7 March 2017
The enduring gender gap in computing remains something of a mystery to Professor Ingrid Zukerman. After 35 years of exploration in a field she never planned to enter – Professor Zukerman was studying industrial engineering in Israel when a fourth-year computing class unexpectedly blew her mind – she’s as excited as ever about the potential of artificial intelligence, natural language processing and user modelling to enhance our lives.
Certainly women make up half the attendees at the computing conferences she attends, and a significant proportion of the international students she teaches at Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology are women. But she concedes there are fewer female school leavers engaged in subjects related to computing, and suspects that this is partly because computing is viewed as a sterile ground where practitioners don’t interact with people.
Yet her own experience shows that nothing could be further from the truth. Professor Zukerman has worked with a wide range of people since moving to the United States to study computer science at UCLA and then relocating to Australia to teach, research and nurture PhD students who share her passions.
“At the end of the day computers are there to serve people. To be useful to the human race you have to interact with it. That’s self-evident,” she said.
Understanding how people perceive and respond to various information technologies is central to Professor Zukerman’s renowned research. One of the many interdisciplinary projects she’s working on at Monash is a trial of non-invasive sensors in home and hospital settings to monitor behavioural changes in elderly people that might indicate an accident or a condition like dementia.
“We build a model of the person’s normal behaviour through sensor observations by tracking movements, light, ambient temperature and other parameters,” Professor Zukerman explained.
“Then if the person’s behaviour becomes abnormal in the sense that, for example, there is less movement for a long time… that would be a cause for concern.” Significant changes trigger a call to the person to check if they’re okay and, if required, alert a family member or nursing staff to the problem.
Professor Zukerman is also working with colleagues from the Faculty of IT on a multi-million dollar research contract for the US-based intelligence agency IARPA on assisting people in critical reasoning tasks, and with the Asian Office for Aerospace Research and Development to find out how the appearance and performance of devices affects the level of trust people place in them. The results are fascinating. Realistic humanoid artificial agents, for example, creep us out and are almost universally disliked.
“People tend to like devices that they’re familiar with in some way, things that they’ve seen before,” she said.
Hilariously, we also prefer – and forgive – devices that apologise when they stuff up.
“They’re only faking it,” Professor Zukerman admits with a laugh.
With projects like these on the go, it’s little wonder that Professor Zukerman is keen for more capable people to consider careers in technology.
“By considering such careers, women may not only serve society, but also improve their own prospects,” she said.
“Anyway, how can you not love artificial intelligence?”