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Amazon’s Alayna Van Dervort on using AI for good (listen)

A New Zealander who is leading one of the world’s most exciting artificial intelligent (AI) teams at Amazon in Silicon Valley is working on cutting-edge social impact projects such as catching game poachers and child sex traffickers.

Alayna Van Dervort, team manager for social good at Amazon, works with global organisations on the front lines of AI and machine learning projects in education, environmental advocacy, accessibility, healthcare, wildlife protection, child sex trafficking and global crises. In other words: she’s helping shape AI into a force for good, making the world a better place through technology and into something quite a lot different than what is often depicted in dystopian sci-fi films (here’s looking at you, Blade Runner, Terminator, et cetera, et cetera).

Van Dervort says one of the highlights of working with social good has been working with Thorn, a not-for-profit dedicated to stopping child sex trafficking. “With our service they can now take a photograph that was formerly only held as evidence, and turn the human face into a traceable algorithm and search for that algorithm across nations,” Van Dervort explains. “Thorn has four times higher success rate of finding both children lost to sex trafficking as well as convicting those perpetrating the offence. We also track poachers in Africa, offer STEM programmes to underprivileged schools and support the opening of independent machine learning and AI schools, hold a Data for Good open marketplace and many other projects.”

Needless to say, Van Dervort believes artificial intelligence is an area well worth considering a career in. “I love my job,” she says. “Five days a week I sit in a building of a thousand Albert Einsteins. I watch as they humbly unwrap yet another innovation award and place it in the clump of previously received awards on their desktops. Within five seconds they have totally forgotten about the award and are deeply focused on building their newest invention. My Job is to learn about their innovations and find ways that it can help make a positive impact in the world. Cool does not begin to describe it.”

She also says there are far more benefits to AI than some people might realise. “Many jobs will be lost all around the world due to machine integrations, but this would be a very one-sided way of looking at it,” explains Van Dervort. “Even the most powerful AI systems are still based on algorithms designed by humans, software written by humans and datasets curated and customized by humans.

“These are hundreds of thousands of new jobs created every year, our education platform needs to be reformed to support new industry as well as focus on what make us human; the soft skills such as art and independent thinking. We are going to see some major changes in the way New Zealanders go about their lives in the coming few years. Some are obvious: how we shop, drive, and use smart communications, these all are becoming incredibly intuitive.

Van Dervort will be one of the key speakers at the AI-DAY event in Auckland on March 28. AI-DAY is one of New Zealand’s most significant AI conferences, and is a partnership between the AI Forum and AI New Zealand.

AI Forum executive director Ben Reid says soon after AI-DAY, the AI Forum will be releasing an AI research report which identifies the opportunities and challenges of AI for New Zealand. “New Zealand has a thriving AI industry. Ahead of the launch of the AI Forum NZ’s research report, the forum has produced an ecosystem map outlining which Kiwi companies and organisations are investing in, working with and considering AI in New Zealand.”

Van Dervort says the options are practically limitless. “We will see precision surgeries being performed by robots through doctors living as far away as London,” she says – adding that this means there’s a need for strong leadership and bold ideas. “New Zealand, like all countries will need strong leaders who are focused on AI for good. It is a new but vastly growing field.”

Have a listen to the podcast with Van Dervort below.

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