How this Concordia grad became one of the most influential women in AI
Bahar Sateli, MSc 12, Phd 18, always knew she wanted to be a programmer. When she wrote her first line of code as a pre-teen in Tehran, she had to bug her older brother to show her the basics.
It was a momentous first step that has culminated in a number of recent professional honours, from a spot on 2019’s most influential women in AI list to a nod as one of the most brilliant women concerned with AI ethics.
The field of artificial intelligence had attracted Sateli, now a Montreal-based senior data scientist at PwC Canada, long before she knew it had a name. As a child, she read science-fiction novels by authors like Isaac Asimov; stories about robots that do chores, play with children and “obey laws on not hurting humans.”
It’s a passion that Sateli has brought to data science, where she contributes to an international toolkit devoted to the responsible and ethical development of AI applications.
‘My fascination with robots ended up in my dissertation’
At the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science, Sateli discovered that she cared less about what robots could do physically and more about “the minds of those robots.” As a graduate student, she specialized in natural language processing, or teaching computers to read and understand text.
At the heart of every AI application is data — obtaining, manipulating and transforming data so a computer can understand and solve a problem at hand. It’s a fast-moving domain, however, with research published daily.
“You can never catch up with that kind of pace,” observes Sateli.
Enter her clever workaround: a virtual research assistant. Sateli programmed it as a doctoral candidate at Concordia to do repetitive, mundane tasks, like highlighting crucial sentences, summarizing important articles and scanning the Internet for similar documents.
“My fascination with robots finally ended up in my dissertation. I believe you should use your human brain for creative things that a computer can’t do.”
Sateli credits her supervisor René Witte, Sabine Bergler and Leila Kosseim for her success at Concordia and beyond. The respected computer science professors provided top-notch training and support, she says, noting that many of their students now hold AI-related jobs at companies like Amazon and Google.
Sateli took her virtual tool a step further and launched a startup that she struggled to keep financially viable. “I’m a techie,” she says. “I don’t have a master’s in business.”
Life after academia: ‘connecting two worlds’
When a former classmate referred her to PwC Canada, which had put out a call for a data scientist with in-depth knowledge of AI, Sateli’s life irrevocably changed.
Now she rubs shoulders with “an army of MBAs,” learning the business aspects of the industry while applying state-of-the-art AI to business process efficiency problems.
She’s also designing AI models for prediction and automation of complex tasks. Sateli describes it as both “the art of the possible, connecting two worlds to land on a solution” and “the sexiest job right now.”
As to the current benefits of AI, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated what it can do for public health and safety. This includes gathering and parsing huge amounts of data quickly to get a sense of what’s going on. There are ethical concerns around privacy, however.
“In our haste to get to the conclusion,” Sateli says, “are we tracking people without their consent?”
As a woman in tech, the accomplished Concordia alumna still sees a discrepancy between the number of female graduates and the number of women who find purposeful work in the industry.
“It’s not clear why. Perhaps they lose interest or there’s still a gender bias in hiring,” Sateli says.
She advises women who want to consider STEM careers to set aside their fears. If she could give them one piece of advice, it would be the following: “You’re as ready as you can be today. Go for it.”