As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ying Li.
Dr. Ying Li is the Chief Scientist at AISENSA and Giving Tech Labs. She is recognized for her substantial technical contributions to the practice and application of data mining and for her outstanding service to the global Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (KDD) community. Dr. Li holds over 100 patents and publications and chairs over 15 data and AI related global conferences.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in China. I started my academic pursuits with Bachelors’s and Master’s degrees in mathematics at Beijing University in China. Then I got a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of British Columbia, Canada. After that, I was finally ready to begin my professional career.
I started in Montreal as a researcher for large convergence projects of government and industry partnerships. From there, I went to Microsoft headquarters when data science was still an unknown concept. I began at the MSN division, where I built the data mining practice from the ground up for the Online Service Division in the early days of online advertising. I went on to do many exciting projects in advanced technologies like AI and Machine Learning. I became the first Engineering Privacy Officer for Microsoft’s online division.
I continued developing patents and research and even ended up overseas with a large telco where I explored alternative methods of evaluating creditworthiness for supporting unbanked or underbanked populations while respecting user preferences and regulatory compliance.
I questioned which problems the world needs to solve with data science and AI and joined the team at Giving Tech Labs to create the AI and Data Science practice. This led to the development of AISENSA, SuvoTek, and our AI4PI Fellowship program, training the next generation of data scientists to build capacity in the social sector.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was at Microsoft, I once told Satya Nadella I didn’t require any more one on one meetings with him, because I would rather do research and get work done.
Satya values human connections and always wanted to make time for others, no matter how much he had on his plate. He modeled being an empathetic leader with an open door policy.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I love reading academic research papers whenever I can. They inspire me and push me to learn continuously. One way to do that is to serve on the conference program committees, where one has to know state of the art to give useful and accurate comments to papers. It is also a great way to give back to the professional community.
I make a point to sign up to serve in one to three conferences each year. Staying up to date and in touch with the research-community has contributed to the companies I serve.
Each year, I lead my team to make submissions to top tier conferences about our work. This year, KDD accepted two research papers submitted by us. KDD is the premier interdisciplinary conference bringing together researchers and practitioners from data science, data mining, knowledge discovery, large-scale data analytics, and big data.
In my solitary time, I strive for spiritual growth. I listen to many selected sermons. They renew my spirit with life lessons and messages of hope and promise for our world.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
What drove me to join Giving Tech Labs was the sense of purpose and the opportunity to apply AI and Data Sciences to a greater good.
For example, SUVOTEK is a purpose-driven sound and voice technology we built to enable better human connections. It is based on the direct analysis of sound waves of a speaker without compromising user privacy. It never conducts the speech-to-text-transformation found at the core of the personal voice assistants from leading software companies or speech coach apps.
This technology can have an important social impact in many ways. From helping parents to better engage with their children to supporting workforce development or distance learning, frontline workers, early childhood development, and many other scenarios.
We were inspired by the pressing needs shared with us during meetings our team had with the United Nations, the World Bank, Special Olympics, and leading foundations. Billions are spent in manual interventions related to “how we communicate” with 0–5 years olds and in K-12 education, Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities, Crisis Line Operators, and others.
Developing safe and ethical application of AI to preserve privacy and support these social impact opportunities gives us purpose.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
After many years of experience as a scientist and engineering manager in the workplace, I would always start with a “worthy” problem to solve. I often begin by asking some questions:
- Is this a problem that matters, and is it a root cause?
- Is this a hard problem to solve? Why is it a hard problem?
- Do I want to devote my next three years on solving this problem?
With the abundance of data and society’s (and the industry’s) open arms embrace of data science, I am much more motivated to tackle our most urgent social problems.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our family has had an acute awareness of the COVID-19 virus since the beginning. My husband was taking care of his aging mother in China when the outbreak occurred. We faced the difficult decision of whether to stop taking care of our elderly or risking being separated for a long time. Upon his return, even before the pandemic was widely reported, we isolated ourselves, conducting self-quarantine long before the shelter-in-place order.
My younger son came home with the first year of his college life being cut short. We have gotten “bonus” quality time sheltering in place in Washington and reuniting again under the same roof.
I shed many tears seeing so much suffering both personally, including my husband losing his mother and yet could not be there.
