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Vicki Hanson: Globally Renowned Professor and Researcher, President of ACM, and Distinguished Professor of Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Vicki Hanson.

Vicki HansonVicki Hanson currently serves as President of ACM (Association for Computing Machinery).

She is a Distinguished Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the USA and holds a Chair of Inclusive Technologies at the University of Dundee in Scotland. She also is a Visiting Professor in the Data Science Institute at Lancaster University in England. From 1986 2009 she was a Research Staff Member and Manager at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center in New York, founding their Accessibility Research Group in 2000.

Vicki's research focus is on accessibility of technology for people with disabilities, the aging population and related research ethics. At RIT she is a co-director of the Center for Accessibility and Inclusion Research (CAIR). For her work, she has been recognized both by industry and professional organizations including an IBM Corporate Award, a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award, the Social Impact Award from the Anita Borg Institute, the ACM SIGACCESS Award for Contributions to Computing and Accessibility, and most recently her election to the ACM CHI Academy.

She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, and a Fellow of the ACM. In July 2017, Vicki will be awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from Newcastle University.

Follow Vicki on Twitter @ACM_President.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:17: Vicki, thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.
"....Thanks for inviting me Stephen. I'm looking forward to it....."

  Before we get into your participation at the inaugural AI summit, co-organized by the United Nations Agency ITU and XPRIZE, let's mine details of your life journey. Congratulations on your tremendous success.

:01:21: Describe milestones in your life from the age of four?
"....Four was an interesting turning point in my life when I moved from London to the United States. I remember my mother telling me that as a four year old I didn't really fit in well with the social culture in Denver (between my Cockney accent and my desire to drink tea). Probably more defining in terms of who I am now was my high school experience. At the time, I was part of the minority group and a very diverse student population at that high school and I think that shaped a lot of my values. It was a very progressive environment where social issues were important as well as the climate and the student experience....There is always a lot of talking about mentoring of women in STEM subjects and the importance of role models. While I think role models are important, I want to make the point that when I was an undergraduate I worked in the research labs for a lot of male professors and they couldn't have been more supportive, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be a success or that I wasn't a valued member of the team. I then went on to Graduate school and my PhD advisor was Mike Posner at University of Oregon and I don't think I could have found anyone more supportive....Another defining point in my life was my 25 year career at IBM Research....Probably the last thing in terms of milestones or what made me who I am is that my life as an academic started relatively late. I was at IBM Research for 25 years and at some point after that I was offered a job at a university in Scotland. Culturally the US and Scotland aren't all that far apart compared to differences between some nations, but the experience did give me a sense of different international perspectives on issues and it's this kind of experience that certainly influences how I approach ACM's global activities now...."

:08:52: What triggered your interest in accessibility and inclusion?
"....People ask me this question a lot and usually there's this expectation that I had a family member with a disability, but this wasn't the case. I came at it from a research perspective. I was interested in issues of language and learning and I applied for a Postdoc at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and worked in the laboratory in language and cognition. My views on a lot of things were shaped at that time because I became aware of issues about disability and how culturally defined many of them are through the environment (particularly those that aren't inclusive). So this was really the root of my passion for doing work in accessibility and inclusive design the idea being that as technologists we need to consider creating software and systems that are usable by everyone and if we don't we are creating a situation in which we are disabling people...."

  Now let's get into the ACM.

:11:35: Can you share your stories behind your journey with the ACM leading to be President.
"....I think I come from a different background than many of the presidents of the past and it will be interesting to see what changes come about as a result of that. I have been involved in ACM in many roles for many years....I want to make a point that I did this volunteering and I felt like I was as prepared as anyone could be to assume the role of President, but I still find I am constantly amazed at the new things I learn about the scope of ACM activities....My journey to President has been one that relied primarily on research activities within ACM, but there are many other paths to be taken to ACM leadership...."

:15:58: How would you describe the ACM and how the ACM is making a difference?
"....ACM is the oldest and largest society for computing researchers and practitioners. Critically it's a volunteer-driven society so the initiatives from ACM are only made possible because of the volunteer efforts of members such as you. I happen to be a high visibility volunteer, but there's a lot of ACM volunteers that give hours and hours of their time to make the organization successful. Even though ACM is headquartered in New York City it serves a global community and we currently reach about 3 million professionals and students worldwide through our various technical, scientific and educational activities.....How is ACM making a difference? This is varied given the diversity of our membership, but I think the main strength or contribution of ACM is through our technical leadership. For researchers for example, there's ACM conferences and research publications. ACM sponsors about 200 conferences around the world each year and it collaborates on a lot more. These proceedings go into the digital library where there is also ACM Transactions Journal but the digital library has many other things too. The Communications of ACM Magazine that serves a very wide readership, and from the Practitioner Board you know about the Webinar Series - including a recent webinar related to the upcoming Summit which has a panel discussion on ethical challenges with AI. From an education standpoint ACM serves the community through its curriculum efforts and the Education Board...."

