The world of artificial intelligence (AI) is experiencing a significant shift led by outstanding women who have overcome obstacles, questioned biases, and changed the story in the tech industry. These six women were chosen for their exceptional contributions and leadership roles in the field of artificial intelligence. Each of them has played a vital role in shaping the landscape of AI, breaking barriers, and advocating for diversity and ethical considerations. Their diverse backgrounds, innovative projects, and commitment to making AI more inclusive and responsible showcase the multifaceted impact of women in technology.
In this article, we look into the remarkable experiences of Fei-Fei Li, Maja Pantić, Rumman Chowdhury, Timnit Gebru, Joy Buolamwini, and Corinna Cortes. We highlight their crucial contributions to AI and their dedication to promoting diversity and ethical practices in this ever-evolving field.
Fei-Fei Li: A Visionary in AI
Li was born in Beijing, China, in 1976 and grew up in Chengdu, Sichuan. When she was 12, her father relocated to the United States, and at 15, she and her mother joined him in Parsippany–Troy Hills, New Jersey. She graduated from Parsippany High School in 1995 and was later inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2017.
For her undergraduate studies at Princeton University, Li majored in physics and also studied computer science and engineering, earning a Bachelor of Arts with high honors in 1999. Her senior thesis, supervised by Professor Bradley Dickinson, focused on "Auditory Binaural Correlogram Difference: A New Computational Model for Huggins Dichotic Pitch." Despite her demanding studies, she frequently returned home to assist in her parents' dry-cleaning store.
Moving on to graduate studies at the California Institute of Technology, Li obtained a Doctor of Philosophy in electrical engineering in 2005. Her dissertation, titled "Visual Recognition: Computational Models and Human Psychophysics," was supervised by Pietro Perona and Christof Koch. Her studies were supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans.
In 2017, she co-founded AI4ALL, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing diversity and inclusion in artificial intelligence. Her research expertise spans artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, computer vision, and cognitive neuroscience.
Li's remarkable contributions led to her election as a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 2020, the National Academy of Medicine in 2020, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021.
Maja Pantić: Illuminating Human Behaviour with AI
Pantić, born in Belgrade, Serbia, is an expert in machine understanding of human behavior, focusing on vision-based detection and tracking of cues like facial expressions and body gestures, and multimodal analysis of behaviors such as laughter and social signals. She studied mathematics at the University of Belgrade and later moved to the Netherlands in 1992 to pursue informatics. Completing her BSc from Delft University in 1995 and an MSc in Artificial Intelligence in 1997, she earned her PhD at Delft University of Technology in 2001.
Between 2001 and 2005, she was an associate professor at Delft University, notable as one of two women among 300 professors in Electronic and Electrical Engineering. In 2002, she received a Dutch Research Council Junior Fellowship (NWO Veni) and was recognized among the top 7 young researchers in the Netherlands. Joining Carnegie Mellon University's Face lab in 2005, she later became an expert in the machine analysis of human nonverbal behavior at Imperial College London in 2006. She received the European Research Council Starting Grant in 2008.
Heading the Intelligent Behaviour Understanding Group (iBug) at Imperial College London, she attained the position of Professor in 2010. Her interest in AI and machine learning extends to varied fields, including assisted independent living, healthcare, autism, and driverless cars. An illustration of her work is the collaboration on Ideas Lab, an AI machine proficient in interpreting human emotions and predicting outcomes based on gestures and reactions. This initiative aims to detect early signs of human depression and understand human psychology, with the goal of offering improved assistance.
In 2020, Pantić assumed the role of AI Scientific Research Lead at Facebook London, having published over 150 technical papers and gathered more than 7300 citations for her work.
Rumman Chowdhury: A Catalyst for Ethical AI
Rumman Chowdhury (born 1980) is a Bangladeshi-American data scientist, business founder, and former Responsible Artificial Intelligence Lead at Accenture. Born in Rockland County, New York, she is acknowledged for her data science contributions. Chowdhury taught data science at Metis boot camp and worked at Quotient before joining Accenture in 2017, leading their efforts on responsible artificial intelligence.
Concerned about algorithmic bias and the AI workforce, she emphasizes defining ethical AI and coined the term "moral outsourcing." She collaborates with companies to develop ethical governance and transparent decision-explaining algorithms, aiming to enhance diversity in recruitment. Chowdhury, with a team at the Alan Turing Institute, developed a Fairness Tool to scrutinize algorithm input data for potential biases, addressing and rectifying them.
Chowdhury created All.ai, a language analysis tool promoting gender balance in meeting speakers. In 2020, she founded Parity to bridge the translation gap between risk, legal, and data teams. Chowdhury initiated the X Institute, teaching refugees data science and marketing. Her keynote speech at Slush focused on augmenting human capabilities, and she delivered a TED talk on humanity in the age of artificial intelligence.
Timnit Gebru: Championing Ethical Considerations
Timnit Gebru's journey is one marked by dedication, as she navigated challenges and soared to prominence in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). Hailing from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Gebru's early life was shaped by the turmoil of the Eritrean–Ethiopian War. Her father's passing when she was just five, combined with her mother's determination, saw her seeking political asylum in the U.S. at the age of 15.
Settling in Somerville, Massachusetts, Gebru encountered racial discrimination during high school, a stark contrast to her high-achieving academic prowess. A pivotal moment occurred when a friend, a Black woman, faced assault. Gebru's call to the police resulted not in justice but in her friend's arrest, an experience that highlighted systemic racism, shaping her perspective on ethics in technology.
