Friday, September 16, 2022
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In Conversation With Marisa Tschopp
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A Researcher, TEDx speaker, Women in AI Ambassador for Switzerland, Volleyball Coach, Lecturer, Author & Co-Chair of the IEEE Agency and Trust in AIS Committee

A researcher, TEDx speaker, Women in AI Ambassador for Switzerland, a volleyball coach, a lecturer, and a mother of two kids, Marisa Tschopp, is currently working to find how we interact with AI and its impacts on human behavior. She uses her strengths in psychology to combine the two worlds, analyze, and understand its full potential, at the same time the risks it can bring into our society.

As a young girl, Marisa says she loved watching Sailor Moon, an ordinary girl who went on to save the world from the bad guys. Today, in a way, through her research, Marisa gives her best to protect our society from falling into the loop of inappropriate-unethical behaviors. Her interests also include lethal autonomous weapons or killer robots and how to ban them. In her work, Marisa brings out the psychological perspective and the downsides of AI are more harmful than helpful to humanity.

Marisa’s Early Life & Career

Recalling her early days in college, she says, “When I started studying, I didn’t see academics who were mothers, and it was weird for me. So, I thought I’m never going to be an academic.”

Fast forward to the present day, not only did she overcome self-doubt and pursue a career outside her comfort zone, but Marisa also advocates gender equality and supports other young women in her sector.

Through her work, she also tries to speak up about many real-life problems like sadness, addiction, and the potential adverse effects of relationships with chatbots and enforces more AI ethics in psychology.

Marisa is an associate researcher at the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien (IWM), a lecturer at some educational institutions in Switzerland and Germany. In addition, she is also an active speaker at several international conferences, mainly around the topics of AI and psychology, or human-AI interaction.

Despite having broken the glass ceiling and accomplishing so many great things in life, Marisa continues to dream even today. When asked what would be her dream, she says, “In the long-term, I think my dream would be winning the Nobel Prize.”

She is a true hero who dreams big, keeps moving forward despite hardships, and supports others along the way. Marisa’s commitment to advocate for things that matter to building a sustainable future with the right balance of technology, ethics, and psychology is worth admiration.

Marisa Tschopp-Interview-AlignThoughts
Marisa Tschopp is a researcher at scip AG, Ambassador, and Chief Research Officer at Women in AI Switzerland. She is also an active speaker at conferences and events held globally including TEDx.

Join us in learning more about Marisa’s inspiring life journey, the challenges she faced along the way, the choices that led to where she is today, and her advice for being successful in life!

What were your dreams as a young girl?

Well, I very vividly remember when I was young, I always wanted to be an FBI agent. Probably based on the TV series Twin Peaks, I thought FBI agents are so cool, and they’re so strong, and you know they save the world from the bad guys. That was long before my image of the US has changed.

That’s a super cool dream.

Currently, you work in a combination of exciting topics – AI and Psychology. What made you choose these fields? And what is lacking in these sectors & how can we inspire the youth to join forces to improve?

I wanted to go into the field of psychology because I wanted to do something valuable, in my opinion. As a psychologist, I focus on the people and not the tech. For example, I’m researching how humans interact with AI and what that means basically. I think it’s important to understand the psychology behind using the tech because there is a clear lack of understanding of how technology, specifically AI, influences our behavior, thoughts, and attitudes, mainly often on very subconscious levels. There are things we don’t even realize. For example, we kind of never really realized how addicted we are to Facebook’s design around the notifications and how they designed it because the psychologists had some “good ideas” (irony!) on how to make people addicted to these products.

I think this is an important subject, and the appropriate ethical use of psychology is critical.

Right. Because psychologists who work in human-AI interaction or robot interaction don’t necessarily have an ethical education or a background in that area, which is quite normal. But I think ethical education is needed because, for instance, you know, psychologists give out those design recommendations and practice just adopt them unreflectedly.

I also think psychology and understanding how humans interact with AI is extremely important. But what is missing there is the ethical drift. As a psychologist, we don’t say something is right or wrong. We just explain and predict behavior—this is what we do.

But what are we not doing?

We’re not telling people how to do things. For example, how to design things that are good for society, good for human behavior. And so, we’re not normative. I think this is greatly lacking. And I think this is kind of what I’m trying to do. I’m focusing on areas around psychology, with a strong or additional normative approach. When I start writing something, I always ask myself. Does it have any ethical consequences, and can I publicly speak about that experiment?

