I would advise women to be confident. Specifically, don’t be afraid to speak up. If you have an idea, a question, or a concern, let others know. I feel that many women in tech, including myself sometimes, suffer from “impostor syndrome,” which can make acting on your confidence challenging. However, I promise, the more you do it, the easier it becomes, and more decisions will be made quickly and effectively.
As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Amanda Sgroi, a Principal Research Scientist at RE2 Robotics. In this role, she is responsible for leading development in perception and autonomy, and managing the technical development for multiple programs. Dr. Sgroi has more than 10 years of experience performing computer vision and machine learning research. Dr. Sgroi received her Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Notre Dame and her B.S. degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science from Duquesne University.
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?
During my undergraduate studies, I was asked to join a research group during the first semester of my freshman year, given my dual major and previous coding experience. This was my first exposure to image processing and I loved it! I worked with Dr. Stacey Levine at Duquesne University for four years. She encouraged me to attend a summer program at MIT (where I reached farther into computer vision and graphics) and helped me get into graduate school. In graduate school at Notre Dame, I worked in the Computer Vision Research Lab and focused on face and iris biometrics. This is where I built up my base knowledge of computer vision and machine learning tools, learned how to write proposals, and apply this knowledge with the help of others at all levels. Each job after graduate school has used and expanded upon these skills and has slowly led me to robotics.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
I think the best lesson is that regardless of what you study, it’s how you apply it that matters. I’ve talked to others who are looking for their first job, and they ask me how I’ve been able to work in autonomy and robotics coming from a biometrics background. I always tell them it’s how you use the tools in your toolbox, not how you’ve used them in the past.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
Right now, I’m leading an effort to move our robotic arms from tele-operated and semi-autonomous to fully autonomous. This involves selecting sensors, developing perception algorithms, creating a pipeline for using the results of these algorithms, and planning the trajectory and grasp plan for the arms. The hope is that this methodology will be modular enough to expand to all military and commercial areas for all configurations of our arms.
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’m especially grateful to my undergraduate research advisor, Dr. Stacey Levine. She really taught me how to conduct independent research and learn new skills, even when they were beyond my current classroom knowledge. She also played an important in role in my decision to go to graduate school and was a good ear when I was trying to determine which program to attend.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
I think the work being done in generative models and image translation is really exciting. The field has gone from just being able to automatically generate handwritten digits to being able to create fully synthetic faces and landscapes. There’s definitely more work to be done, but with the need for large quantities of training data growing, the use of generative models will be game changing.
With respect to deep learning in general, I think we are moving towards having a greater understanding of the inner workings of deep neural networks. Getting a sense of what neural networks “see” at the different layers can help us better design and understand where neural networks go right or wrong. I think we will see a release of many important works in this area this year.
Google’s work with DeepMind AI, particularly for Go, has had my attention for a while. It’s cool to see the excitement of those in AI and other communities surrounding the game. The applicability of this solution to other fields is also very compelling.
Specifically in Computer Vision, there are some exciting applications that I feel will be used every day in the near future that use some well-established technology. This includes smart camera intelligence, like those in smartphone cameras and applications, intelligent surveillance that will help to keep public and residential spaces safe, and digital assistants that are bringing together the internet of things to make our lives more connected and efficient. Seeing the technology I’m passionate being used in everyday situations brings me a lot of joy.
In robotics specifically, I’m excited about the continued growth and desire for automated robotics in markets beyond the automotive industry, such as logistics. This excites me for purposes of personal growth, as more human-like dexterous robots, like those developed by RE2, will be needed — as will the need to automate new and interesting tasks on these platforms.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
My biggest concern is a lack of people power, particularly in AI industries not related to automated vehicles. I think there is a need to get those leaving academia excited about the wide breadth of AI applications so that they can also change our daily world.
Given the lack of people needed for all the AI-related work, organizations often lean on ready-made solutions for their own data. Although this prevents the need for a resource to build something from scratch, it encourages using results that ignore the operations happening “under the hood” of these algorithms. This ignorance could lead to degraded performance or general misuse of a method.
