The search for diversity in tech

The search for diversity in tech

Johanne Trippas learnt about more than just computer science during her PhD: she also came to appreciate how technology impacts lives and why women need to be a part of it.

Trippas is just about to complete her Computer Science PhD after four years of research into the next generation of conversational search systems like Siri and Google Home.

She describes it as an extremely rewarding chapter in her fledgling research career, but one not without its challenges.

IT's a man’s world

Women make up less than one-third of all researchers in IT and computer science, while at senior levels it’s less than one-fifth.

Trippas, who grew up in Belgium, was raised to think of achievement without any gender boundaries. It wasn’t until she turned up on her first day of university in Melbourne that she realised there was a gender imbalance in the tech community. 

“At my very first computer science course, I was the only non-male student, which was an eye-opening experience,” she says.

Talk about feeling out of place on your first day.

Suddenly she understood the experience of many women in male-dominated industries - she felt like an imposter.

“That has now changed with time though," she says. "Over the years I've become more confident that I also have something to contribute to the field of computer science." 

“More importantly, I have developed my ‘sense of self’ past my gender identity and I am learning how to manage my impostor challenges.”

Along with her own determination, Trippas says the unfailing support from her supervisors - Professor Lawrence Cavedon, Professor Mark Sanderson and Dr Damiano Spina - has been crucial. 

It was them who encouraged Trippas last year to apply for a highly competitive Google Women Techmakers scholarship.

Only the best and brightest from around the world are chosen, and she was one of them.

“I was very honoured to receive the scholarship,” she says. “It helped me put a lot of my work into perspective.” 

Applications for this year’s program - which includes a scholarship, retreat and ongoing community support - close this month and Trippas encourages fellow female tech researchers to apply.  

03 May 2019

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Johanne Trippas is just about to complete her PhD in computer science.

While the Women Techmakers retreat reinforced the diversity challenges facing the tech industry, it also gave Trippas hope that things were changing and the support of fellow women driving that change. 

“You should never underestimate the power of being around people that are interested in building support and peer networks full of positive role models,” she says. 

“But most importantly it was about being recognised as a person first and valuing what I have to bring as a person.” 

“I now have a greater appreciation of how staying in tech has allowed me to create a more diverse work environment for me and my colleagues.”

With recent studies and media highlighting the problems of smart home technology being mainly designed by men - and so not always relevant or appropriate for women - this is an important point.

Meanwhile, her research is making its own valuable contribution, with nearly 20 publications, including in some of the field’s leading journals and research conferences.

The future of search

Trippas’ research looks at ways to interact with search engines via voice only, without having to interact with screens. It's the science behind the next generation of voice assistants most of us may soon be using.

“I really enjoy my research because it's such an exciting new area,” she says.

“It’s inspiring to be part of research that will potentially impact many people around the world on how we communicate with computers.” 

She says working alongside leaders in the field at RMIT University, and learning from them how to deliver research with real impact, has been both empowering and encouraging: so much so that she's looking to continue her academic career in teaching and research after receiving her doctorate.

It certainly feels like the right time and place to be right now, she says.

“Search has come a long way since Google introduced their ground-breaking web search algorithm 20 years ago, but not a lot more can be done to improve it as a text-based query search. My area of research looks at what's next.”

Most experts agree the future of search is conversational, not text or screen based, but there’s a lot of room for improvement on current technology in products like Apple’s Homepod or Google Home. 

“I have all the latest voice search devices at home and enjoy trying them all out to test their limitations,” says Trippas with a laugh.

But conversational search is about more than gimmicks or consumer convenience, it’s also about accessibility for people with low vision or poor literacy.

“Developing this technology to help people is a major personal drive for me,” she says. 

“I imagine the day when a poor farmer in India will be able to ask search about crop failure data or long-term weather forecasts and receive the right information in a natural conversation as if they were asking a friend.”

03 May 2019

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Yet even the idea of having to formulate queries may soon be obsolete, she adds.

To 'google' something may be a verb that barely lasted a generation. 

“Conversational search technology may soon know when you need to know something, without you even asking,” Trippas says. 

“We could have eyeglasses picking out new things and telling us about them without us asking, tables that join our dinner conversations, even personal assistants or holograms going around with us, interacting like a real conversational partner and feeding us the information we need.”

Search, in whatever form it embodies, may become just like a third person in the conversation.

Which exact form of this technology takes off is hard to predict, but it’s that mystery of discovery and possibility that makes it all the more exciting.

“There are so many arms of computer science all going in their own directions and what excites me is bringing it all together - search with AI with quantum computing with user experience research - to develop applications that really help people,” she says. 

“In the end for me, all this technology has to be about people and what it can do for us, not vice versa.”

 

Story: Michael Quin 

  • Research
  • Science and technology

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