First, be willing to take risks and get your hands dirty. Second, talk with others in the AI industry, generally people working in AI are passionate about the field and happy to engage with people who have smart questions. Third, find mentors who will take the time to show you the ropes and teach you what you need to move you forward. This might seem cliché, but mentorship doesn’t have to be an official thing. It can be as easy as talking about the people you encounter who are good at things you want to learn and asking them how they think about the work they are doing.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ashley Fidler, chief product officer at eSentire. Dr. Fidler is an expert in natural language processing (NLP), guiding development of high tech products. Dr. Fidler holds a Master of Art and a doctorate from Georgetown University, as well as a Master of Science from the University of Edinburgh and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Colorado.
Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?
I came to it by a circuitous route. I was a linguist, and got the opportunity after graduate school to work at Microsoft on the Cortana and Xbox language system. That was really exciting to me. One of the challenges that I always had in academia was that it didn’t feel like it was touching enough people or having a big enough impact. So, working on a product that is used by millions of people was really exciting. Then, as I learned more about the technology and got a deeper understanding of the impact of machine learning and AI on society, I was really hooked on the field. The move to cybersecurity was similar, in that this is a hugely impactful area that is benefitting enormously from the application of new technologies, such as ML, so I’m really grateful to be able to contribute.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
Don’t be afraid to jump in and try new things. When I started at Microsoft, I had some technology background, but not a lot — certainly not an engineering degree! They handed me a Natural Language Processing (NLP) textbook my first day and said, “Read this.” So, I did. You can make quite a lot of progress if you’re willing to listen to people, really engage, and stay focused while still being open-minded. You might look like an idiot for a while, but you can learn so much that way.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
The company I was working for, Versive, was acquired by eSentire. This gives us a huge opportunity to collaborate with all the amazing human experts that we have at eSentire to start applying AI in a smart way that allows them to do what they’re really good at. As we use AI to support them in new ways, we can deliver better security for our customers. There’s so much data that needs to be prioritized in a smart way so that the human experts can do the stuff that they’re really well-trained for without having to deal with all the noise.
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’ve had a lot of really good mentors in my life. I feel really fortunate about that. The two people who pushed me in this direction the most were my grandparents, actually. I have a doctorate in linguistics and I was focused on theoretical linguistics and child language development. My grandfather had been a vice president of AT&T, and he told me when I was in grad school, “You’re going to be a technologist. You’re not supposed to be an academic.” He knew that, personality-wise, I would be a better asset to a company than a university. My grandmother worked at Bell Labs during World War II. She had a math degree from Wellesley, and she always told me, “I wish I had the opportunity to work in technology longer.” She didn’t have that opportunity because, when the war ended, they fired all the women. So, she got married and raised seven kids. That got me thinking that I do have the opportunity to make a difference and really build things that change people’s lives. That is a fantastic opportunity that I shouldn’t squander.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
Well, the one thing that’s most exciting to me is that we are in a transformative moment for machine learning and AI. The story I often like to tell, which is a very relevant analogy, is about the transition from steam to electricity back at the turn of the 20th century, and how it took us decades to figure out how to use electricity well. I think we’re in the same place with machine learning and AI right now. Because there’s so much hype and people have all these ideas about how it’s going to change the world. But the actual applications we’re seeing right now are, for the most part, just slotting into existing use cases that aren’t as transformative as they could be. And then you have people worried about robots taking their jobs or blowing up the world. I think that this technology can be really transformational, but we’re still going through the process of really understanding how to use it well. And what it really means to incorporate this kind of math and statistics into technology and how it affects our daily lives. So, I think our whole lifetimes are going to see an evolution in this space, and I think that’s incredibly exciting.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
My husband is a futurist, and he said something recently that resonated with me, which was that widespread use of AI leads to a “moral lowest common denominator.” AI can make individual people so powerful, in a way that hasn’t previously been possible. In the past, if you wanted to wage an information war, you needed tons of people and a lot of coordination. Now, two or three people can do it very effectively. AI can be a multiplier for good or for bad. The fact that it enables people who have malicious designs to be more efficient and more effective than they were able to be in the past is a concerning flip-side to the benefits that it also has for society. There are a lot of potential pitfalls and perils that we could certainly step into, but I feel like the only way out is through at this point. I feel like there are enough challenges in the world that you can’t just say that we’re going to close our eyes to this and not use the technology and not push through this. We can’t go back to an analog way of living. So, the question is: how do we bias the system so that we get the best outcomes possible? There are risks to both using AI and to not using it . When people talk about it, they tend to frame it as, “We have the choice to not use it.” And I don’t believe we have that choice. But I think we have to be as smart as we can.