I feel that social media has also put a hindrance on AI development. The media propagates that AI has already taken over our lives. We need to discuss how other forms of AI are making our lives better, even in ways we might not also see or use directly — for example, how that Amazon package gets to your home in two days or less.
The specialization of AI is something often on my mind. As engineers, we focus on solving specific tasks. Even in my work, I solve manipulating different objects using different methods based on degrees of freedom, gripper type, and object complexity. Fully generalized AI is still a long way away, but keeping the need for greater generalization on the minds of developers will be beneficial as we continue to advance AI application.
Working with a physical application of AI, I’m often concerned about safety. Human-robot collaboration can increase efficiency and productivity while reducing labor cost over time. However, we need to make sure we are keeping human collaborators safe at all times. The need for greater public policy regarding this type of collaboration will soon be needed as we continue to unlock the potential of AI.
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 agree that artificial intelligence research has enormous potential and implications. I think that this argument is often distilled down to “killer robots,” which we are quite far away from, as robots often still struggle with climbing stairs. However, advances in other less physical forms of AI and their impact on social media and military strategy give me greater pause. I believe those of us in AI need keep in mind the moral implications of what we develop.
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 think we need to have ongoing internal and community discussions about the moral impact of all technologies. We are all striving to innovate in our field and impact the world, but we are all responsible for ensuring this impact remains positive. To this end, I think we should share the positive impacts we are making with the public more often. RE2 often shares how we are impacting the world through robotics and how we empower our team and the community. Sharing these kinds of stories more often, particularly by both large and small businesses, would help the public see the beauty in AI and how it is positively changing their world locally and globally.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
In my prior position, I worked on several programs related to combat casualty care. The results of these programs aimed to increase the likelihood of survival and quality of life of injured warfighters. Seeing soldiers test and demonstrate these capabilities and receiving positive feedback truly made me feel like we were making a positive impact on the medics.
Currently, I’m working on several programs that will aid workers in commercial areas where working conditions may be dangerous. RE2 Robotics is committed to developing innovative technologies that save lives and improve the quality of life. This is what drove me to join the company and I feel it in action with each program I work on.
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?
The first thing I would advise women in AI to do would be to find a mentor and then BE a mentor. I found a great mentor in a previous position that I still stay in touch with who has helped guide my career choices and encouraged me to be a strong leader. This has set a great example for me, and I hope that I’m mentoring others at the same level.
Second, I would advise women to be confident. Specifically, don’t be afraid to speak up. If you have an idea, a question, or a concern, let others know. I feel that many women in tech, including myself sometimes, suffer from “impostor syndrome,” which can make acting on your confidence challenging. However, I promise, the more you do it, the easier it becomes, and more decisions will be made quickly and effectively.
Third, work somewhere that aligns with your values. Think of what’s important to you — flexibility during the work week? Possibility for paid maternity leave? Impact on the community? I’ve found that answering these questions has helped me make the best decisions about determining where and who I want to work for.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
To engage more women into the AI industry, we need to start getting girls interested in computer science and related topics early. Advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and perception are all driven by passion, which women often have a lot of. Encouraging that passion for these topics during undergraduate studies and earlier through mentorship and research, I believe, would lead more women to the AI industry.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
“The energy I give is equal to the inspiration I provide, which results in the impact I make, which leads to the legacy I leave.” — Major General T.S. Jones, USMC Retired
This quote comes from lessons I learned directly from General Jones at Outdoor Odyssey, a summer camp I worked at in high school. I truly believe that if you walk into a situation, whether it be confronting a hard problem, mentoring a new team member, or dealing with a trial in life, bringing positive energy and confidence to the situation will inspire others to do the same. More often than not, results in a positive outcome will drive the success of the greater problem.
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. 🙂
If I could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, it would tell them that they are not impostors and to radiate their knowledge. When you doubt your accomplishments and live in fear of being a fraud, you prevent yourself from moving forward and creating the impact that you’ve been trained to create. I want others to know that they are where they are because others believe and trust them, and they are truly qualified to create change.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/amanda-sgroi-6a510a7a).
RE2 is active on social media. Here are the corporate accounts:
YouTube: RE2, Inc.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!