Inspired by her book The Proust QuestionnAIre: Artificial Intelligence in a stunningly diverse & insightful way, in my conversation with Nancy Nemes I challenged her to answer some of her own questions around AI.
Nancy is the founder at #humanAIze & GM Nemes Ventures. She’s a tech trendsetter and a hands-on leader with 20 years of global experience in high tech companies across Europe, the USA, Canada, and South America – Microsoft & Google amongst them. She’s the founder of Ms. AI, an international platform that supports women to participate, grow and win in the space of Artificial Intelligence and she’s also a board member at Global Women in Tech. Not to mention the fact that she’s an investor in high-tech companies and a mentor for early-stage startups.
Ciprian Borodescu: I’m here with Nancy Nemes, founder of HumanAIze and General manager of Nemes Ventures. I’m super excited, and it’s an honor to have you on this podcast. Thank you so much for being here.
Nancy Nemes: Thank you, Ciprian. I’m really, really looking forward to this conversation. Thank you for having me.
Ciprian Borodescu: You are a tech trendsetter and a hands-on leader with 20 years of global experience in high-tech companies across Europe, the US, Canada, and South America – Microsoft and Google amongst them. You are the founder of Ms. AI, an international platform that supports women to participate, grow, and win in the space of artificial intelligence, and you’re also a board member at Global Women in Tech. Not to mention the fact that you are an investor in high-tech companies and a mentor for early-stage startups. Now, where should we begin, Nancy? I guess a simple question. How are you today? And how’s this last year been for you?
Nancy Nemes: I love this question. That’s great! From high tech to real life. That’s great. I’m doing well, Ciprian, you know, just like everybody in these tough times, interesting times in a way, but it is up to us to make the best out of it. So, I’m doing well today, just driving back home to Berlin. I’ve been in Switzerland for the last two weeks. And so, today I had a great coffee this morning, started with a beautiful breakfast overlooking the city of Zürich in a wonderful hotel. And what can I say, you know, this year… If you look a year back, it’s been a very unexpected period and situation for most people. I was lucky enough that everyone is healthy in the family and in close proximity. I know a few people that got infected with the virus but, in general, people around me are okay, I’m healthy. And, you know, it’s up to us to look into the future with a positive outlook, I would say.
Ciprian Borodescu: I was wondering, you know, when preparing for this interview, when and how did you start your AI journey?
Nancy Nemes: That’s a great question. Look, you are also from this space and you know what we call AI today is not a new technology. Artificial Intelligence, you know, has started to be created more than 70 years ago in the ‘50s. The name also has a long history but in reality, we are working on these technologies for a long time. So, for me, the journey started about 20 years ago, indeed, when I was working for Microsoft in their embedded systems unit. And, you know, at the time, an embedded system is what we would call today the Internet of Things. So, we were basically producing, marketing, and selling Windows Embedded which had different flavors of the operating system that you could use in non-PC applications and to create intelligence devices, intelligent homes even back then – you know, the concept of a smart home is not new. I mean, it’s not from today. We were working on that also 20 years ago. We had a smartwatch; I think Bill Gates created the first smartwatch back in ’99. So, I was lucky enough to be part of that journey since then.
Ciprian Borodescu: For those of you listening, Nancy is the author of The Proust QuestionnAIre that you can find on Amazon, and the book represents the collective intelligence of over 20 experts – 22 experts – and their views on AI. And they bring in several perspectives, experiences, religions, and cultures. And what I would like to do for this episode with your permission, is to go through those 20 something questions that you came up with. And of course, we’re not going to go through all of them but, you know, kind of like cherry-pick maybe the top 10. But this time you will be the one answering them. What do you think? Should we do that?
Nancy Nemes: I love it! This is a great idea. Nobody asked this before and, you know, I love it. I was considering if I should answer the questions myself for the book but I thought that would be boring so let’s see how we do in this one.
Ciprian Borodescu: That’s excellent. We can do it now. So, let’s start with the first one. What is your idea of perfect AI?
