Women in AI : An Interview with Authority Magazine
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
In this interview with Authority Magazine, Lisa talked about what excites her most about the AI industry, and also voiced her concerns about the lack of attention to privacy and security issues, along with empathy and mindfulness.
Her challenge to big tech:
Real lives matter. Progress comes with greater responsibility — we need more conscious, mindful solutions for a greater cause.
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I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Yong, research director and co-founder of Y Studios, a San Francisco-based design firm known for creating the most groundbreaking tech products today. From innovating Microsoft’s CMF design strategy to China’s most advanced smart speaker, Lisa leads her team in pushing the boundaries in AI, IoT, VR, AR, and the most cutting-edge tech of tomorrow. With over 20 years of global experience — spanning industrial design for top tech firms to leading research for Motorola — Lisa’s unique multicultural background in Asia, Europe and America fuels her expertise in emerging technology, culture and consumer passions.
Can you share your ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?
I grew up in multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Singapore. My family was creative and entrepreneurial — my dad was a Shanghai-trained architect; my mom owned an interior design business; and my older sister led a successful branding firm. This combined with my insatiable curiosity to understand people and cultures ultimately led to a design research career.
After graduating with an Industrial Design degree in England, I was recruited by Netherlands-based Philips Design where I worked around the world as an industrial designer and researcher; followed by leading socio-cultural research at Motorola’s Advanced Design Group in Boston. These experiences fueled my passion for diverse viewpoints, discovering the why’s of human emotions, and eventually led to co-founding Y Studios with my husband.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
If you’re striving to innovate, go out and live in the world you’re trying to impact. My global experiences have greatly influenced my perspective on design and technology. Creating the optimal tech-driven product requires a deep comprehension of “culture” in every context, especially as technology alters how we perceive reality and relationships.
From people’s attitudes and beliefs across ethnic influences to locations, businesses and disciplines, understanding culture is imperative to good design — especially as it relates to advanced technologies like AI, VR, AR and robotics. We founded Y Studios specifically with this unique Culture-Driven approach — diving deep into who we’re designing for, what purpose it serves, where it will be used, and how it will impact consumer lifestyles around the world. We strive to design with empathy — to fully understand the undercurrents of cultural and social changes to make products that are useful, beautiful and meaningful.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
For the past several years, we’ve been collaborating with Beijing start-up Ainemo, creating AI-driven smart speakers for its XiaoDuZaiJia 小度在家brand that’s powered by China search engine Baidu. Following the success of our XiaoDuZaiJia Smart Video Speaker, we recently launched XiaoDu Smart Display 1S, the latest addition to Baidu’s next generation AI-based IoT devices for China. Both are equipped with Baidu DuerOS, a conversational AI platform similar to Alexa. The global smart speakers market is super-hot right now, with potential to reach more than $5.5 billion by 2022, so we’re super excited about these projects and China’s evolving AI industry.
We’re also working on a cutting-edge medical product that will allow everyone to measure and track biomarkers such as cardiovascular, metabolic and inflammation — from home. Using AI, the system provides detailed insights on how to improve health through lifestyle, diet or supplements. We believe this product will revolutionize U.S. healthcare, helping us to take charge of our own health, instead of depending on the byzantine medical insurance system.
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?
I’m grateful to my parents for supporting my dreams of living abroad — far from home. I also grew up in the company of strong, older women — my siblings were decades older, my mother was a businesswoman, and I was taken care of by my grannies and nannies. It was a delight to be immersed in their stories of hardships, resilience and overcoming life obstacles. Learning from them helped fortify my empathy, curiosity and self-awareness — the qualities that I treasure most in life, that drive my design research work and helped me gain my voice and strength as a woman in a male-dominated field.
Beyond that, it’s all been pure determination, perseverance and hard work. It’s about being true to your core values and always staying curious.
What most excites you about the AI industry? Why?
As a creative, I’m intrigued how AI can be used to advance art, food, beauty, and health. I’ve been tracking developments in these areas and it’s fascinating to watch cutting-edge endeavors. In the arts, it’s interesting to see how artist Patrick Tresset is training a neural network to interpret his portraits as he draws them in real life. Another program like pix2pix can generate photorealistic images from a sketch by analyzing thousands of subject photos. The potential for AI is limitless — wouldn’t it be cool if you could take a picture of an obscure object or place and have immediate info on what it is or where you are?
