Building AI Capacity During Quarantine In the Mountains of New Zealand

IVOW co-Founder sees silver lining in quarantine: Time for self directed learning

IVOW co-Founder Nikki McLay draws inspiration for her AI work from her home in New Zealand

The mountain village in New Zealand where Nikki McLay lives and works on artificial intelligence (AI) is called Te Aroha, the literal translation in English is ‘The Place of Love’.

Nikki spent her formative years north of Auckland in a small beach house on the shore of the Mahurangi Peninsula. As co-Founder of IVOW and Women in Voice ANZ, she’s responsible for AI partnerships and has helped lead global innovation projects in collaboration with Topcoder, Microsoft, Soul Machines and AI for Good.

IVOW, which stands for Intelligent Voices of Wisdom, is a tech startup focusing on cultural intelligence in AI. We help enterprises share the story of their brand and directly engage with consumers in a unique and authentic way through conversational interfaces.

As a result of a Women in AI collaboration between IVOW and Soul Machines, our chatbot Sina appears as three different virtual people. As a messenger of human stories, Sina has an expressive human face to help advance her mission of connecting with people through culture.

In the past six months in quarantine, Nikki has completed the IBM learning pathways program (a partnership with Coursera) and has been recognized with certificates for her knowledge on Applied AI, python, programming, cloud and more. We asked her to reflect on her inspirational journey.

It has been inspiring to watch your AI journey unfold in 2020. What AI tools excite you most?

As the mother to a curious young 11-year-old boy, I am always trying to find ways to inspire him and keep our lives interesting and fun. We both share a love for the off-beat, humorous side of life. My working life of design and AI, and his childish, boyhood quirks keep a lighthearted energy to our daily life. We’ve spent the last month building a chatbot together based on the inner life of our cat, Mittens. It can’t get more 2020 than that!

With just myself and my son alone in the house for a number of weeks of strict quarantine, like many we had a bit of time to spare. Globally we were uniquely all in the same boat, and so at IVOW it gave us some unexpected time to focus on completing projects we had been hoping to pursue, and the silver lining was how quickly we realised them!

This focus, combined with rare time, inspired me to deepen my own technical knowledge. Although I had a sound knowledge of AI terms and concepts and had put some of it into practice, I had no formal training, so I decided to throw myself into online learning and busied myself in upskilling (rather than binge-watching Netflix).

There’s still a giant gap between the data we currently use and the data we need to use. Working out ways that current capabilities can harness more meaningful data, so that every day AI-dependent products can have a meaningful impact right now is what excites me to keep exploring and pushing boundaries with our work.

(L-R) IVOW’s Juanisa McCoy, Nikki McLay and Davar Ardalan (in red) as well as AI developer Inzamam Malik at the 2019 AI For Good Summit in Geneva.

Why was it important for you to dig in and invest time in gaining more AI knowledge?

To me AI is another medium for creativity. Just like photography or film. For example I like to create ceramics. A bowl seems simple, but every step of production from clay, throwing, glazing, and firing is highly specialised, complex, and deeply scientific.

As a potter you can make the process as simple or as advanced as you like, but the fact is if you don’t understand the science behind each step, then your bowl will be a disaster. I liken AI to that.

We came together at IVOW from diverse creative backgrounds, but like anything else we create with, it is important to learn and understand the science behind every step of the process, so we are able to achieve our goals more effectively. Also, it helps to know what you’re talking about when you’re on a Zoom call to a data scientist!

How did you get into the creative and artistic space?

I was fortunate to be born into a vibrant and close-knit family of artists, academics, and creatives dotted around the globe. My father is a musician, my mother is a craftsperson and my grandparents were academics who were also painters, writers, potters, and musicians. It is in my blood to create and express; growing up in a daily environment of music, people, food, and constant conversations of evolving ideas, I never knew another way of living.

After leaving high school I attended art school and stumbled, via various contacts, into graphic design and then web development that has led me down a pathway of art and technology mixed with culture and history. In New Zealand creativity is a vital lifeblood of our culture. The population is small and the creative industry is diverse but intertwined, so it allows us to diversify our talents and expand our knowledge.

Over the many years of my creative career I have been able to widen the scope of my talents to work in many areas that fascinate me — mainly preservation of culture and heritage, both historical and current. I have worked for international advertising agencies, in the backrooms of auction houses and museums, collaborated with musicians, artists, architects, and filmmakers via design and storytelling, but somehow it all ties together to form part of the rich tapestry which makes up our unique cultural landscape.

What excites you about for the future of voice and conversational AI?

2020 threw up an unexpected challenge! As a startup we, along with so many others, worried about how we would be impacted. Ironically, the pandemic gave the work we had been focusing on at IVOW a whole new relevancy and urgency which led to a huge burst of inspiration.

Instead of ‘looking to the future’, the future was suddenly upon us, highlighting the complexities of human and machine reliance, with all its ethical, emotional, and creative considerations. I’ve become excited about the real (not just possible) applications of voice technology in particular.

As the world was thrown into a communal situation, we now see the need to address global human concerns, from many different perspectives, through inclusive experiences. For both developers and the users this is both exciting and necessary.

Looking back, what has 2020 been like for you at IVOW?

Despite all of our global and personal challenges, it’s been amazing. We’ve really come together as a team with so much to be proud of. We’ve focused and managed to realise some incredible projects.

Our Women in History Dataset Challenge was a finalist in the 2020 Topcoder Innovation Awards, and our Indigenous Knowledge Graph was presented as part of the AI for Good Global Summit and garnered much positive feedback. We have had some collaborations with incredible companies like Soul Machines, and continue to be highlighted in various online events.

Personally I have grown a lot and managed to be invigorated not only by the work, but by our team. We’re definitely a little family of kickass women who are constantly uplifting, supporting and inspiring one another daily.

IVOW AI is an early stage startup focusing on cultural intelligence in AI and chatbots. We are part of WaiAccelerate, the Women in AI accelerator program; a KiwiTech Portfolio company; and incubating at We Work Labs in DC as we build our MVP.



Executive Producer of Audio, National Geographic

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