That’s a compelling yet equally complicated topic to touch. So, these experiments can hint at human psychological behavior, which acts as a design strategy leaving people more addicted to social media? I think it’s not a healthy and sustainable solution. So, according to you, what can be done to mitigate this?

As you said, it’s an extremely complicated subject, and there are a lot of things like the law, guidelines, and culture that can impact the decisions we make. But in my opinion, next to a trillion other important things, I personally would focus on educating the psychologists.

For instance, we put so much effort into teaching Computer Scientists and Developers about ethics and investing to educate them fairly on this subject. But I feel this is lacking for psychology students. In my opinion, this is so important, and this is something I am working on. For example, new psychology students who do these human interaction studies tend to forget its ethical side, actually experienced researchers as well.

For example, in one of my works with IEEE with a group of people, including psychologists, philosophers, technicians, we are working together towards enabling end-user agency. The idea is to find out how we can help companies design their products so that the consumers can make smart decisions to think about whether they trust using this product or not? This means we as consumers can have the freedom to choose using technology to serve our purposes.

But then there’s a whole other story when it comes to AI. Even if we design products where we have the power to make decisions, AI can have machine agency, meaning machines can take decisions, and they can be highly autonomous. Then we may end up having devices that can make decisions without the humans in the loop. So, it’s critical to decide who’s taking what kind of decisions, the humans or the machines who have a lower agency or vice versa. In the end, we want to empower consumers or people to use the technology wisely.

Wow, the conclusions of this could indeed be a game-changer. 

How do you find confidence? For instance, now you’ve established your career, you’re doing great things and have tasted success. I believe you are more confident now than when you were a teen. So, back then, what were your confidence boosters?

I just moved into this line of work approximately six years ago. When I was younger, I did something totally different. I learned cosmetician and was a makeup artist once, thinking I was going to be a marketeer in the industry. Through my time as a varsity athlete, I felt I could do more and then started studying and gaining credentials. Today, I’m 37, but even now, it still takes a lot of courage to do things outside my comfort zone.

When I was young, especially in my early 20’s, I didn’t have the role models I needed. I wish I had some because things probably would have gone differently. For instance, I didn’t have people around me who were higher educated, or you know, even when I started studying, I didn’t see academics who were mothers, and it was weird for me. So, I thought I was never going to be an academic. That’s why it took me 37 years to start my doctorate. I had to find out all these things by myself.

And, seven years ago, when I was really in a confused state facing self-doubt, I joined several women networks. And for me, this was extremely helpful because I needed that safe zone. It was really a network of women who were just telling me how great I am and can do everything and try out new things. And I got the feeling; if I fell, they would catch me. So, this was the safety net I would have loved to have when I was a teen or when I was heading towards college or even a new job.

Also, in these women networks, I found a wide variety of women, from single mothers to the CEO, to corporate women who are self-employed, artists, etc. And most of them were mothers as well. So, combining motherhood, having two small children, and a huge career change was extremely challenging. On top of that, you have all the societal biases and judgments. People question, like, are you not staying at home with your kids? So, I think having a support system is crucial to overcome all these challenges. I reciprocate by supporting women in AI and working hard to support this organization because I believe we all can benefit from working together.

That’s great!

Yes, talk to people and connect as much as you can. I know it’s hard. I’m very shy when I’m at conferences, for example. If I’m not a speaker sitting in the audience, I really find it challenging to talk to people next to me. It takes a lot of energy to come outside the comfort zone. Sometimes, it’s necessary and valuable to find those safe spaces to come outside your comfort levels slowly.

Life is all about ups and downs, right. But it is also imperative to push back from a bad phase and not get stuck in life. So, what is your fuel to bring yourself back, and how do you stay motivated?

I can share something that happened with me last year. I was so burned out that I just couldn’t do any work anymore, which may have caused some health issues that I am still struggling with. I think that’s the worst case, where you really work yourself to sickness, or you just can’t function properly. Then, on top of it, with the covid crisis, everything was just too much. At such times, you just need to get help.

I think I self-doubt myself a lot. But we have to calm our negative mind and just do it and push through. For instance, I cannot rewatch my TEDx talk, I hate it. I’m like: what I was doing back then? But I did it anyway. So, the one thing is just to push through. But you know, in tough times, sometimes when you doubt yourself and feel like you’re not ready, I urge you to still do it. Probably you’ll never be fully prepared, so just do it anyway.

