Hazel Davis meets astronomer turned entrepreneur Kim Nilsson and asks her whether we have anything to fear from super-intelligent machines.
Kim Nilsson is a former Hubble astronomer and co-founder of Pivigo, the world’s largest community of data scientists and Europe’s largest data science training programme.
Can you tell us about your journey to this point?
I always wanted to become an astronomer, ever since the age of 13 when I wondered why the stars twinkled at night and borrowed a book on astronomy from the local library.
From there it was a straight path through university, to my PhD in astrophysics. I did a postdoctoral fellowship in Heidelberg, then worked as a Hubble astronomer in Munich.
Why did you move on to the corporate world?
Even during my PhD I started to think that maybe my strengths lay outside science, as I realised I enjoyed certain ‘organisational’ aspects of my work more than others. I didn’t want to go into a software role, or a finance role, that was quite traditional for an astronomy graduate.
I tried unsuccessfully to apply for management consultancy roles, but realised I really wanted to do something in business. I went to Cranfield to do an MBA to figure out how it could be done. That’s where I met Jason, my co-founder, and our business got started.
How hard was it to move out of academia?
When you are in academia you live in a bubble and you have no idea how to write a good CV or how to present yourself well. There are few role models and few people to get career advice from. You kind of just have yourself and the internet to figure out how to find a job. It’s a painful process that is harder than it should be.
Has your gender held you back in your career at all?
There were times when I entered client meetings with Jason and all the attention was directed towards him, as if I was his assistant. That quickly changed once I started talking! Once someone suggested that they should speak to Jason about a business related matter, because he was “the commercial leader, no?”
“We exhibited at an IT trade show last year; it was a 90 per cent plus male audience, and at five o’clock beers were served throughout the hall by ladies in very skimpy outfits. No wonder the industry can’t attract more women.”
On another occasion I was speaking at great length with a man at an expo about our business. When he asked what I did within the business and said I was the CEO he replied, “Oh, a lady CEO, how exciting!”
The only way to overcome it is to ignore it and continue to act professionally. I never let these things get me down, but just push on and do my best and expect that my achievements will prove them all wrong.
Is there still a problem in your industry in your opinion and what is being done/what can be done?
To some extent, yes. In ‘older’ areas of this business, in traditional IT for example, it is still very chauvinistic. We exhibited at an IT trade show last year; it was a 90 per cent plus male audience, and at five o’clock beers were served throughout the hall by ladies in very skimpy outfits. No wonder the industry can’t attract more women.
Other areas, regarded as more ‘modern tech’, tend to be much better. For example, the Tech London Advocates network take these issues very seriously and recently had an event entirely focused on diversity in tech. These prejudices start at very early ages.
We then also need to make sure that more girls start STEM degrees, and then that the industry is welcoming for them when they are ready to start their new careers. Beers from ladies in miniskirts won’t do.
Tell us about Pivigo and what it does.
Pivigo is a data science training provider and marketplace. We run Europe’s largest data science training programme, in which we help PhDs and MScs to translate their academic careers to data science careers.
They work on real data science projects with our partners, and we have now taken over 300 people through the programme and delivered on more than 70 projects to 50 partners, including KPMG, Barclays, Royal Mail, British Gas and M&S.
Next is the launch of our marketplace, where we will connect companies and organisations looking to outsource data science projects with our large and growing community of freelancing data scientists.
Why is data so important right now?
We are at a convergence point where data storage has become very cheap, computing power very strong and the incentive for companies to innovate very clear. In a slow-growing economy, it is important for companies to make sure they are as efficient and profitable as possible.
“One of the most important lessons for me was if you love to work and achieve things, then life is too short to be in a job you don’t fully enjoy.”
Using data and smart technologies to achieve that is a critical element to a successful business plan. Especially with the emergence of artificial intelligence and machine-learning; the opportunities are endless.
I read that “machine intelligence will soon reach human level of intelligence, at which point it will start to innovate itself and start an exponential evolutionary track in which it will soon leave humans behind, thinking of us as we think of unintelligent creatures such as monkeys, dogs or even insects.”
I was too scared to read on, so can you reassure me?
I don’t see why we have anything to fear. Machines will become more intelligent than us but that should only make us proud and hope for incredible improvements in our own lives. To think that they would exterminate us is ridiculous. After all, we don’t go around and kill off all species less intelligent than us.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants a career like yours?
Go for it. One of the most important lessons for me was if you love to work and achieve things, then life is too short to be in a job you don’t fully enjoy. It took me a while, but I finally took the plunge and left academia for an uncertain future.
I just knew that there had to be something out there for me that would be perfect, or at least something that would motivate me more than academia could. It was very scary but one of the best decisions I have ever made.
So if you are unhappy where you are, have a good think around what motivates you, what you are interested in and where you would like to be in 10 years in a dream scenario. Then look at options of where to go, and jump. You won’t regret it.
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Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".