Dr. Maria Aretoulaki
Dr. Maria Aretoulaki has been a Voice User Interface (VUI) Designer for the past 25 years. A VUI Designer uses language technologies like speech recognition, text-to-speech, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Natural Language Understanding (NLU) to design user experiences. Dr. Aretoulaki describes VUI Design as “designing and implementing text-based dialogues and spoken dialogues between humans and machines.”
Dr. Aretoulaki’s work mainly involves call center automation, voicebots, voice assistants and chatbots. As a VUI Designer, she designs, tests, tunes and optimizes human-computer interfaces. “Any industry, any company that has a call center, I can get involved in,” she says.
In call centers, speech recognition technology uses Machine Learning to transcribe dialogues between humans and speech recognition-based IVR systems, which Dr. Aretoulaki uses to determine patterns or issues. “I can see where people get stuck in the automated system or what they complain about while waiting in queue, after they’ve given up and opted to speak to a human agent,” she says.
If asked to describe some of her AI projects to her non-technical friends or family, Dr. Aretoulaki would say that she is “trying to save you time and frustration from waiting in a queue to speak to our human call center agents.”
Throughout her career so far, Dr. Aretoulaki has achieved several accomplishments and contributed to the success of many different organizations, including big speech providers, small start-ups, and her own company which she founded 12 years ago, DialogCONNECTION Ltd. While her career has been immersed in the technology industry, her first degree was in English Language, Literature and Linguistics. However, even then, she knew computers and programming languages were “something future-proof" that she needed to get involved in.
In her first summer at university, Dr. Aretoulaki enrolled in adult education classes that taught her to write code using the BASIC programming language. During another summer, she provided admin support for a physics research project at a local university, where she input data into a large Pan-European database. “That was another way into tech: data entry,” she says.
After completing her first degree, Dr. Aretoulaki earned a master's degree in Machine Translation, officially titled a “Conversion Masters.” “I knew that computers and Computing and Computer Science were the future. And I knew I could not go back to just doing traditional or Theoretical Linguistics and Humanities. I was really over the moon that I could find a field that combined my Linguistics background with Computer Science,” she explains. “I truly enjoyed my master’s and I never looked back.”
Dr. Aretoulaki cites four key mentors who provided her with guidance and challenged her academically. While studying for her humanities degree, her professor, John Chioles, inspired and challenged her and her classmates to “think originally and have a wider perspective,” while also remaining “modest and respectful.”
The physics professor who Dr. Aretoulaki assisted with data entry, Professor Konstadinos Siomos, challenged and guided her not to be conceited. “[He] told me what I need to get into, what I need to learn, that I need to put in the time without necessarily expecting to get paid,” she says.
While completing her PhD research, Dr. Aretoulaki’s mentor was her Professor Jun-ichi Tsujii. While he would push her technically, she says “he had this human touch.” When they discussed her work, he would also be sure to ask her, “Do you actually get enough sleep?”
Finally, during her post-doctorate degree in Germany, Professor Heinrich Niemann helped Dr. Aretoulaki take on Research Project Management positions.
Dr. Aretoulaki is excited about how AI can benefit society, saying that “I feel like I contribute to something that really makes a big difference to many people’s lives.” Looking to the future, she hopes to see AI-powered voice assistants help identify solitude. For example, if there was a person living alone, especially an elderly person who lives alone, the voice assistant could help to identify if the person was “drifting into some kind of isolation, social isolation, and developing depression.” The voice assistant could take action to help mitigate the risk of living in solitude.
It is evident that there are many positive applications for AI. However, there are also aspects to the technology of which to be cautious. While Dr. Aretoulaki knows that people have misguided fears that AI will become like a “Terminator” in the movies, she also knows many people do not have enough fear of other “controversial aspects of AI.” After all, AI requires data, including user-generated data, and Dr. Aretoulaki says that “whoever fears this is not misguided and whoever is not fearing this should be a bit careful.”
Another aspect of the AI industry to be aware of is how the culture may discourage women who want to have children from pursuing careers in AI. “I don't think that the problem is that women are not interested in STEM enough,” says Dr. Aretoulaki. “I think the problem is that STEM careers seem to have a bad reputation of really long hours and inflexible working patterns that many women will see as incompatible with starting or maintaining a family.”
Dr. Aretoulaki indicates that the pandemic and remote work may have changed things. “Now I'm pretty sure working exclusively from an office is going to become a thing of the past in most industries and most companies,” she says. “I think flexible hours and definitely remote working are two of the top things the industry can do to keep women in STEM, but also to get them to pursue and keep more senior positions in STEM.”
Dr. Aretoulaki’s advice to women currently pursuing careers in STEM is to be assertive and apply for roles, even if they don’t know much about the subject. “Learning something new every day is part and parcel of today’s world and everybody’s career nowadays.” She also encourages women to not be afraid to ask for help, clarification, mentoring, or apprenticeships. However, when networking with others in the field, she emphasizes the importance of cultivating and showing an interest in the other person, and their work, and following up with them.
Finally, Dr. Aretoulaki encourages women to expand their perspectives. “Always try and learn new things,” she says. “Have an overview of emerging fields and try and see how they could be relevant to your current field, as well as the field you want to get into. That helps you see things more clearly.”