Nancy Nemes: Yeah. So, I think, you know, just putting those two words together – perfect and AI – is a challenge because AI is not perfect and will never be perfect. So a lot of these questions have a slight metaphysical note as well. But if we just take the question as is, I would say spontaneously now, it should have a certain aesthetic, which means, for example, it should serve a clear purpose, it should be designed in an aesthetic way, in a way that we can explain; it should be easy to explain, the algorithms should be easy to explain. There are so many concepts around responsible AI, for example. We can also call it aesthetic AI. You know, how do you design an algorithm that is smart, clear to explain, easy to explain, beautiful, and really serves a purpose in the most human way. So I’d say having an aesthetic within it that you define broadly would be an interesting way to look at the perfect AI.
Ciprian Borodescu: Interesting. When answering this question – because I also tried to answer this question and this is something that I’d love to invite everybody out there listening – you know, you can’t actually stop but thinking of the philosophy behind perfection and behind artificial intelligence. You know, kind of like for a moment ignoring the technicalities behind building a perfect AI. And you can go back to building the perfect human. Philosophically speaking, I think humans began to embark on a journey towards perfection when they started to be conscious, when they started to ask questions about self. And probably a way for AI to be perfect is when AI starts to ask questions about self, about itself.
Nancy Nemes: It’s absolutely a great view and the right way to look at this, you know, to your point, we do have AI today that can ask questions – that would be Alexa for example. Alexa can now also ask questions not only answer questions. But to your point, the technology has a long way to go to ask intelligent questions that are contextual and that make sense in a contextual way, in a way that the human brain would work.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah. The second question would be, what is your greatest fear about AI?
Nancy Nemes: My answer to that is basically nothing. I don’t have any fear about AI. You know, the technology is what it is. We worked on it for a long time; we should not fear it, we should just understand it’s human-made and we should just embrace the challenges that it poses and get ready for the new era. So the answer is simple: no fear.
Ciprian Borodescu: And then what is your motto for AI? No fear? Or do you have another one?
Nancy Nemes: That’s a good one. Yeah, it could be no fear. It could also be something around the fact that we can actually make it our own. So, this technology is here just like mathematics is here for the human brain to show the beauty of its creative power. And so, we basically could say it’s up to us to make it ours and make sure that out of this technology we create good things that serve our own purposes.
Ciprian Borodescu: I love that. Make it ours. Nice. Now, which AI living or dead person do you most admire?
Nancy Nemes: This is a nice way of looking at this. Also, and I created this question. You could look back into the history of AI and the big brains that created it and if you look in my book many people went back and said Alan Turing, of course. We owe him a lot in this space. But I want to take someone that is very new, a very interesting situation case – and you may have heard about Timnit Gebru. She was an employee at Google and she basically had the courage of coming up with a white paper on bias and she recently got fired by Google and there is a very big discussion on the internet, in online forums on the HR departments – what happened there and why that happened? And she actually had really this courage of going out and explaining the situation and talking about what happened, why it happened, how she got fired. I think that day when she published this, she actually got many, many, many job offers from different companies, but it’s actually illustrative for one of the issues we have today in this space as well, which is bias and the way of looking at this technology with a length of inclusiveness which feels like it’s not there.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah. AI ethics is a big, big, big domain within the AI space indeed, and I feel that this is just getting started, right?
Nancy Nemes: Yeah, it does. We still talk a lot about it but it’s good that we talk about it. At a minimum, we have a dialogue and we should continue as well. And Timnit is someone that deserves recognition and admiration on that.
Ciprian Borodescu: Absolutely. What is the component of an AI ethics team? And I feel that one of the roles that needs to be in this team – of course, you have AI scientists and so on – but also a philosopher. How can you build or how can you create ethics without the philosophy, right?
Nancy Nemes: Absolutely, yes. And more and more companies are adding that role if not as full-time employees but as consultants. Actually, in my book, if you look at one of the authors, his name is Reid Blackman, from New York. He is a philosopher and he is someone who now does consulting from an ethical perspective for AI questions.