Don’t wait for the perfect moment.

You often read that most women want to be 120% perfect. But that just can’t happen. I think I’m an 80% person. So just prepare to do 80% of good things, and the rest will fall in place.

The other thing I wanted to say is when you’re demotivated just do one small thing that can help change your life. It’s only one thing, one small step towards your bigger goals. For instance, even just taking out the trash or answering an email. You may not need an entire game plan but ask yourself what you can do today to make your life a little bit better. And you know something will come up even if it’s just one tiny little thing. That’s a piece of advice shared by my good friend Miisa Mink.

In retrospect, what would you say was the light bulb moment or the aha-moment in your life? What were the choices that transformed your life and made you the person you are today?

For the career transition phase, it was definitely my family that changed me. And after that, I would say my boss. I think he knew my strengths better than I knew them. For the first time, there was somebody at work displaying full trust in me. Also, my boss really gave me the full autonomy which I needed to blossom, apparently. So, I think without this work culture that my boss has fostered, I wouldn’t be where I am now. It’s a true gift to have a job you enjoy doing every day. So, I guess I owe a lot to him for all these reasons.

That sheds some light on how having a trust-based work culture can help us bring out the best in employees.

Were you sorted about your career all the time? How did you decide that you wanted to take a job as a researcher in AI? And how can we encourage more people from the young generation into these sectors? 

I’m must say I’m lucky to work in a company that fully supports my work and what I bring to the table. It also helped me because I joined at a point of time when you know, even in the organizations in Switzerland, there weren’t many women sitting on their panels.

Of course, there are other reasons why I joined and started this new chapter sits in line due to all these reasons given in society, especially as a mother; I wanted to do more meaningful things at work. I think it’s essential for the young generation to start looking for new opportunities or a good job well in advance. I mean, keep an eye open; you never know what opportunities can knock on your door.

Who/What has been your greatest inspiration in life?

I guess I’ve had several of them. Professionally, mentors and people that I admire, but also privately for my hobbies. There’s one person who comes into my mind who I can say has paved my way. Her name is Sailor Moon, a Japanese anime character. So, Sailor Moon is that ordinary girl who’s not perfect; she’s not so good at school. But she always has the most incredible heart. She gives everything to save her friends. Of course, she’s also saving the world from bad monsters.

That is super fun. I have never got such a different answer for this question. And this is how perhaps you also dreamt of being an FBI agent. How lovely!

You talked about being burned out at work. So, how do you release the stress, and how do you have fun?

I think the first thing that comes to my mind is volleyball. It’s something I’ve done all my life, and I’m a coach now, and my men’s team they are just so much fun. It’s sad I had to quit my active sports career due to my health issues, but sharing my learnings with the men’s team is a fulfilling substitute.

But playing volleyball is actually the time I enjoy most, mainly because I’m in another sphere during that time. For example, while I’m in the field, I feel like being in the very moment and hitting the ball is the only thing that matters right now. I’m fully immersed in that zone, and I think it also brings down my stress levels.

Yeah, being fully present can be so hard. So, volleyball is your dose of meditation, I think.

Exactly! And there’s nothing that stresses me around. For instance, during that time, I don’t think of my kids or family, or work. I don’t think of other things happening in the world, and you know covid, etc. So, yes, it is like meditation to me.

How do you reward yourself after accomplishing your goals? 

Before the covid pandemic and earlier in my life, I would just go out with my friends and celebrate it with them. Now I celebrate a lot on social media, and if you have a nice network, they will celebrate with you. But of course, I mostly share with my friends and family network and feel rewarded.

Okay, as a young girl, you started dreaming of being an FBI agent. Life has taken a shift, and you are doing greater things today and have accomplished a lot in life, both personally and professionally. Do you still have new dreams? If so, can you share some of them with us?

That’s a good question. Let me reflect.

I think I still do dream. On a professional level, I would like to be academically recognized. Of course, I’ve been recognized for my work and practical research. But I would really like to go deeper in my line of work for the next five years. And for the long-term, I would say my dream would be to win the Nobel Prize (just kidding, right?!).

Wow! That’s a remarkable milestone to achieve. I wish you the best and hope it turns true.

And just in case I win the Nobel Prize, let’s talk again and open a bottle of champagne.

I love the idea😊

In the end, what is the advice or message you want to share with our readers?

I would say, as the quote suggests, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”.

Well, it was lovely talking to you, Marisa! We thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

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