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The appliance of computer science: An interview with Gillian Docherty

The appliance of computer science: An interview with Gillian Docherty

When she appeared at the annual Data Summit conference in Edinburgh last year, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the audience that many of the strategies her government had come up with during the Covid-19 pandemic had been driven by data. Data had, she said, ensured “time, money and lives” had been saved and would “continue to inform our decisions as we tackle some of the most challenging issues of our day”. These included, she added, “ensuring a fair recovery from the pandemic and a just transition towards achieving our net-zero ambitions”.

To the uninitiated, the idea that life-or-death, nation-changing decisions are made based on information the government has collated on everything from its citizens to weather patterns can be hard to comprehend. For Gillian Docherty, it makes perfect sense.

A computer scientist by training and career, Docherty is chair of the Scottish AI Alliance, a group put together by the Scottish Government to ensure plans to make Scotland a “leader in the development and use of trustworthy, ethical and inclusive artificial intelligence” can be brought forward at pace. Last year the group published Scotland’s AI Strategy, a wide-ranging document that lays out how it intends to get there.

Plans are in place to ensure both businesses and the public know what AI is and how the use of data in everything from cancer screening to holiday planning can benefit them. A major focus of the alliance, which is now in the delivery phase, is on showing private and public sector organisations how to best utilise resources and ensure their staff have the skills to improve the way they work.

“AI is a huge opportunity for Scotland and for our businesses,” Docherty says. “Organisations across all sectors – hospitality, engineering, financial services, tourism, healthcare – will all be users and adopters of technology. The AI Alliance is launching its playbook in July and that will give information on things like how to run an AI project, where to get support, how to get talent, how to maintain ROI [return on investment]. The playbook should enable people to do things with AI that helps their organisation – they can improve productivity because they have more automated decision-making. Ultimately, we’re trying to make sure that we drive the economic successes that technology can bring.”

The vision is huge in scope, with Docherty convinced that, if everything goes according to plan, it will revolutionise Scottish society. At one end of the spectrum AI can, she says, radically change areas like healthcare, where it is already being used to augment the work of oncologists and radiologists when it comes to interpreting scans used in cancer diagnosis. At the other, it has the potential to create a raft of career opportunities.

“From a societal perspective this will create opportunities and jobs,” she says. “There will be a huge amount of upskilling and reskilling – it’s about providing opportunities to learn and grow and develop in those new skills. It’s really important for us as a nation, for our citizens, for our children, that we get this right.” 

While there is a clear excitement among those already familiar with how data, AI and technology can and do improve processes that impact on our daily lives, there is also an uneasiness among those who are not au fait with certain technologies and terminologies and who feel nervous about information on everything from their shopping habits to their health records being manipulated by machines.

Their reasons for this are easy to understand, with horror stories about the bad uses of data never far from the public’s consciousness. Algorithmic biases have, for example, been shown to lead to ethnic minorities being discriminated against in mortgage application processes while in 2014 it was reported that a recruitment system developed by Amazon in the US discriminated against women. Female applicants were disqualified early in the process based on the college they attended because the computer system had been trained using the CVs of the company’s male-dominated software engineering team.

Docherty is clear that while AI can be used for “great things” it can also be used for “potentially harmful things too” and says she understands that not everyone in society is going to be comfortable with the degree to which their own personal data – whether it is anonymised or not – is going to be used to govern large parts of their lives. However, she stresses that the watchwords of the Scottish AI Alliance are ‘trustworthy’, ‘ethical’ and ‘inclusive’ and that it is up to people like her to ensure those with fears about AI are given the information needed to get comfortable with it. 

Organisations across all sectors – hospitality, engineering, financial services, tourism, healthcare – will all be users and adopters of technology

“This is about having an open debate and discussion,” she says. “It’s not about convincing people but about making sure that we are providing the knowledge about what the technology is and what it’s not, how it’s used and how it’s not. It’s about providing clarity and having a really open debate.”

Much of the groundwork for facilitating that debate has been done by The Data Lab, an innovation centre founded in 2014 which Docherty ran between 2015 until the beginning of this year and which supported the Scottish Government in the development of its AI Strategy. The Data Lab’s mission is similar to that of the alliance in that it wants to “help Scotland maximise value from data and lead the world to a data powered future”. Much of its focus has been on spreading the message about how data can be used for good, and it has run festivals and roadshows to that end. Another strand of its work has been around creating the generation of workers who will bring the whole strategy forward and it has partnered with 12 Scottish universities to offer a masters programme that has crucial links with industry.

“A really, really important part of The Data Lab’s work is around getting talent into these roles and building talent,” Docherty says. “We developed a significant master’s programme where we funded their fees – that’s reached close to 1,000 students. We found placements in industry – with Loch Lomond national park, in parts of the NHS, in financial services, working on the energy transition – for their master’s projects. It doesn’t matter what domain you want to apply your skills to, we have interesting, challenging and rewarding roles here in Scotland. There’s opportunity here, it’s everywhere.”

Though her role at The Data Lab led her to where she is now – chairing the AI Alliance at the same time as getting stuck into her new job as chief commercial officer at the University of Strathclyde – Docherty says she almost didn’t go for it, believing at the time that her corporate background at global tech giant IBM meant she was unsuited to it and it was unsuited to her.

“I could see through my role at IBM how much impact data science and AI was going to have and continue to have, but when I was approached about the role at The Data Lab, like a lot of people – not just women – I thought ‘I don’t think that’s me’,” she recalls. “I’d been with a big, corporate multinational for many years and this was in the start-up phase. But the more I understood about its mission to maximise the use of data in Scotland to improve the economy and [make an impact on] climate change, I was hooked.”

Docherty's daughter Charley meets Pepper the Robot

Ultimately, it was imaging the future Scotland her then four-year-old daughter Charley would grow up in that convinced Docherty to leave IBM after more than a two-decade stint. Though she had been all over the world with the New York Stock Exchange-listed company and latterly led a unit that helped Scottish businesses innovate through the use of tech, the draw of building something that could transform the society her daughter was going to grow up in proved too strong to walk away from.

“Through the lens of my daughter I wanted to have a Scotland with lots of opportunities in the future and I could see the impact data and AI was going to have on that,” she says. “When I entered the [job application] process I really, really wanted it.”

There is still some way to go before the vision of The Data Lab and Scotland’s AI Alliance are realised, though, not least because – The Data Lab’s master’s programme notwithstanding – when it comes to educating the people who are going to drive it all forward the country is in some ways in a worse position now than it was when Docherty herself was studying computer science at the University of Glasgow in the early 1990s.

“Computer science at that time was very heavily male dominated but the scary thing is that there were a few more women then than there are now,” she says. “We are not getting the sufficient movement we need to deal with diversity in tech. There are definitely areas which are better than other others and the industry is working hard to change perceptions and really showcase the broad variety of roles there are if you put a tech label on them. There’s a huge breadth of roles but I think, unfortunately, that’s not always visible to everyone.”

With just a few years left until Charley finishes her schooling and enters the world of either work or higher education, the race is on to ensure they are made visible and appealing, and that there are equal opportunities to qualify for them too. 

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