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The Future of AI is Female


Five female AI researchers stand in the bridge between NSH and Gates

Showcasing CMU's women in AI research across the career continuum

Carnegie Mellon University has shaped artificial intelligence (AI) from the field’s very beginning. Today, researchers from all seven colleges across CMU continue to define AI as the next frontier in human progress and are working to help solve problems in areas from healthcare to education.

Because of the interdisciplinary campus culture, CMU is a place where women are thriving in the field of AI, even though they are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) across the globe.

CMU's women in AI — from undergraduate students to distinguished faculty members —  discuss their research, its impact and their future in the world of AI.

Yiwen Yuan, undergraduate student in Computer Science

Yiwen Yuan never gave much thought to the gender imbalance in AI. She arrived at CMU just as the School of Computer Science reached gender parity in its undergraduates and has studied and conducted research under women faculty leaders. 

Yuan's research has focused on food insecurity and she works in partnership with local organization 412 Food Rescue (led by Leah Lizarando, an alumna of CMU's Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy). The organization created an app allowing businesses with surplus food to connect with volunteers, who transport the food to organizations feeding those in need. A grocery store or restaurant posts on the app when they have a surplus, and volunteers respond to "rescue" the food.

However, many rescues were being left unclaimed, and Yuan said, "We worked with the organization to figure out a way to make the food rescues more efficient."

The CMU team analyzed what types of rescues were not being claimed, studying geographic areas and times of day. The team then helped the human staff from the organization more efficiently utilize their efforts to call volunteers, helping them predict which rescues might go unclaimed without a phone call.

Yuan said she has helped improve the app's notification scheme for volunteer users. She really enjoys the opportunity to work with nonprofit organizations.

"I'm helping develop technology for places and people who do not specialize in this area. AI is helping their organizations to improve and also reduce their human workload," Yuan said.

As an undergrad, Yuan has attended and presented at conferences related to AI. She has noticed the speakers and attendees are primarily male, but it hasn't given her pause.

Yuan will continue her education at CMU as a master's student and plans to pursue a Ph.D. afterward. She plans to take her skills to an organization or university that supports diversity.

"Science and technology are for all people," she said. "I definitely have to do background research to figure out if a workspace treats women equally."

Sweta Priyadarshi, graduate student in Electrical & Computer Engineering

Sweta Priyadarshi was working for Amazon in India after completing her undergraduate degree in engineering when she became interested in artificial intelligence. Her employer encouraged her to take on projects that helped her learn how machines can better understand humans or at least imitate some human-like behavior, like Alexa, understanding and recommending suggestions.

Priyadarshi came to CMU to expand her ability to apply AI. She has done research using AI to study the degradation rates of solar panels and to help self-driving cars prevent collisions. Most recently, she has entered the healthcare realm.

"There are intricate details of human health that we just can't understand, but computers can because of their ability to observe different features or patterns the human eye may not notice," she said.

Priyadarshi works with Dr. Conrad Tucker's AiPEX Lab, supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop AI allowing mobile phone cameras to monitor heart rate, respiration rate and other health parameters including major physiological signals.

"We want to be able to detect this information without having to come in contact with the person," Priyadarshi said. Applications for the technology are limitless, but she references contagious illness, saying the camera technology could help keep healthcare workers safer. "Given the recent COVID-19 outburst, it is crucial that technology also help healthcare providers safeguard their own health. Non-contact disease detection or health parameters prediction would play a vital role."

Within her research team, Priyadarshi is among the few female graduate students, but says she feels well supported — she published three papers in her first semester at the university. She also holds patents on Internet of Things devices. Priyadarshi will continue her education at CMU as a Ph.D. candidate beginning in the fall of 2020.

Her advice to women interested in artificial intelligence is "just enter the field and explore! It has a lot to offer and if we take these risks on research that interests us, we can solve problems crucial to mankind."

Nikki Lobczowski, postdoctoral fellow in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute

Nikki Lobczowski hadn't considered herself an AI researcher until her colleagues convinced her otherwise. The former high school math teacher began researching educational technology in graduate school and was inspired by the opportunities for computers to aid teachers in building cognition and collaboration among students.