In the realm of food, computer scientists at Tel Aviv University have developed a way to create fake photos of food from text recipes that list the ingredients and the method of preparation. It may sound trivial now, but imagine the possibilities of inventing new food perceptions and consumption methods.
It’s also compelling to see personalization taken to the next level, like IBM’s Philyra that can make perfumes for specific demographics. The algorithm studies existing fragrance formulas and design scents based on customer data, such as location and age.
But most important is AI’s potential to save lives. In China, there’s been interesting machine learning developments where doctors can now promptly diagnose cancer — before it’s too late. Infervision is among the many Chinese AI medical startups improving diagnosis with image recognition and deep learning.
What concerns you about the AI industry? Why?
The trust factor is a huge problem in AI. The technology must become more transparent — reassuring in how and where it’s used, and what it knows. That must be clear. Most concerning is lack of attention to privacy and security issues, along with empathy and mindfulness.
We’re already on the path for intelligent machines to alleviate the menial, physical labor. But it becomes questionable in the realm of replacing “thinking” work and human connections. If we take away the need to think for ourselves or interact with each other — what’s left that’s meaningful?
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?
We can’t stop technological advancements, but we can change our behavior and how we interact with it. It’s always about finding the right balance.
That said, while technology is great, it’s also made us lazy. Some people love that they don’t have to make decisions. I would rather keep my faculties sharp and retain my identity, my sense of self. What makes us human should not be replaced and eroded to the point of losing our purpose in life.
Ultimately, we need more conscious, mindful solutions for a greater cause. Why do we need another app that promotes narcissist behaviors, or tracks how many times we brush our teeth? I’d love to see technology that can actually solve real world challenges like hunger and poverty.
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?
For AI to fulfill its true potential, the big tech companies need to step up and be more transparent and accountable. Progress comes with greater responsibility. For instance, IBM introduced AI OpenScale that provides real-time insights into what and how decisions are being made. It’s a move in the right direction. But similar developments and improvements need to happen — especially with ongoing personal data breaches and privacy invasion.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
There’s so much waste in our throwaway society. To help build a better world, our mission has always been to design the useful, beautiful and meaningful. We aim to create products that improve our lives — thoughtfully built with sustainability and longevity in mind so that people will love to use and keep them for a long time to come.
There are not many women in your industry. Can you share how you would advise other women in the AI space to thrive?
Study the field in-depth. Empower yourself to be well informed. Read more, ask questions and develop your own educated thoughts and opinions. This applies not only to AI, but any area that’s still dominated by men. Knowledge is power!
I have great respect for the brilliant brains behind the advancements AI has played in changing our lives. While the majority of researchers and technologists are men, it’s heartening to note that more than 30 women were recognized for their AI work at the Deep Learning Summit in San Francisco this year.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
STEM education is a great start to get girls interested from a young age. I think we also need to encourage kids to do more with their hands and heads, rather than using tablets and screens as babysitters. Inspire and spark that curiosity! More support also needs to come from male peers — welcoming and inviting women to get involved in technology and science. Experienced women in AI can also mentor younger women entering this field to help boost confidence and learning.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
Don’t waste time on achieving perfection. The imperfect perfect is more compelling and exciting.
I was in my early twenties when I attended design school in Newcastle, England. It was the first time I was on my own — far away from my family in Singapore. As I was learning to become more independent and self-sufficient, I discovered Wabi-Sabi, the uniquely Japanese perspective that celebrates imperfection. It had a transformative impact on my life, helping me over the years to free myself from self-imposed constraints, to experience life more mindfully, and become the person I am today.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Food is such fundamental nourishment for the body and soul. I believe sharing food can bring people together — creating connections that dispel prejudices to overcome cultural, political, and religious barriers. I’d love to start a food movement, cooking up feasts for friends and strangers alike, especially for those most in need — the poor, sick, incapacitated, and homeless. Everyone will be welcome in my kitchen.
Thank you for joining us!