Visa SVP Carolina Barcenas: “Educating the general public on AI is key to ethical use and smart regulation”

An Interview with Tyler Gallagher

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There has already been a lot of emphasis on the use of data and privacy protection. While Europe is leading the way, other countries are following; however, we are still at a nascent stage. I think it’s important that we educate people on what AI really is and the challenges we need to address.

As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carolina Barcenas, a Senior Vice President for Research at Visa. She leads a team driving innovation in 4 areas of emphasis: Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning where is responsible for exploring and developing advanced ways for leveraging data to create business value for Visa through artificial intelligence techniques; Blockchain; Security and Commerce of the Future. The team focuses on product driven as well as foundational research. Carolina has served as a co-leader of Visa Women in Technology in Austin and often participates in events that support the advancement of women, such as the Texas Women Conference, Latinas in Tech summits and Girlstart. She is the organizing force behind the community college intern program that focuses on non-traditional candidates. She has worked both in industry as well as academia and has over 20 years of experience in machine learning solutions in fintech. Prior to joining Visa, she spent 7 years at PayPal where she was responsible for managing the risk of small and medium e-commerce sellers. Her expertise is in deep data mining techniques. She holds a Ph.D. in Applied Statistics from the Georgia Institute of Technology as a Fulbright Scholar.

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

From an early age, I was curious about how the world ‘worked’. My interest in math and science led me to study Physics, which gave me an opportunity to learn about and understand physical phenomena. It was also my first encounter with modeling, a field that quickly became my primary interest. I became passionate about the ability to represent the world’s phenomena mathematically. I came to the United States as a Fulbright scholar to pursue a PhD in Statistics, where my thesis work was focused on modeling. Upon graduation, I pursued a career in modeling, or machine learning by today’s nomenclature, and chose to focus on payments and the world of fintech.

Payments is an exciting industry for machine learning practitioners because its application has direct and meaningful impact on peoples’ money, and, therefore on peoples’ lives. The complex nature of building the accurate algorithms to protect financial ecosystem, and to make payments as secure, convenient and reliable as possible, is both challenging and rewarding

What lessons can others learn from your story?

In my case, I started thinking that I would have a career as a physicist; however, I discovered that my passion was problem solving and creating mathematical abstractions to be utilized in decision making. After realizing my professional passion, I readjusted my goals and pursued a career in machine learning. Goals change and, as you progress, don’t be afraid to adapt. Ultimately, it’s key to work on something you are passionate about.

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

At Visa, we are constantly looking at ways to improve payment network security, as there will always be malicious actors trying to defraud our clients and cardholders. Our goal in this area is to stop fraudulent activity while maintaining a consistent and seamless experience for legitimate cardholders. The solution we’re pursuing involves unsupervised and deep learning, which makes this an interesting challenge.

The team is currently working on a deep learning model to better detect fraudulent credit card transactions using millions of parameters, and without affecting our ability to meet our contractual obligation to authorize transactions in just a few milliseconds (fast enough to be undetectable to cardholders waiting at the checkout). This is impressive when you consider that during a transaction, a consumer’s purchase information is sent to Visa where a complex model evaluates risk. Then, the information is sent to your bank for approval before it’s sent back to the merchant — all while the customer stands in front of a cashier or other point of sale. The decision to approve or reject a transaction considers millions of factors, including purchase behavior, merchant profiles and transaction type, among others. Not only have we been able to achieve very high levels of accuracy, but there are also many technological innovations because of this effort, which we are starting to leverage in other solutions.

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 have had many mentors that helped me professionally throughout my career. However, my father has undoubtedly been my biggest influence. Growing up in a small conservative town in Mexico, it was acceptable for women to earn undergraduate degrees but raising a family was emphasized. From an early age, my father engrained in me the idea that being a woman should not constrain my goals and aspirations — and his support was particularly powerful as the only daughter of three siblings. When I made the decision to study physics and eventually come to America to pursue a PhD, I had the full support of my father, even when I had little support elsewhere.

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

  1. AI for social good: AI’s usefulness in problem solving can be translated to social good. For example, AI-powered assistants can teach kids new languages like virtual teachers. Additionally, there are companies doing work to understand human emotions in order to help kids with autism. At Visa, we use AI for social good during hurricane season to help with recovery efforts by FEMA. We created a website that shows merchants in affected areas who are processing electronic transactions — so that residents know where they can go to buy food and supplies using their debit or credit card.
  2. AI technology acceleration: The lack of computing power and data was a hindrance to AI’s advancement early on, but we’ve surpassed those barriers. The confluence of Big Data and powerful computing is making it possible to create more sophisticated applications with a higher level of accuracy.
  3. AI tackling new problems: AI is transforming the ways in which humans live and work. Technology has become a partner to society, eliminating repetitive tasks that bring people little satisfaction while optimizing efficiency.
  4. Interest in AI: With the acceleration of AI technologies, the number of people entering the field has increased greatly. In just a few years, the number of students graduating with this expertise is significantly higher. New talent means fresh thinking — which is what we need to see continued innovation.
  5. The AI debate: As with any emerging technology there’s a lot we don’t know about the long-term implications of AI. Fortunately, there’s recognition of this that has to date allowed for a thoughtful discourse to better anticipate how AI might impact the world, and to manage any negative consequences. To be clear, I firmly believe the benefits will far outweigh the downsides.