Gebru's academic journey led her to Stanford University, where she earned her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in electrical engineering, followed by a Ph.D. in computer vision in 2017. During her doctoral program, she presented groundbreaking research at the 2017 LDV Capital Vision Summit competition, propelling her into collaborations with entrepreneurs and investors.
Returning to Ethiopia with the AddisCoder programming campaign in 2016 and 2018, Gebru demonstrated her commitment to bridging gaps in computer science education. However, her concerns about the future of AI were also evident during her PhD, as she critiqued the lack of diversity in the field, emphasising the projection of biases in machine learning.
Gebru faced a public controversy in 2020 when she abruptly left Google as the technical co-lead of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team. The dispute centered around an unpublished paper, and Google's decision to terminate her employment brought to light broader issues within the tech industry.
Widely acknowledged for her expertise, Gebru has been recognized by Fortune, Nature, and Time. In 2021, she was named one of the World's 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune, featured among Nature's ten people who shaped science, and in 2022, listed as one of Time's most influential people. Timnit Gebru's story continues to inspire, highlighting the importance of ethical considerations and diversity in shaping the future of artificial intelligence.
Joy Buolamwini: Bridging Gaps with Technology
During her youth, Buolamwini excelled not only in academics but also as a competitive pole vaulter. Her educational pursuits led her to the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she majored in computer science and delved into research in health informatics. Graduating as a Stamps President's Scholar in 2012, Buolamwini marked her academic prowess and innovation, becoming the youngest finalist in the Georgia Tech InVenture Prize in 2009.
Buolamwini furthered her academic laurels with a Master's Degree in Media Arts & Sciences from MIT in 2017. Her scholarly pursuit culminated in a Ph.D. in Media Arts & Sciences from the MIT Media Lab in 2022, with a thesis titled "Facing the Coded Gaze with Evocative Audits and Algorithmic Audits."
Beyond academia, Buolamwini's impactful work extends to her role as a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, where she addresses bias in algorithms and advocates for accountability in their design. As a member of Ethan Zuckerman's Center for Civic Media group, her focus includes identifying bias in algorithms and developing practices for transparency during their design.
A groundbreaking moment in Buolamwini's career was her project, Gender Shades, as part of her MIT thesis. In this endeavor, she demonstrated the challenges faced by facial recognition systems in identifying dark-skinned women. The project spurred her 2018 paper "Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification," prompting swift improvements from tech giants IBM and Microsoft.
Buolamwini is not confined to research alone. She invented the Aspire Mirror, offering users a reflection based on their inspirations. Her commitment to addressing bias in code led to the creation of the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL) in 2016. AJL combines art and research to highlight potential societal implications and harms of AI, raising public awareness and advocating for further research in the field.
Her activism reaches the legislative sphere as well. In 2019, Buolamwini testified before the United States House Committee on Oversight and Reform about the risks associated with facial recognition technology.
Corinna Cortes: Shaping the Foundations of Machine Learning
Corinna Cortes, a distinguished Danish computer scientist born on 31 March 1961, is renowned for her significant contributions to machine learning. Currently holding the position of Vice President at Google Research in New York City, Cortes has earned accolades such as being recognised as an ACM Fellow and receiving the esteemed Paris Kanellakis Award for her groundbreaking work on the theoretical foundations of support vector machines.
Born in Denmark in 1961, Cortes earned her Master of Science degree in physics from the University of Copenhagen in 1989. Subsequently, she completed her PhD in computer science at the University of Rochester in 1993, conducting research under the supervision of Randal C. Nelson. Beginning her research career, Cortes joined AT&T Bell Labs as a researcher in 1993 and has since made notable contributions to the field.
Since 2003, Cortes has held the position of Vice President at Google Research in New York City. Concurrently, she has served as an adjunct professor at the UCPH Department of Computer Science since 2011 and remains an esteemed editorial board member of the journal Machine Learning.
Cortes' extensive research encompasses various facets of machine learning, with a focus on support vector machines (SVM) and data mining. SVM stands out as one of the most widely used algorithms in machine learning, playing a crucial role in practical applications such as medical diagnosis and weather forecasting. During her tenure at AT&T, Cortes also played a significant role in the design of the Hancock programming language.
Acknowledging her exceptional contributions, Cortes, along with Vladimir Vapnik, was honoured with the Paris Kanellakis Award in 2008 for their development of the highly effective supervised learning algorithm known as support vector machines. Furthermore, her remarkable achievements led to her being named an ACM Fellow in 2023, recognising her theoretical and practical contributions to machine learning, industrial leadership, and dedicated service to the field.
The Key Takeaways
In conclusion, the incredible journeys of Fei-Fei Li, Maja Pantić, Rumman Chowdhury, Timnit Gebru, Joy Buolamwini, and Corinna Cortes tell a powerful story of change in the world of AI. These amazing women, each with a unique background, have left a lasting impact on the field, showing resilience and a commitment to diversity and ethics. Their important contributions are reshaping technology and can be seen as an inspiration for women everywhere.
We hope that this exploration will encourage more women to believe that, just like these pioneers, they too can overcome challenges and make significant contributions to the ever-changing world of artificial intelligence. Read also Overt’s other tech pioneers related articles. Find out how these great people break the barriers despite knowing the limits.
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