Ciprian Borodescu: Excellent. What is your greatest technical extravagance? What do you mean by technical extravagance?
Nancy Nemes: Well, that’s a great question. What do you mean by many of these questions in this book? You know, the questions are designed in a way that should make the reader think about the question, just like our first question – what is perfect AI? And same here: what is a technical extravagance? It should make not only the answer, you know the responder to the question think about it, but also the question itself should be a little bit challenging. And so, in my case, for me, extravagance – you know I’m a business person; I’m not a trained engineer or a developer – and so, for me as a business person, having the opportunity to be hands-on in technical areas is a nice big extravagance and challenge. And I remember maybe about a year ago, maybe two years ago, I went to Amsterdam invited by a good friend of mine from the United States – his name is Aubrey Edwards – and basically, he invited me to a Hackathon which was produced by Microsoft and I was the only woman in the room coding, using Azure and IoT to basically come up with our own sensor that would measure the temperature in a machine that we created. I can’t remember all the details but it was unbelievable that I was able to create code by just putting the pieces of the puzzle together without really coding. And that showed me the power of what developers actually do today, which is enabling easy coding. So that was really interesting.
Ciprian Borodescu: And did you win anything at that Hackathon?
Nancy Nemes: I can’t remember. Yeah, I only won to experience.
Ciprian Borodescu: That’s amazing. Alright.
Nancy Nemes: And also, it was in Amsterdam, so what else do you want? Just being in Amsterdam with great people and learning at the Hackathon. I think that’s a great concept, really, that more and more companies are providing. And also for girls. You know, girls and boys. I know there are Hackathons where they put girls and moms together to encourage more girls to go into the STEM area. And so, I think that’s a nice, good extravagance that we should make a reality of everyday life.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah, exactly. What is your current state of mind as related to robots?
Nancy Nemes: Let’s define again what robots are. You know, a robot could be a lawnmower, it could be your smart coffeemaker, it could be your intelligent robotic arm in an industrial machine. So, depending on how you look at robots. If you look at robots as a small little, cute Pepper that has a humanoid face, that’s a different way of looking at it. So, for me, robots are just machines that are here serve a purpose, are here to solve an issue. And so, my state of mind is great. I mean, you know, it makes my life easier and that’s good. And I look at it in a pragmatic way. So just understand robots are machines created by humans to serve specific functions.
Ciprian Borodescu: And so, what do you consider the most overrated virtue? It’s interesting that the discussion doesn’t actually say virtue of what – a human, a robot, an AI? I will let you decide.
Nancy Nemes: When you think about technology in this way – and we discussed ethics – we know virtue is one of the important elements in ethics, in philosophy. You know, and I was actually looking up for this question: what are actually the cardinal virtues. In philosophy, there are four cardinal virtues and one of them is prudence, right? And I think for me, prudence actually, even if you look at it from a linguistic perspective, it’s a word that doesn’t sound good to me. Its meaning is not how I lead my life, so I think that’s an overrated virtue because prudence basically prevents you from taking risks – and if you want to advance in life in general, risk-taking is an important trait to have. And so, I think it’s prudence.
Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. So, it’s interesting. Of course, like anything in philosophy, everything originated in Greece, and back then probably prudence was a little bit lost in translation, or what prudence means today in the modern world meant something different 2,000, 3,000 years ago. For me, for example, prudence is kind of like the same thing as temperance, meaning that I absolutely agree you have to take risks and so on, but then again, you also have to have patience. So at least that’s my own kind of take on it.
Nancy Nemes: Absolutely. Yeah, it makes sense. Absolutely.
Ciprian Borodescu: What do you most dislike about the appearance of a robot?
Nancy Nemes: Looking at the robot, let’s say, in the most simplistic way, if we look at the robot as being Pepper the robot, with its cute face, I think one aspect that I don’t like is the fact that we tend to put a human face on robots and that leads to a lot of discussions in the space, that leads to some misunderstandings, that leads to funny media headlines talking about robots taking over our lives and our future.