  We will now discuss the inaugural AI for Good Global Summit organized by the ITU and XPRIZE in partnership with more than 10 UN agencies. The event, the first of a series of annual conferences on AI, will convene representatives of government, industry, UN agencies, civil society and the AI research community to explore the latest developments in AI and their implications for regulation, ethics and security and privacy. Breakout sessions will invite participants to collaborate and propose strategies for the development of AI applications and systems to promote sustainable living, reduce poverty and deliver citizen-centric public services.

:21:51: What triggered your interest in participating from the perspective as a researcher, from a personal level and ACM President?
"....As ACM President I am always interested in getting a chance to discuss ACM and all its activities in front of a new audience. In this respect, the Global Summit is a great way to get the word out and how ACM might play a role in contributing to the Summit goals going forward....On a personal level, I was immediately drawn to the idea of a Global Summit with the topic name of Social Good. Each year I teach a course on current topics in HCI for graduate students here. We read current research papers and discuss them in class. The research papers every year are on topics of interest to me and I get to see students' reactions and learn from the students about new ways of thinking about these topics. These topics, (near and dear to my heart that I have long been assigning in my class), are all topics that will be brought up at the Global Summit....This 'how do we plan for something that we can't completely know what's going to happen?' idea about learning is why I want to be there as a researcher too. The topics are vitally important for our whole planet and I'm interested in seeing all the different perspectives that people bring...."

:25:21: Again from your perspective, what do you see as the top program areas of interest at the Summit and do you have any stories to share behind your choices?
"....Coming at the Summit from an HCI lens I might have a slightly different perspective from some people. I'm really interested in how humans and machines are going to be collaborating for a better future for all of us. One of the program threads is on ethics and I find this really crucial to what we are going to be doing going forward....Another program thread has to do with humans and machines which I am particularly interested in. The idea of augmenting human abilities (which I think you would expect for those of us who work in accessibility) is clearly important. I'm intrigued by a future with assistive robots for care situations....There's a third program I'm looking at attending promoting healthier citizens. There is obvious potential for us to become more informed about our own health. Many people use these activity trackers and sensors so you can work on your own health management, but naturally people are really concerned about what happens with that data....The fourth program topic I'm interested in is promoting the idea of equality. My interest in promoting equality went back to the idea of benefiting people in disadvantaged regions of the world. What can we learn from analyzing large datasets that can improve people's lives?....The final example from the program has to do with education. There's online learning and we have more personalized online education which is opening up educational abilities for people in many parts of the world who didn't necessarily have access before. The second part of the education involves issues around what's going to be needed in the future and how we educate students to participate in a world that is going to be greatly changed by the emergence of machines that do jobs not just in manufacturing. How do people and machines work together when machines are doing a lot of the work that people used to do? How do we plan for something that we can't completely know what's going to happen?.... "

:33:51: Which Sustainable Development Goals supported by AI do you find the most compelling and can you personalize why you made your choices?
"....I'm going to pick the one on trying to reduce inequalities. In the kind of work that I do with HCI and accessibility we are often talking about the idea of a digital divide. This digital divide has traditionally been along topics of economics, literacy, age, geography, disability and those kinds of things, so it's largely related to access to devices, networks and information, presentation, usability and all of this and trying to make it fair for all. But the question with AI I guess is: Will this shrink the digital divide or is AI going to broaden it? Will AI be in some places and not in others? Are some people going to benefit a huge amount from AI while others are continuing to get more left behind? I think it's only through a concerted effort to keep it in everyone's mind about designing for all and this whole idea of inclusion...."

:36:37: What continues to excite you?
"....The thing that has excited me the most in the last few years was a trip I had to South Africa. Just being in this open top jeep situated in the center of a pride of lions, I don't know why I found that restful, but somehow I did. I don't know, I guess I love new experiences in general. On a more serious note, I also enjoy all my ACM travels and getting to meet so many new people, experience different cultures and meeting students with their excitement going forward...."

:38:56: From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, do you have any stories you can share (perhaps something amusing, surprising, unexpected or amazing)?
"....The ACM Presidency does take time and I volunteered myself so I made that choice. But I want to give a shout-out to my husband and two daughters who get a lot less of me because of the extensive speaking, traveling and work opportunities, so I want to thank them. I also want to say that the thing that most affected me through all this is each of them independently thanked me and that they were proud of me. And a fun fact is that my older daughter just recently got her PhD in computing. She is also in HCI and in the last few months we started collaborating on research, so look out for the future research contributions from this mother-daughter team...."

:42:44: If you were conducting this interview, what are a couple of questions that you would ask and then what would be your answers?
".....What do you hope to accomplish as ACM President?....On being a woman in computing today?...."

:48:00: Vicki, with your demanding schedule we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.