Visible Women

Meet the woman who teaches Amazon Alexa how to understand humans

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Hannah Keegan
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. Here, we talk to machine learning scientist Catherine Breslin, who’s driven by a desire to make tech more personal.  

Growing up, Catherine Breslin didn’t consider computing as a career option. Today, she leads the team of scientists who teach Amazon Alexa how to live – and talk – among the humans.

“I think it’s so easy for women to be pushed out of technology fields,” Breslin says, discussing her initial hesitations about pursuing a career in tech. “I loved maths and the sciences and was surrounded by computers growing up, but it never occurred to me I could do it for a living.”

Despite her initial doubts, Breslin went on to study engineering at university (where she was one of the few girls on her course), and became fascinated by what she could make computers do.

“I was interested in learning how you could give them human traits like vision and speech, and deciphering how they could understand and interpret things,” she says. “I could always see that one day we would be able to interact with them, but never as fast as it’s happened.”

After getting a master’s degree in speech recognition and a PhD in machine intelligence under her belt, Breslin joined Amazon Alexa as a machine learning scientist in 2014, when the project was still in its infancy. The Echo – Amazon’s first smart speaker with a built-in assistant named Alexa – had just launched to a select number of customers, and a buzz was finally picking up around artificial intelligence.

“You know that the programmes you’re developing are going to have real impact on people’s lives”: Catherine Breslin 

Breslin and her team were focused on amping up what Alexa could do and understand, with the ultimate goal of making a faceless computer programme feel like a personal assistant and a friend.

“It’s so rewarding to work on something that you know that millions of people are going to use,” she stresses. “You know that the programmes you’re developing are going to have real impact on people’s lives.”

Breslin is motivated by the direct impact her work has on the way we interact with computers. However, she observes that there is a general lack of awareness about the personal and tangible nature of tech – something she thinks is a contributing factor in keeping women out of the industry.

“It’s so much more creative than people imagine,” she explains. “There’s a lot problem solving and collaboration. The idea that you’re stuck in front of your computer all day coding is not true.

“The stereotypes around what a programmer is, and what it takes to work in technology, make a lot of people presume that they won’t belong.”

Looking back, Breslin says she would have just one piece of advice for her younger, more uncertain self. “Don’t give any weight to what other people think you should do.”

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. Find out more about the campaign here, and see more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Courtesy of Catherine Breslin