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By  Smriti Daniel 11 April 2023 5 min read

Four years after I completed my PhD I was diagnosed with cancer.

I was 31 years old. There’s a picture of me from that time, with a shaved head. I was in the midst of chemotherapy after a cancer diagnosis. When I look at it now, I have a sense of my own undefeatable optimism at a time of great difficulty.

I was losing my hair. Instead of wearing a wig or trying to hide it, I made the bold move of shaving my head. My boss did tell me he would rather I wore hats! Even though I knew I stood out, I was proud of it.

Having excelled in my studies, I was confident I was intelligent, able to understand complex issues. Or so I thought…until I was confronted by my doctor’s explanations of what was happening to me.

I was being given all this information in jargon I could not understand. I knew nothing about medicine, yet I had to make decisions that were life or death.

Some people find science fiction inspiring, but I am not really a science fiction person. Instead, I am inspired by the problems I encounter. If I am facing this problem and I am overwhelmed with information, it’s likely that other people are too.

I beat cancer, and the experience fuelled my interest in how we communicate. I had already entered this field with my PhD. My thesis was on Natural Language Processing and User Modelling. It explored how to provide information to people in such a way they could actually grasp it.

I wanted to continue to innovate in the field. I wanted to push the boundaries of knowledge, to do interesting and useful work.

My brush with cancer made me aware of how confusing medical jargon could be.

The no-jewellery, only-jeans approach

At the time, I was working in a male-dominated environment in America. In my undergraduate computer science class, you could count the number of women on one hand. And in my first job, I was the only woman researcher in my institute.

I won’t lie to you. It was not easy to do. I tried to be completely practical. I'd wear jeans and stopped wearing jewellery. My focus was on my work.

I was mostly fortunate with my colleagues but there were still times where I was discounted just because I was a woman. I would put an idea on the table and people would make fun of it. Three weeks later a male colleague would make the same suggestion. This time, it would be treated as God’s gift to humanity.

People would call my office and ask to speak to Dr. Paris. I told them ‘This is she.’ Sometimes, they didn’t believe a doctor could be a woman. I must be the doctor’s assistant! It would take a while before they accepted that Dr. Paris was in fact a woman and that they were speaking with her.

More recently, at an industry event I was mistaken for the spouse of the scientist sitting next to me instead of a scientist in my own right. I was amazed to have such a misunderstanding happen in this day and age.

Yet, I’m not the only one with stories like this. So, it’s clear we still have some work do to.

Breaking new ground in collaborative intelligence

Luckily, work has always kept me engaged and fascinated. It’s been an incredibly interesting time to be working in this field. When it came to the internet, the search tools we take for granted now were still being developed. Going online was like getting your information through a fire hose.

There are benefits to automation, but we need humans to bring their intelligence, creativity and expertise to problem solving.

It was very difficult to evaluate it or understand if it was being produced by a school student or a reputed organisation. Since then, there have been some very big changes. One of the most impactful has been the advent of machine learning.

However, I think the problem I was looking at, of how we provide information to people is still very relevant. They just take a different form.

Take Chat GPT. Is that the right way to get the information? Is that all the information you should get? We’re only starting to understand the implications. Now, we must ask different questions.

Today, I am a Chief Research Scientist at Data61 and the Director for the Collaborative Intelligence (CINTEL) FSP, an organisation-wide research program that leverages the intelligence and capabilities of humans and machines to form the best performing teams.

I’m passionate about collaborative intelligence. Artificial intelligence (AI) has a different set of skills and strengths. It’s about seeing how people and machines can actually work better together. There are benefits to automation, but we need humans to bring their intelligence, creativity and expertise to problem solving.

The value of optimism

I first joined CSIRO in late 1996 and started our research in Natural Language Processing (NLP) research team, which combined NLP and Human Computer Interaction (HCI) researchers, ensuring that our work was always human-centered.

Close to three decades in this organisation have taught me the value of being agile. It doesn’t mean you don’t believe in what you do, but just that you have be flexible about it. You have to like working with people and be patient enough to prioritise good communication and strong relationships.

Honestly, my favourite part of this organisation has always been the people. It’s so nice to have so many with different kinds of experts who are so willing to work together. I listen to my colleagues and I learn a lot from them. Such interactions greatly enrich our study of collaborative intelligence. I really believe in what we do and that it has impact.

I’m also happy to see so many confident young women join our organisation. Our work culture is increasingly supportive and values diversity of all kinds.

It gives me reason to be optimistic. I learned the value of that from my brush with cancer all those years ago. You have to be optimistic when you get ill or you would just give up immediately, right? You’re going to have to look for the positive.

I count myself lucky that CSIRO – and the people I work with here – have given me many things to be optimistic about.

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