Women in AI is humanity’s gain

The hottest AI ticket in Australia and New Zealand

WaiAWARDS Gala Dinner 26th March, Sydney 2021

The same week Women in AI (WAI) celebrated the inaugural WAI Awards for Australia and New Zealand in a magnificent ‘Academy Award’ style Gala Dinner at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Tim Fung ‘s Airtasker was delayed their IPO for a day, due to a malfunction at the ASX.

How are these two events connected? Tim described ‘feeling like Christmas had been rescheduled’ yet, the 5x oversubscribed IPO was a huge Australian success. A broken ankle for me days prior to the event of the year, the decade, forcing a ‘no show’ as the Australian Ambassador for WAI, didn’t mean a re-schedule nor diminish a groundswell too powerful to put back in a bottle.

So what happened? Well, it started in 2017 when co-founder and initiator Moojan Asghari in Paris, had the vision of a better world with the power of AI. Along with co-founders Caroline Lair and Hanan Salam, their vision wasn’t about bigger and brute-force tech, it was about balancing the gender gap in AI and leveraging that, through increasing female participation and representation.

One weekend in September 2018, AI scientist and colleague Twain pinged me on Linkedin to let me know about this global organization, WAI, as we both had a similar concern — the type of AI being built had fundamental issues but was a huge opportunity. While it was easy to see deep learning solving real world problems powering smart infrastructure, finding clean water for vulnerable communities and many more valuable solutions, when applied to language and vision, it was also building a combinatorial explosion of pain. Twain and I were were both aware and seeking a vehicle to make AI the best it could be for humanity. One of these pain points, bias, was obvious to only some back then, although now it is a vigorously debated issue with media exposure and thousands of academic papers written about it since. Twain was especially expert at, and early to identify the problems of bias in todays AI. But back then, her conversations with Tech Giant research scientists yielded little recognition. In 2017, she personally built from scratch and ran a ‘Hands on Natural Language AI’ workshop attracting 67 females in AWS, San Francisco to educate and inspire more female coders. Rachel Thomas , renowned for her leadership in making AI tools accessible through her and co-founder Jeremy Howard’s famous fastai, presented at Twain’s workshop. Rachel illustrated what was news to a lot of the audience then, implicit bias of word embeddings. As co-founder of Natural Language Understanding (NLU) company Pat Inc , my interest and passion was making machines ‘understand’ language — not parroted text from Reddit. Our science enables engineering for the future language interface.

So I joined up! And In February 2019, as newly appointed Australian Ambassador for WAI, I launched the local chapter via WaiTALK at WeWork ‘s new George St Sydney venue with partners and help from Microsoft, Richard Kimber’s NLP company, Daisee, Scarlett Vespa , Kayla Medica, Emma Sharley and Lance Nurick from Prof Andy Pardoe’s informed.ai to a capacity and enthusiastic audience of 150. Angela Kim, now our Education Ambassador, was at my side presenting, firmly ensconced in the vision we both signed up for.

Feb 2019, WeWork George St, Sydney — WaiTALK launch for Australia

When I started there were 2 rows of Ambassador pictures on the WAI website - 6 in total. Compare that now to 2021 with 40+Ambassadors, 7000+ members and WAI is well on its way, across more than 115 countries.

Angela had spent most of 2019 helping me pioneer WAI global programs downunder like WaiOPENDOOR, WaiMASTERCLASS, WaiCAMP and WaiACCELERATE, an impressive array designed by the global team to elevate and encourage women of all ages in AI. But none of these programs had been held outside Europe. I was keen to build an organization in Australia to support the vision by driving these programs, starting with local WAI leads in the capital cities. Brisbane WAI was launched by Becks Simpson and is now lead by Adriana-Eufrosina Bora. And soon after appointing Jess Leondiou as Melbourne lead, she quickly followed suit to successfully launch WAI there. Australia became one of the fastest growing countries for WAI membership.

Fast forward 1 year….. another ‘twinkle in the eye’ came out of discussions with Andra Muller of Jewelrock who made it known she wanted to be part of this ‘jewel’ to help showcase the great work of women in Australia and New Zealand that make up the 12%, or whatever the small percentage of women is, who contribute to building Artificial Intelligence systems for humanity. So on the 26th of March, 2021, the culmination of over a year of planning, preparation and running of the Women in AI Awards 2021, the Gala Dinner with 200 in attendance, was held to announce the winners and celebrate their achievements. As history now records, thanks to the dedication, facilitation and production skills of Andra, it was a seminal moment. And you can watch the video here.

Social Media captured its success and #waiawards2021anz was trending on twitter showcasing and revealing the:

  • 11 accomplished category winners from the 33 finalists
  • 3 deserving overall winners
  • 30 committed partners spanning industry, government and academia
  • 20 Judges & 22 Advisors devoting time and their deep expertise

But what it didn’t capture ..

  • Making the bold decision to be the first chapter outside Europe to run the Awards not knowing how we were going to take a significant global program 1st run in 2019 at the world’s largest startup campus, Station F, in Paris, and localizing it. Akin to jumping out of the plane and assembling the parachute on the way down
  • Continuing in the face of COVID undeterred
  • Ultimately receiving so many applications was a fantastic result for these first awards. But in the early days after applications opened, we were concerned about numbers for some of the categories, like AI in Mining. But as we proved time and time again, when we went out to our network we were able to resolve the problem. By reaching out geographically to the west we gained immediate support from Justin Strharsky, Founder and Managing Director of Unearthed and applications took off. In fact, we took great joy in finding we were ‘unearthing’ applicants, advisors and judges across the whole of Australia and New Zealand.
  • Attracting significant partners and participants early to create the energy which we continued building on through 2020. Early partners signing on like Professor Joanna Batstone’s Monash Data Futures Institute helped build the momentum. Other luminaries and people already with high public profiles in constant demand, like Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, helped us continue to raise the bar as they signed on and signed up to be part of the Awards ceremony
  • Advisors researching and signalling a problem early in the Awards process that Australia and New Zealand wouldn’t have enough eligible candidates if we focused the Awards eligibility only on female startup founders. Thanks to the passion of Kylie Ahern, Sue Keay, Caroline Pegram, Cecile Paris and Sarah Pearson for driving analysis on limited data at hand about the local AI startup landscape, we expanded the criteria to all female leaders & innovators in industry, university, government and startups.
  • Many other challenges and successes that hopefully will be captured in others’ blogs about the event and the year that preceded it. There was just too much to be captured through a single person’s aperture.

Like the other global WAI programs, these Awards are designed to increase female participation and representation in AI. As a bonus, Australia and New Zealand economies gain by the work we are all doing being showcased. Local investors, academia, industry and government can see the opportunity for growing this industry and leveraging what is already happening.

Which leads me to …… if you haven’t already joined Women in AI, please have a look at the website and joinup if it appeals. And do let me know if you are interested in a leadership role in the Australia or New Zealand chapters — there is still so much to do.

So how does Tim Fung’s super successful IPO after a day’s unforeseen delay due to an ASX malfunction, relate? A crisis or set-back like my broken ankle, doesn’t de-rail a powerful force driven by passionate people. Only time will tell the impact of that vision from Paris, permeating the globe for the good of humanity, by leveraging the diversity of humanity. But Australia/New Zealand’s women in AI just took a huge leap forward on the local and global stage.

Sub note — I was impressed by what I read on social media about the ASX response to the delay of Tim’s company’s IPO. The ownership of the problem by GM Max Cunningham was impressive.

Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Pat Inc

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