.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!