Ciprian Borodescu: But on the other hand, what’s up with that? Why do we feel the need as humans to actually put a human face on robots?
Nancy Nemes: Absolutely! That’s a great question. And this is not new either. You know, even in the antique, there were a lot of trials by great sculptors to basically make human faces and then try to give them life. You know, it’s an old humanity myth that we try to put life in objects. And so I believe that has a little bit to do with this. But also Pepper had a function, right? And we have also a great future in, for example, patient care for Alzheimer patients. In the future and even today, there are many projects out there – I think IBM is having a very interesting project where they are using Pepper, I believe, for basically providing patient care in care facilities, in a way, trying to do that to help elderly people to communicate better with them. And I think there are some interesting results also coming out with that. But I think that’s an area that is in full development now and we will see a lot more creative ideas not only in the appearance of the robot, of course, its functionalities, but hopefully, a lot more creative ideas on how we communicate and how the robots communicate back to us.
Ciprian Borodescu: That’s an interesting one, indeed.
Nancy Nemes: Yeah. And so, Ciprian, let me ask you, because I know you have a great opinion – you are the interviewer here but I’m very curious to know what would be your answer on this.
Ciprian Borodescu: Well, when I asked this question, I tried to kind of imagine a faceless robot. I think if there’s anything that we should be afraid of – admitting that ‘afraid’ is the right word here – then a faceless robot is more dangerous than an appearance of a robot that we can actually understand in human terms. Let’s get to the next question, which is what is the most important aspect of big data or big amounts of data to you?
Nancy Nemes: Well, so, you know, big data is such a big term. And we know that there is a lot of discussion around quality versus quantity. Do we need much data? And so, for me, the importance here is to try to extract the data, which is a very big challenge, that helps us make insightful decisions. And more and more, we can see that quality data is more important. But that’s a huge struggle for companies today. You know, companies sit on these huge amounts of data, and they don’t know what to do with it. So in a way, there is kind of a dichotomy here, you know, what to do with big data? You need quality data, but it’s kind of a chicken and egg problem. So the importance here is, how do you structure that data to unlock the value of it and to basically come up with the right insights for the business. So that would be, for me, an important aspect of how to deal with big data.
Ciprian Borodescu: And another thing would be privacy matters, right? Because this is a big topic in the European Union, US, and so on. And I think globally, we’re going towards a privacy-first world, where you might have access to a lot of data but that data needs to go through some, I don’t know, gatekeepers or laws in the way it’s being understood and applied, I think.
Nancy Nemes: Definitely, yes. And the discussion just starts. We were just driving on the highway here in Germany, and we were just thinking about, you know, when are those drones coming, and basically, who owns that space above and beyond the highway? And that’s the same discussion with data. Who should own the data? Who should own the space for drones to be able to, you know, come into usage? So, we keep talking about these amazing scenarios but we are very, very early still, not only in the development of technology but all the regulations that need to happen. And as we are masters of regulation in Europe, because Europe is positioning itself very much into the ethical aspect of AI – AI for society, right? – rather than AI for profit, which is what the United States is doing, or even the more controlling aspect of AI that you can see in China. So, for Europe, it will be a really interesting question: how do you balance the aspect of regulation and privacy with the need for advanced technology and staying innovative, and keeping up on the race to technological meaningfulness?
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah. We still have a few more questions, like over 10, and I’m trying to pick just one out of them because I then have a bonus question – my own question, which is not part of your series of questions. So, what do you think if I asked you this: if you could change one thing about AI, what would it be?