But I also see the blessings that I count each day. I am confident that holding on to the substantial evidence of blessings will enable us to come out better.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The efficiency and power of cloud computing are undeniable. However, we can’t help notice that most of the benefit from this high tech is siphoned off as profit by the technology companies that create it. At the same time, millions of organizations are attempting to address complex problems in society, still using decades-old technology.
Every day, our team is working to change the balance of power and create more technology for the public interest.
We are focused on breaking down the barriers to human connection and helping social sector organizations deliver on their mission with state of the art technology.
We also believe that you shouldn’t have to trade your privacy for utility, and innovating while preserving privacy is a good challenge for the ethical use of AI.
On a tactical level, our team has shifted from working onsite in an innovation lab in downtown Seattle, WA, to working remotely. That has meant adapting to new ways of communicating and relying more heavily on digital tools to stay connected.
We now have video calls twice per day with our engineering team. We were previously doing just once a day morning stand-up meetings. We have also emphasized the importance of fast iterations with the sprint to ensure there are timely validations and no misdirection or lost time. We have less physical visibility and asynchronous check-ins.
One thing I emphasize with the team is that they are trusted. I practice this as my general management principle, but I think it is more important to let the team know. Knowing that I am trusted will enable me to do my best work.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
As a scientist, I always take a science-first approach. As humans, it is essential to remember that we are not robots, and our reactions and emotions cannot always follow prescriptive action.
We need to do what we can for others and help friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues feel less alone. When friends or family members experience anxiety, I make sure they know I am with them. I listen to their concerns and try to provide some objective analysis to help them stay grounded, at least for the time being. Then I check back to them frequently.
I found myself more connected with friends here and family far away now more than before.
Unfortunately, one of the scariest things to do right now is to search the internet for information blindly. It can lead people on the wrong path, whether they are looking for credible health information related to COVID, looking for support, or trying to understand their options. It can produce more anxiety. I try to steer people toward trusted sources to ensure that they get accurate information from reliable places.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
In many ways, COVID-19 has made the world a smaller place. We are fighting a common enemy. We all have the same core needs for human connection and fear for our loved ones’ health and safety. From an economic perspective, we believe that companies that focus on positive social impact and using technology for good, will have the best opportunity to seed change in the long run.
There is also a convergence model where ideas can be born from new places, and data is queen.
Ethics in data will breed new opportunities for the businesses of the future. Data sciences applied towards inclusion, belonging, equity, equality, social justice, economic mobility, and more will power the future of work!
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
If we focus on the area of data sciences applied to voice technologies, people are already starting to realize that there are multiple dimensions to how we communicate.
Our voice coaching technology is helping to provide real-time feedback in a non-judgmental way. Eventually, we would love our technology to support mental health on a large scale. We are currently working on a module for calmness. Students are particularly vulnerable to feeling anxious during distance learning and social isolation.
We believe AI technology can address gaps in our mental health system by helping the helpers and even mitigating equity and access issues.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We made shifts in our organizational design and our resources to align with where we see the market going, the company needs, and the opportunities to serve. The first compelling use case that has emerged is customers in the workforce development space. This technology supports workers with economic mobility by providing real-time feedback on soft skills to help them in the post-COVID-19 job market.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
AI can displace some jobs, but if you want to compete and win in this competitive environment as a data scientist, researcher, or even as an hourly worker, focus some of your energy in solving worthy problems, the world will want your work and want you to succeed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I believe that mastery is in the craftsmanship of blending intuition from data and the methodical application of science. I can summarize my 20 years as data scientist-practitioner as QUEST:
- The Q stands for Question. Be very clear on the questions you are trying to answer. Questions can change midway, but everything you do is towards answering questions. “What can I learn from the data that’s useful to my business?”
- The U stands for Unknowns vs. Understood. Be very clear on what’s unknown and the assumptions made explicitly or implicitly. Assume there are unknowns.
- The E stands for Explore. Looking at the data from different perspectives, drilling down and up, zooming in to different parts of the data and looking for external data to enrich and validate your data will always create clarity.
- The S stands for Scrupulous vs. Speed, Science vs. Scrappiness. Painstakingly check your code and methods while balancing the speed to insight. Production real-life use of your data science work is critically important to hold you to the highest scientific standard. Still, you must be willing to go scrappy when needed while being intentional.
- The T stands for Truth. You must always strive for the truth about the world in which your business operates.
So, always look at the world with QUEST, it helps make your journey worthy and fruitful.
How can our readers further follow your work?