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

  1. Insufficient regulation: While there are impressive technological advancements happening in AI, we need continued focus on effective regulation and ethical use guidelines. A commonly cited example is driverless car accidents and the liable party should someone be injured. There are serious implications that must be addressed before we adopt these technologies broadly. At the same time, we need regulations that keep pace with technology — so that we are protecting end users while encouraging innovation and investment.
  2. Data protection: Some companies also lack rigorous controls about data usage and privacy. To be a responsible AI company, you have to have a deep respect for the data you hold.

At Visa, we feel that very profoundly — we have an obligation to steward data securely and responsibly and to respect individuals’ right to privacy.

  1. Biased models: Algorithms that use biased data will generate biased decisions. AI provides the opportunity to remove human bias from decision making. However, if the model is trained with a sample that includes past human bias, that is what the algorithm will learn. There have been examples of algorithms that discriminate against women because the sample used wasn’t representative of the population.
  2. AI weaponization: I believe in the inherent power of data and AI to do good. But the weaponization of AI is cause for concern. This dilemma is not a new — every major technological innovation has unlocked new ethical considerations. I subscribe to the belief that if the user has bad intentions, the technology can be used to do great harm. But we can’t blame the technology for the outcome — we must instead hold the creators and users accountable.
  3. Types of applications: While AI is being applied in many contexts, I believe there is more we could do to apply AI to social good — more investment and research into applications in areas like the climate change, social justice and education.

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’m of the opinion that technology is our partner. Technology certainly brings changes, but I believe in our society’s inherent ability to adapt. While some jobs might disappear (those are that repetitive and perhaps that provide little satisfaction), new jobs will be created. This current era of technological innovation isn’t unprecedented and is reminiscent of the industrial revolution. Ultimately, I believe the technology, when used correctly, will benefit our lives and we are just at the beginning of a significant transformation. However, I also recognize that the technology in the wrong hands can be devastating, which is why effective regulation around the ethical use of AI is vital.

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?

There has already been a lot of emphasis on the use of data and privacy protection. While Europe is leading the way, other countries are following; however, we are still at a nascent stage. I think it’s important that we educate people on what AI really is and the challenges we need to address. If people better understood these topics, they would demand more attention from their representatives. Educating the general public on AI is key to ethical use and smart regulation.

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

I want to help people that do not have the same opportunities that I had, and Visa gives me a tremendous platform to accomplish that. There is a nonprofit I have supported that helps non-traditional candidates (who are under-represented and under privileged), called CapitalIdea. Its mission is to secure internships with tech companies for students that are getting associate degrees. The idea is that opportunities and exposure to these companies will not only enhance their resume, it will also give them the right tools and experiences for their first job.

It has been very rewarding to see the number of students we have helped through this program. Several have even joined Visa and are pursuing a tech career with us. My goal was to hopefully change the life of just one person so knowing we have a few full-time employees from this program makes me smile every time I walk pass their desks and see how successful they are in their careers and here at Visa.

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?

Most importantly, pursue problems that you are passionate about. This is obviously true for any job, however for AI — given that your work will have a direct impact on people’s lives — working on the right problems will give you the energy to persevere.

Challenge the status quo. There are opportunities that have not been tackled due to technology or because they don’t seem relevant. As a woman in a male dominated field, you bring a different perspective and that different point of view could bring attention to new and unforeseen opportunities.

We all know networking is important, so connect with other professionals and find good mentors, male and female.

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

We need to start with early education, and the first step is to have more girls interested in STEM. This a responsibility that falls on society and industry. Visa sponsors an organization called Girlstart, whose mission is to spark girls’ interest and engagement in STEM. I have participated in several of their events and I believe in the importance of female role models in STEM related areas, and in my case, from an underrepresented community. I recall an occasion when a young Latin-American girl asked me ‘how do I explain to my parents that I am interested in STEM and how can I get their support’. The field is at risk of losing smart confident young women due to a lack of encouragement, support and guidance.

Once we have young women interested in the field, it’s important to give them the necessary guidance to pursue their passion areas — which could very much differ from the passion areas of their male counterparts.

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

“Don’t be afraid to be the full package.”

When I started my professional career, I tried very hard to not be seen as a Latin-American, female professional. I made sure my mannerisms and the way I dressed were closer to mainstream corporate America. I realized I was neglecting the essence of who I am, and that my background brought a positive perspective to the work I was doing. Although this sounds cliché, being yourself is important, so don’t lose the diversity that got you where you are in the first place.

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. 🙂

Use AI to create virtual personalized trainers that can bring high-level and quality education to all parts of the world. Education is our greatest resource for ending poverty and providing people the means to succeed.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

About The Author:

Tyler Gallagher is the CEO and Founder of Regal Assets, a “Bitcoin IRA” company. Regal Assets is an international alternative assets firm with offices in the United States, Canada, London and Dubai focused on helping private and institutional wealth procure alternative assets for their investment portfolios. Regal Assets is an Inc. 500 company and has been featured in many publications such as Forbes, Bloomberg, Market Watch and Reuters. With offices in multiple countries, Regal Assets is uniquely positioned as an international leader in the alternative assets industry and was awarded the first ever crypto-commodities license by the DMCC in late 2017. Regal Assets is currently the only firm in the world that holds a license to legally buy and sell cryptos within the Middle East and works closely with the DMCC to help evolve and grow the understanding and application of blockchain technology. In addition to his role with Regal Assets, Tyler is a regular contributor to Forbes, Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global and Authority Magazine. Tyler has also been featured in many news publications and has been a guest expert on “The News with Ed Shultz”. Tyler is a proud member of the Forbes Finance Council a private invite only-group of hand-selected industry leaders.

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