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?
We’ve made a big mistake in personifying AI. Think about the movie “AI” back in the 1990s and even Hal from “2001: A Space Odyssey” back in the 1960s. As a society, we went straight to the killer-robot-type meme. To me, the main focus of AI is systems that can replicate complicated human tasks. It doesn’t have to be sentient AI that makes art. In fact, AI that makes art is probably one of the least useful things that you can do with AI. There are a lot of business benefits, as well as huge societal benefits that we can get from embedding AI as a kind of plumbing in the technology infrastructure that we use. Obviously, there are other dimensions of AI that can be very scary, but that’s by far not the most prominent technological development in the machine learning and AI space.
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 wouldn’t try to assure them there’s nothing to be concerned about. Of course, there are things to be concerned about. To me, the important thing is changing the way the technology is perceived and pulling it away from immediately imagining the worst case scenarios.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
I think of myself as more of a collectivist, so to me, working on cybersecurity in general seems really important, because that’s a space that impacts every single person — whether we’re able to stay online, whether we’re able to use these technologies in a way that prevents us from getting our credit cards hacked, or from having other bad things happen to us. To me, that’s a team effort, and it’s a team of hundreds of thousands of people. I wouldn’t say there’s any specific thing I’ve done where I would say, “I impacted the world in a good way with this specific thing I did.” But I would say I specifically choose fields to work in that I believe have a big impact, in terms of either how people understand and use AI and other types of machine learning technologies, or with cybersecurity, the direct impact on the customers we have and the people who rely on the companies we serve, and keeping those people safe.
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 first piece of advice goes back to my answer about what can be learned from my journey: be willing to take risks and get your hands dirty. Second, talk with others in the AI industry, generally people working in AI are passionate about the field and happy to engage with people who have smart questions. Third, find mentors who will take the time to show you the ropes and teach you what you need to move you forward. This might seem cliché, but mentorship doesn’t have to be an official thing. It can be as easy as talking about the people you encounter who are good at things you want to learn and asking them how they think about the work they are doing.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
My general thinking on this subject is that more people (of both genders) will be more interested in AI as we focus more on how we apply the technology, as opposed to on the raw technology itself. At Microsoft, we had a lot of women working on the Cortana and Xbox systems. They were there because they wanted to have an impact on society and on people’s lives.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
My dad always used to say, “Make the right decision, and then make the decision right.” In other words, look at all your options, understand the situation, but then make a decision. Once you make a decision, figure out how to make it work. Because you’re never going to have all the information to make a perfect decision. There are going to be flaws, no matter what you do. So, take a look at it, don’t agonize, make sure you’ve thought about it, but not ad nauseam, and then make a decision and make that work. I think it’s a good motivator to keep moving forward.
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 think it would be really interesting to have an AI-based movement that focuses on income inequality. The way work is being coordinated and the fact that it’s changing so quickly gives us a big opportunity to use AI to systemically bias work platforms and other ways that people work towards more equality. I don’t think we’ve explored that very much yet, but I think that using technology to improve the distribution of people across the income spectrum is possible.
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 United Arab Emirates 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. Prior to founding Regal Assets, Tyler worked for a Microsoft startup led by legendary tech giant Karl Jacob who was an executive at Microsoft, and an original Facebook board member.