Nancy Nemes: Oh, that’s easy. I would change the name. You know, the word ‘artificial’. It’s pretty well-known that, you know, a lot of the people that work deeply into this space disagree on its definition. Number one, what is artificial intelligence? But they also disagree on its name because the word artificial just doesn’t belong close to intelligence. I am more on the side of calling it Machine Intelligence because at the end of the day, what we’re trying to do with AI is to emulate the human brain and program machines that can actually act like a human brain with, of course, all the limitations we have today. But I am close to saying, you know, I would definitely change the name and I would go closer to Machine Intelligence, even though there are other terms. I would not go, you know, there are specialists that say, you know, all AI is just machine learning. You know, that’s how they see the field. I like to look at it as a very broad concept that incorporates, as you said, all the way from technical to business to philosophy. And so, probably calling it machine intelligence would be something that I would change if I could. But the name itself makes people dream. You know, putting artificial and intelligence together allows people to think broader than if you would call it machine intelligence. That would be too pragmatic, maybe too straightforward, and that probably wouldn’t create the debate we have today. But calling it AI creates all this debate and that’s probably not a bad thing, because it makes people think beyond their own fields.
Ciprian Borodescu: Very interesting what you said at the beginning of your answer because it reminded me that after reading this book it made me think if artificial intelligence is, in fact, intelligence, does it really mean it’s artificial?
Nancy Nemes: Exactly. Yes. That’s a fantastic way to formulate it. That’s exactly right. So, you’re going to the philosophical way of looking at technology.
Ciprian Borodescu: For others, this might sound boring, you know?
Nancy Nemes: No, if it’s not interesting, it should be at least mandatory, I think, at school, because it helps us form opinions, ask the right questions. Philosophy is nothing else than allowing us to ask questions, right, and to wonder about things.
Ciprian Borodescu: That’s exactly right.
Nancy Nemes: And that’s something we don’t learn at school, and I’m really concerned about how our education system is evolving. And now with the pandemics, it’s even worse but, you know, people discovered this later. I think it’s important also, for children to really get channeled into the right direction. So congratulations that you do this, Ciprian.
Ciprian Borodescu: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Nancy. And for the bonus question – and I can give you as much time as you want because I’m going to edit this episode a little bit later. But let’s imagine it’s 2050 and one of the entrepreneurs you mentored decided to dedicate the book they’re writing, to you. How would that paragraph sound?
Nancy Nemes: Oh, that dedication?
Ciprian Borodescu: Maybe we have a general AI until then, but who knows?
Nancy Nemes: Okay, well, yeah, I don’t want to kill dreams, but I don’t think we will. That’s okay. But I would say, a book dedicated to me. Of course, that would be a beautiful way to crown my life, because, at that time, I will be rather an older woman. And so, maybe a good dedication would be, you know, “Dedicated to all women out there for fulfilling their dreams.” Because I would say, one of the things that I am very happy to be today, in the phase of life I am today, is that I’m just able to fulfill my dreams in every imaginable way. You know, not just professionally, but in my personal life. Of course, going from any challenges, of course, like all of us, but basically, it’s really… Maybe dedicating to ‘the woman’ because that way, again, you know, going back a little bit into the diversity and inclusion space, I would probably not put my own name in there, but I would like to see dedicated to all women who were able through their own efforts to fulfill their dreams, be it in technical, in business, in personal, in all aspects of their lives.
Ciprian Borodescu: That’s, beautiful, Nancy. It was a pleasure to have you, and thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with me and with us. How can people reach out to you for ideas and comments?
Nancy Nemes: Thank you, Ciprian. This was a great, great pleasure as well, and you are brilliant. We should continue this series. People can reach me simply by just, you know, googling my name. I have a website that is called nemesventures.com. And, you know, you can send an email there – email@example.com. You can reach me on LinkedIn and Twitter. And for more personal, just send me an email. And thank you so much for having me. I really, really enjoyed especially the bonus question. It was very unexpected. A great idea.
Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah, I like to do this kind of stuff to the speakers that I invite.
Nancy Nemes: I love it! This was brilliant.
Ciprian Borodescu: Thank you so much, Nancy.
Nancy Nemes: Thank you. I’m looking forward to meeting you in person hopefully soon, be it in Berlin, Bucharest, or anywhere on this beautiful planet.