Can We Avoid A Bladerunner Society? A Q&A with AI Expert Inma Martinez
An A.I. pioneer and data scientist labelled by FastCompany as a “firestarter”, Inma Martinez has been recognised by FORTUNE and TIME as one of Europe’s best talents in human behaviour within digital environments. A serial entrepreneur, Inma has created innovation across a great variety of mediums and industries, specifically delivering new digital marketing and product approaches derived from business intelligence.
We interviewed her to find out more about her background, and where she thinks AI will take us...
Can you tell us about your background?
Originally, my background started in banking and telecoms in the 1990s. When I was at Cable & Wirelss, I was the Global Head of IP Services, as in “Internet Protocol”, a term more to do with networks than what we understand today what the Internet is, because really, back in 1998, the internet was not in the mainstream, but was being born out of startups like PayPal, Hotmail, Amazon, and the UK was in its digital infancy. That allowed me to be one of the first people who really understood digitalisation. Eventually, I left Cable and Wireless to found a startup that created the first AI platform to personalise mobile data services, on the fly, 1:1 and completely way ahead of what the industry had seen.
My current work is a mixture of A.I. and data analytics consulting projects with global companies, and being a venture partner at a venture-build life-sciences accelerator, Deep Science Ventures, spun out of Imperial College acceleration efforts, and open to all other tier 1 universities. Our scientists solve real problems with technologies of the future. I supervise and mentor the projects that present A.I. and data analytics approaches.
When you’re on the stage, what key takeaways do you want them to leave with?
Normally what I do is challenge their understanding of things because often the media does a poor job of explaining what’s going on, and there are very few journalists that are truly savvy about specific things.
Most of the coverage of the accelerated digitalisation that the world is currently going through is two-dimensional. They can explain what is happening, but they cannot explain why it is happening, and potentially what are the real consequences are. The media also tends to work the entertainment angle – there’s a lot of coverage about drones and self-driven cars, while in the scientific community, we know that a real self-driven car society is not going to be really felt deeply for another 10, 15, 20 years because there are other technologies that need to go mainstream, like self-driven cars platforms operated by smart cities. The media, however, puts it in front of people as if, in two years, you can get yourself a self-driven
Would you say that you tend to put things in a wider perspective?
Yes, I would. I tend to help people connect events that happen in one vertical to others. Most people link the wrong notes in their thinking, so I try to demystify.
For example, let’s take blockchain. Things that happen in blockchain will have an effect on fraud detection, and so not everything about blockchain is about the bitcoin. But I remember, 18 months ago, almost 80% of the people I spoke to associated blockchain to bitcoin. So, over the years, I’ve been jumping up and down saying, “No, think of blockchain as the most futuristic database you could ever use. It’s nothing to do with money.” This is what I say on stage On stage, I send clear messages, real ideas, not just future-gazing.
You were very involved in building one of the first AI systems for personalising mobile service in the early 2000s. What was the inspiration behind that?
There was a hardware issue. The mobile internet phones of the 1999 had tiny, black and white screens. The mistake that issuers of mobile internet services at the time was telling people that you could literally download an entire HTML website, for example, Yahoo, onto a phone, because it created a horrible situation for the mobile user, which was that you had to scroll and scroll up and down to find the links. Imagine having to see a huge website on a tiny screen back then!
We knew that the user experience was going to be horrendous and that the most important that one can do to personalise something is to observe what people do. So, we created an AI-behavioural-driven platform and we taught the personalisation engine to take decisions automated decisions once it had learned about people’s tastes: What is it that this person wants now? For what reasons this person is logging into this app at 10 o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday? As we observed people, we discovered that, for example, on Monday, they just wanted to read stupid, nonsensical things; in response, we started to alter the order of the links, placing at the top the ones that we thought were relevant at that particular moment. We would do it in real-time – nobody had to do anything, tick any boxes – basically the links were re-ordering themselves on the fly. That type of AI, emerging in 1999 to 2000, is known today as a neural network. Imagine how super innovative we were. That was the beginning of all of this for me.
Where do you think AI is headed in the next 10 to 15 years?
First of all, no one can predict what is going to happen in 15 years. We can only truthfully predict what is going to evolve in 5, and maybe 10 years, because in 15 years, who knows what fragmentations and shifts might have occurred due to things that have nothing to do with technology.
For example, in theory, Alexa should be a truly intelligent system that will very soon guess what you want, but unfortunately, the way the algorithms are being run by Alexa have been set with a specific purpose by Amazon: to sell more of their own white label products. This means that Alexa is not giving you what you need, but what Amazon wants to give to you. If you say Alexa, buy batteries, Amazon suggests Amazon batteries. In a beautiful rosy future, Alexa should be non-biased; she should never have been programmed to put Amazon products in front of you, but she has an agenda. So, what we have is a society going into certain paths that have nothing to do with what technology can do. It’s more to do with what regulations should be mindful of or how companies should aim to deliver a truthful user experience. Often, my job takes me into sitting in regulation on AI workshops - at the House of Lords, for example. There’s a group that I attend every month as the UK government is beginning to be concerned about AI being a market and factor that is not regulated.
So do you think technology is leading us down a good or bad path?
The world can either progress, or take a sadly dark route if corporations, governments, and the people are not aware. These are the challenges in digitisation. 20 years ago, all the technical people had a dream: “Let’s make the world a cooler and ultimately better world”. Everybody came from that kind of goodwill faith. Now the power is such a stake that by the time that certain companies are found out that they are doing things that are not fair for consumers, they may have been doing it for five years or so –bitmining etc. Facebook, Google and all those companies are all in real trouble because they are now being found out.
One of the darkest stream in technology, at the moment, is thinking about how transparent technology deployment is these days, How can you demonstrate as a company that you are really taking into account appropriate practices and the highest benefit to those concerned, especially your customers? My prediction is that people will become more clued up as to what really goes on behind the magic of tech because the media will start to track down who is doing funny, dodgy things, and who isn’t. The brand of certain companies will suffer consequently, and your trust of the technology provided will either go up or go down
Thanks Inma. Tell us - what are you up to at the moment?
Over the last five years, most of the speaking events I have been doing have been private corporate events. For example, a major global player that’s holding an event for clients will want me there because there are no journalists and the things I say are insights they can adopt. I'm a speaker at the board level, for the people who really want someone they can trust, someone who is an active participant in the industry, who is really telling them where to take their stocks to and how to appreciate what should be believed, what shouldn’t be believed, and who can inspire new approaches to business.
I continue to work in a semi-academic way, and it really excites me to work with these minds who really want to produce something for society to use.
I also continue to work in AI to ensure that AI is here to serve humans, not to steal jobs from humans or ostracise them. There is a lot of development in AI that is conducive to creating a Bladerunner society, but I am known for being an AI scientist that fights for robots to not look like humans or have identical voices to them. It's wrong to develop voice-activating automation that is almost 99.9% perfect - the modulation now is so good that you have no suspicion that the customer service representatives you are speaking to are machines.
But you are a human being - and you have the right to know! Myself and other scientists have the support of Elon Musk, Professor Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, who all want this. I'm fighting everyday in my work to make sure that society doesn't derail and that the world continues to be fit for humans to live, not machines. If we don't work towards a society where humans will prevail, we will all end up feeling very alienated.
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