Tackling AI’s Diversity Gap

Movers & Shakers: Q&A With Victor Silva

Tackling AI’s Diversity Gap (Victor Silva is the events manager for the organization "Black in AI".)

Victor Silva, a Ph.D. candidate at University of Alberta in Canada, realized his drive to study artificial intelligence and computer science during his high school years in his home country of Brazil.

Since then, he’s contributed to the Symposium of Ethics in AI and published a paper on how AI affects social media and democracy.

With an intersectional lens, Victor explains how he advocates for Black and Latino students interested in AI. He currently serves as the events manager for the organization “Black in AI.”

YR Contributor Melissa Perez Winder: How did you get into AI while growing up in Brazil?

Victor Silva: I went to school locally for game development.  And then I started to do research on how I could use robotics and programming to teach high school students. Then, I went into doing artificial intelligence to play games–that was the first master’s that I did. It was something that has never been done in the statistics domain that I was working in. 

MW: What has your journey been like to get to where you are now? 

VS: It was always very difficult. It was part of the development of me as a person. I was born in a favela, it is a very poor shanty town, and I went to public schools in Brazil. And then I got a scholarship to go to college. I realized that just going through college wouldn’t be enough. My parents dreamed of me becoming a lawyer, or an engineer, or a doctor, and I had to fight that because I wanted to be a computer scientist. 

Then I decided I wanted to do a master’s, and I went to one of the top three schools in Brazil. Then I was like, “This is what I want to do with my life. I want to do science, I want to be a free thinker.” That’s how I had the idea that I have to leave Brazil to pursue my dreams. 

MW: So… what is AI?

VS: AI is basically statistics and mathematics that try to make sense of data; it is predictive. But AI can be as simple as finding a path from A to B. Or it can be very complex, like trying to determine a dog from a cat. 

The work I do is more related to a very specific area of analysis and forecasting.  I’m very interested in discovering how change happens, the process of change, like how the numbers change over time and the result of change. It’s an abstract concept because change itself is an abstract word. 

MW: Why did you decide to join Black in AI?

VS: I started volunteering with [Black in AI] in 2018, and I found a family there. I continue to volunteer there. I didn’t only join Black in AI, I joined Latinos in AI as well. That is because about 50 percent of Brazilians are self-identified Black. The Brazilian population is also Latino but not Hispanic. In the end, I ended up identifying more with Black in AI.

MW: Do you have hope for a more diverse future in AI? 

VS: Yes, I do have hope. I do think that there is a lot to be done. We are in space where the big players in AI are starting to listen, but there’s room for change … AI will naturally change and be diverse if we provide access to technology for everybody.

MW: Why is it important for the AI community and those working with AI to come from diverse backgrounds?

VS: Well, if you don’t have a diverse team, then AI will discriminate against the people that are not included. And the classic example would be if you just have pictures of white people and then you have a Black person trying to use facial recognition – what happens then?!

MW: What advice would you have for someone who’s interested in pursuing AI? 

VS: I would say if you want to go specifically to AI, you can study computer science – aim for that! Also study a lot of mathematics because AI is based on mathematics and statistics. I have four younger siblings, and I tell them that all the time: studying is important to ascend in life!

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