I signed up for the role as a tech mentor for a Girls in AI event held by Microsoft. It is a two-day hackathon for teenage girls to build AI solutions for social wellfare. I told my friend who shared the information with me that I was not sure if I met the requirements because “it seems very AI oriented”. “Sure why not” was her answer. True, I’ve been working on a Machine Learning project on fMRI data for 8 months and build Deep Learning models on a weekly basis (because I’m taking Deep Learning this module), but I was still uncertain about my eligibility as a “tech mentor”.
The two-day hackathon included several talks from female leaders in Microsoft all around the world and hands-on workshops. Talks covered topics from design thinking, autonomous systems to AI ethics. I learned a lot about what Microsoft has been doing and how the company is fulfilling its mission in various aspects(full disclosure: I don’t even have a Microsoft account). In all, I was surprisingly very much impressed by what they’ve done: simply just doing the right thing and motivating younger generation. Sounds nicely cliche, but what’s amazing is that the cliche wins, Microsoft is one of the most successful tech companies in the world.
With the rise of Artificial Intelligence, there are only 12% of AI expertise are female, and the percentage of female graduating with Computer Science degree has been declining in the past decade. Alice Envisions the Future is how Microsoft and teensinai came up with to try to bridge up such gap.
The girls on my team had zero Machine Learning experience on the first day, did not know what labels and features are. Nevertheless, they were able to build an Image Classification Model which classifies major kinds of trash in the ocean from living creatures (using Custom Vision in Cognitive Service) in the end. Due to the lack of tech mentors, I sometimes had to roam around tables and even helped a group with frontend designs. It was such an honor to witness how these girls progressed during the hackathon.
It turned out that I was as good mentoring the teenagers as other senior working professionals! I have sufficient technical knowledge to help them build up the concept as well as the models and guide them through the journey of creating a product. As a young AI practitioner, I can communicate with girls in a more relatable way as well. Moreover, the Microsoft Azure platform indeed is simple enough for a total newbie like me to pick up quickly and teach the girls to play around with it.
I was surprised by how much I was able to contribute. Although for them it seemed pretty reasonable: a grad student studying Data Science, doing research with Machine Learning in UCSF: duh, standard tech mentor for teenager hackathon. For me, I was learning data science in tears and depressions, never felt like I’ve learned “enough” to be able to feel good about myself. Mentoring the girls actually made me slow down and look back to myself, and realized how far I’ve achieved and what exciting future await with the new tools I’ve learned along the way!
During the panel session, there were some questions from the audience regarding whether the speakers have encountered obstacles specifically due to their sex. For the interest of time, they only gave short answers as “yes”.
I noticed that this is the question that’s always being asked in this kind of successful women experience sharing event, as if there should be intolerable major events happening to those who are under the stage lights. From my experience, it was a slightly different story. Born and raised in a somewhat neutral family, I’ve never considered myself seriously discriminated throughout my life. However, sometimes when I think back to that childhood conversation with my siblings or a classmate, I realized that I might have been unconsciously affected by what’s been defined by society.
In 2019, especially in California(where everyone is politically correct), it’s probably harder for children to recognize if something happening is an act of discrimination. I don’t know to what extent the girls could relate to the talks and slogans adult women put together for them, but I encourage them to always live their lives to the fullest and reflect their past selves and others.
At the pitching session, one of the teams developed a platform where girls can teach girls how to code, share tech information and form communities. A judge asked what if a boy tries to join the platform. The team answered: “Well, there’s a chatroom in our application. The way girls chat is very different from the way boys do, so the girls in the community can immediately identify the boy.”
I was shocked when I heard this. It is somewhat understandable but it also shows the difficulty of encouraging underrepresented groups to unite but not overly define themselves using certain characteristics. Gender inequality doesn’t necessarily mean blood and tears. It could be implemented in our subconsciousness, either by the evil or the innocent.
After the presentation, all mentors were invited to share their findings and thoughts from the event. I said to the girls, “Never differentiate yourself from others solely based on gender.” I tried to say more but I wasn’t much prepared for it. In the end, I added, “I know we’re gathering here because we are girls and I love how we’re empowering each other in such a way. Please just bear in mind that you’re good not just because you’re a girl, it is because you’re a good person.” I hope someone in the audience someday would understand!
In the end, I want to thank Microsoft for holding this wonderful event, not just for myself, though I gained so much more than I expected, but for the entire society and younger generation. Again this sounds super cliche, but what do we know, cliche might again win in the end!
Some nice things about Microsoft:
- Open source simulator for autonomous vehicles built on Unreal Engine / Unity, from Microsoft AI & Research https://github.com/microsoft/AirSim
- Rishworth School Space Programme — First BBC micro:bit in near space https://vimeo.com/159135434
Disclaimer: Microsoft is not paying me for this (but you can! Check out my LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jenshou/)