Artificial intelligence “is a high speed train and I jumped on at just the right moment,” says Alison Lowndes (Artificial Intelligence 2015). Just over three years after joining computer chip company Nvidia, Alison’s right in the middle of the AI explosion.
“I’m connected with every aspect of AI. It’s evolving rapidly across pretty much every domain,” she says. Now leading Nvidia’s Artificial Intelligence Developer Relations for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Alison joined the company before she even graduated from Leeds as a mature student. She travels widely to advise on AI as the ultimate problem-solving tool.
“AI is essentially taking any problem you can digitise and solving it mathematically,” says Alison. It helps a machine quickly learn and identify distinct, meaningful results and patterns from vast amounts of data. AI has been researched since the 1950s but only recently has it entered daily life with image recognition, language translation apps, personalised ads and virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri.
A big part of AI’s continuing rise is due to advances in GPUs (graphics processing units) – the core of Nvidia’s business – coupled with the availability of big data. Originally designed for visualising gaming environments, GPUs have become the powerhouse of AI because they perform thousands of processes simultaneously in an instant.
Behind much of AI’s problem-solving might is a technique called deep learning. Algorithms and computer-based artificial neural networks – akin to the biological network of neurons in our brains – are trained to delve into ever deeper layers of data. Deep learning can find nuances far beyond human perception down to the level of pixels and binary code from millions of labelled images and video footage.
It was during a class on deep learning at Leeds that “the spark just went off inside,” says Alison. The lecture linked deep learning to personalised healthcare which was, and still is, close to Alison’s heart. “I lost my mother in 2009 due to her susceptibility to a type of chemotherapy, as opposed to cancer,” she says. “Deep learning is on the case and is being used to push through our understanding of the personal genetic makeup of diseases and smart drug design.”
For her final year research project, Alison wrote a “how to” guide on using GPUs for image recognition, including identifying tumour growth in histology images. She used a GPU worth £4000, which she obtained from Nvidia’s hardware grant programme.
With the grant funded, the computer chip maker had duly taken note of Alison by the time she finished her degree. Her fresh expertise in AI, coupled with previous experience in project management, led them to bring Alison on board as Nvidia’s first Deep Learning Solutions Architect in Europe.
Alison had landed at the epicentre of a revolution that’s starting to change our lives in countless ways. “When I started the course I had no idea that AI was going to explode just at that point,” she says. “I love what I’m doing. I’m happy speeding along because the progress is phenomenal, it’s just invigorating.”
Left: Alison discusses processing complex data in space.
Completes foundation and first years of Physics with Astrophysics degree at Leeds, but forced to withdraw due to funding difficulties as a lone parent of two young children.
Becomes founder and trustee of ABLe Volunteers International Fund (AVIF) – an online-based charity assisting with sustainable development via volunteering programmes in communities in Kenya, the Brazilian Amazon and Tibet.
Begins BSc Artificial Intelligence at Leeds. “I just loved university. Wandering down the halls made me smile every day. Leeds is a really great place, and that’s coming from a Manchester girl.”
Wins a £500 grant from the University’s Leeds for Life Foundation (funded by alumni) towards costs to visit a community in Greenland to forge links with her charity AVIF.
Becomes a trainer for Code Club Pro, training primary school teachers and headteachers to run free code clubs that teach children how to code.
Nvidia provides a Tesla K40 GPU for her final year research project on deep learning for image recognition. “My supervisor didn’t think it could be done. I proved him wrong.”
Gets multiple job offers including a position at the UK government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, but awaits outcome from a CERN fellowship application which turns out to be unsuccessful.
Unconventional interview with Nvidia. “My interview was at a classical music event linked to my charity. My interviewer saw my presentation skills and got some music advice from an Amazonian cellist.”
Misses her graduation ceremony because she is already in role as Nvidia’s first Deep Learning Solutions Architect for Europe. “Anybody who knows me knows how much I love this job, I’m renowned for it at Nvidia.”
Meets James Parr, who is consulting for NASA, at a London conference. Together they help set up the Frontier Development Lab to aid space research with AI.
Responsible for Nvidia’s Artificial Intelligence Developer Relations for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Helps leading European AI labs to use Nvidia’s technology and manages the research community.
Deep learning can find nuances far beyond human perception.
Alison, a self-confessed “space geek”, takes a big-picture view of AI. A career highlight for Alison, and one of the first things she did at Nvidia, was to help set up the Frontier Development Lab (FDL) with NASA.
With a tagline of “AI for space exploration and all humankind”, the FDL now brings together space scientists and AI experts for eight weeks each year to initiate and accelerate research into big problems using AI. These range from predicting solar storms that could disastrously disable Earth’s satellites, power grids and radio communications, to quickening aid relief by using satellite imagery, to rapidly identifying informal settlements that develop after natural disasters and conflicts.
FDL has also used AI to detect asteroids that could wipe out a city, while related projects have employed AI to quickly model asteroids in 3D and work out how best to deflect them. “I now have a certificate hanging on my wall for assisting in planetary defence,” says Alison. “It doesn’t get any cooler than that.”
Right: The Frontier Development Lab 2018 team