At CMU, she works with a diverse group developing cognitive tutors that are responsive to individual students.

"We are impacting society by delivering what students need when they need it, in a format that makes sense to them," said Lobczowski.

Coming from an educational background rather than computer science, Lobczowski worried she wouldn't be a good fit for her team's AI projects. Instead, her perspective as a classroom teacher proved invaluable for the research.

"I know what it's like to have 30 kids with 30 different needs. Our software is creating opportunities to free up teachers while keeping them an integral part of the classroom," she said.

Lobczowski has in the past felt like an outsider as a woman in a STEM field but feels like she's found a welcoming home at CMU.

"Our team is mostly female, and most of the other post-docs are women, too," Lobczowski said. "My dissertation focused on group emotions and regulations. With those challenges come a uniquely rewarding atmosphere." 

She's learning that AI is far more diverse than "just" computer programmers. "There's a place for everyone in AI research," she said. "When it's done well, it's ultimately user-centered, and we are all users. We all have our own expertise and there's a place for all voices."

Fei Fang, assistant professor in the Institute for Software Research

Fei Fang is committed to developing AI for social good. Her work in machine learning leverages understanding how humans think and approach decisions.

"What we want to do is empower software and automation to help us make better decisions," she said, "because humans are prone to error and irrational behaviors."

Fang integrates computational game theory with machine learning to help make very tangible societal change. In CMU's Institute for Software Research, she leads a project to help reduce wildlife poaching. She collaborates with wildlife conservation agencies throughout Africa and Asia and builds models to help predict where poachers will strike to help rangers patrol more efficiently.

She emphasizes the importance of partnership between people and organizations in the areas where animals are being poached. Fang said, "If you really want your work to impact the real world, you need to engage stakeholders from beginning to end and make sure that what you're developing is valuable and useful to them."

This means growing the AI community. "The AI community as a whole and CMU in particular is trying very hard to make sure underrepresented groups can access resources and engage in the research community," Fang said. She partners with conservationists and rangers, but also with faculty members from public policy and civil engineering.

"Different views are critical to AI research," Fang said.

Molly Wright Steenson, senior associate dean of research for the College of Fine Arts and associate professor in the School of Design

Molly Wright Steenson is an expert on the history of AI and its relationship to computation in architecture. Her book, Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape, examines architecture’s interactions with computation, cybernetics and artificial intelligence.

This merging of ideas is particularly relevant to a school like CMU, which emphasizes collaboration between departments. Throughout the history of the field of AI, architects and designers have helped impact the development of programming languages and the ways software is designed.

"We've been using the term Artificial Intelligence for 65 years," she said. "The term is old enough for social security!"

In addition to serving as the senior associate dean for research in the College of Fine Arts, Steenson holds the K&L Gates Career Development Professorship of Ethics and Computational Technologies. This means she teaches at the intersection of AI, design and architecture with a lens toward the ethical decisions a technologist might make.

"Design and architecture are the places where most people in the world encounter AI," said Steenson. "I try to get my students to be very critical of how users will encounter artificial intelligence and how our design decisions impact the world around us."

Steenson encourages all students to look toward AI, even if they're not programmers. In fact, Steenson said AI careers are increasingly seeking professionals outside the world of computer science. 

"Everyone brings their own critical angle to research. If we don't design inclusively, we risk our AI amplifying or reinforcing biases," Steenson said.


Pictured above (from left): Molly Wright Steenson, senior associate dean of research for the College of Fine Arts and associate professor in the School of Design; Fei Fang, assistant professor in the Institute for Software Research; Nikki Lobczowski a postdoctoral fellow in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute; Sweta Priyadarshi, a graduate student in College of Engineering; and Yiwen Yuan an undergraduate student in the School of Computer Science.

Editor's Note: The reporting and photography from this story occurred before Carnegie Mellon moved its Pittsburgh campus online in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.


By: Katie Rank Lev