In my opinion, humanity poses the greatest threat to humanity. What we do with the tools we build is far more concerning that the tools are themselves. I think the fear mongering that has continued to pervade in the media is escapist behavior to turn blame and responsibility away from the creator. It also disproportionately impacts women who have been found to be more fearful on average. That said, this is a new time and a new technology. We are all bound to make mistakes and we have to continue to learn from them. It’s far more productive to admit the shortcomings or challenges and address them rather than scare away the people who are critical to solving those challenges.
As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leanne Luce, who is the author of Artificial Intelligence for Fashion: How AI is Revolutionizing the Fashion Industry. She has a background in fashion and previously worked on robotic exoskeletons for the military at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute and at Otherlab in San Francisco. Leanne is editor of the blog The Fashion Robot, which has been recognized by publications such as Vogue and Glossy. She currently works at Google as a Product Manager.
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?
My career has been what many would consider unlikely. I attended Rhode Island School of Design and graduated with a degree in Apparel Design. After working as a designer for a couple years, I left the fashion world to work under military contracts on soft exoskeletons (wearable robotics) at Harvard Wyss Institute and later on at Otherlab. I was truly delighted by engineering and the technologies I was building and using everyday.
Working in robotics, I naturally became curious about artificial intelligence and how AI could impact the fashion industry, one of the largest and most damaging industries in the world. In 2018, I wrote a book about Artificial Intelligence in the Fashion Industry, which was published by Apress (Springer Nature.)
What lessons can others learn from your story?
I have spent so much of my life feeling out of place and uncertain of where I was headed. It was easy for some of my colleagues with various engineering degrees to have a vision of their own future because many of them had parents who worked in the same field. I remember being asked at an interview at Harvard what my 5 year and 10 year goals were. I couldn’t answer that question at the time, I just knew I was working toward something I didn’t and simply couldn’t understand at the time. The biggest lesson for me is to trust my curiosity even when I was working towards the unknown. This is usually easier said than done!
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
Unfortunately I can’t discuss a lot of what I work on, this has almost always been true in my career. I recently joined a data and machine learning focused team at Google which serves business information to Google Maps. A really interesting part of my job is the collaboration between our team and Duplex, which we’re using now to call businesses to confirm their holiday hours.
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?
There have been many mentors and sponsors that have helped along the way and I hope there will be many more in the future. People talk about mentorship a lot and while it has been important in my career, I also never let a lack of a formal mentor stop me from continuing to grow. A couple years ago one of my mentors was giving me advice and told me “software and programming is only becoming more relevant every day.” It was simple and obvious, but I think about that continuously, almost as a mantra.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
1. There is an endless amount of possibility and opportunity in our future when it comes to AI.
2. Visual artifacts which are typically not the goal of AI have created really interesting work in the last 5 years. Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) especially excite me. They seem too have really captured the imagination of artists and creatives.
3. The reduction of tedious tasks currently performed by humans.
4. AI is a tool which can help humans make more strategic supply chain decisions which help reduce waste.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
1. AI is incredible scalable which scares me because mistakes can become far more costly.
2. The industry does have biases not out of malice, but because it lacks diversity. We need more diverse voices to reduce the kinds of mistakes I’m referring to in concern #1.
3. Our economy and culture will change as some of the tasks performed by human will become automated.
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?
In my opinion, humanity poses the greatest threat to humanity. What we do with the tools we build is far more concerning that the tools are themselves. I think the fear mongering that has continued to pervade in the media is escapist behavior to turn blame and responsibility away from the creator. It also disproportionately impacts women who have been found to be more fearful on average.
That said, this is a new time and a new technology. We are all bound to make mistakes and we have to continue to learn from them. It’s far more productive to admit the shortcomings or challenges and address them rather than scare away the people who are critical to solving those challenges.
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?
Frankly, the public should be concerned, but probably not for the reasons that are often expressed through media. To say “AI is going to take over the world” is to anthropomorphize AI as though it has intention. The intention comes from the human creator and if the intention is malicious or careless or simply biased, so too will be the outcome.
AI is going to continue to progress and what’s most important is that there are more diverse voices claiming their seats at the table.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
I can only hope I have! Writing this book about AI for Fashion was motivated greatly by the fact that women dominate the fashion industry. It is my hope that this book becomes a resource to women in the industry and young women who dream of joining it.
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?
1. Find other women and find male allies who will sponsor and support you in your career.
2. Play to your strengths and don’t apologize for having strengths that are different from someone else’s.
3. Take care of yourself. I have had some very fortunate experiences and other less fortunate so. I’ve been in environments in the past that weren’t great for a woman and I felt like I was fighting every day to be there. It’s important to know when the environment has become toxic and damaging and to know when it’s time to leave.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
The educational resources available don’t speak to everyone. Respect people’s strengths and speak through a lens that they see through. The worst thing you can do is tell someone they may not be ‘cut out’ to understand.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
“Don’t borrow trouble” which is to say don’t find a problem where one doesn’t exists. This is a useful phrase for me every day and in every area of life whether I’m working on building products or learning to collaborate with new people.
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 would want to spread curiosity. We live in a time of constant change. To survive, we have to do what humans have always been good at… adapt. I think curiosity is a learnable skill and a critical one today. It keeps us playful, happy, employed ;-), and even more importantly stops us from pointing fingers and blame at one another.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you so much for having me as a part of this series. I’m looking forward to reading the interviews with other women leading AI!