In an effort to give female academics and others focused on AI well-deserved and long-overdue spotlight time, TechCrunch has launched a series of interviews focusing on the remarkable women contributing to the AI ​​revolution. As the AI ​​craze continues, we will publish multiple articles throughout the year highlighting critical work that is often overlooked. Read more profiles here.

Kathi Vidal is an American intellectual property attorney and former engineer who is currently Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Vidal began his career as an engineer at General Electric and Lockheed Martin, working in artificial intelligence, software engineering and circuits. She holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Binghamton University, a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Syracuse University, and a juris doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.


In a nutshell, how did you get started in the field of artificial intelligence? What drew you to this field?

When I started college at age 16, I was interested in solving scientific problems. I have a scope I bought at a garage sale that I play with a lot, and I love working on my Dodge Dart! This early fascination led to me becoming one of two women selected for the General Electric Edison Engineering Program. In addition to rotating work assignments in different technical areas, we engage in technical problem solving across engineering and science disciplines on a weekly basis. When I was asked to join a three-person team in artificial intelligence, I jumped at the chance. It was exciting to be working on new, groundbreaking work in the early 1990s that could be applied to scientific and engineering disciplines to come up with more creative approaches to innovation. I see this as a way to move away from the rigidity of current design principles and more closely emulate the nuances that humans bring to problem solving.

What work (in artificial intelligence) are you most proud of?

This will be a link between my current work on U.S. government AI policy at the intersection of AI and innovation and my work developing the first AI fault diagnosis system for aircraft. As for the latter, I studied neural networks, fuzzy logic, and expert systems in the early 1990s to build a resilient self-learning system. Even though I went to law school before the system was deployed, I’m excited to create something new in the relatively new field of artificial intelligence (compared to today’s artificial intelligence) and to work with PhDs from GE Research to share our projects lessons learned. I was so excited about artificial intelligence that I ended up writing my master’s thesis about my work.

How do you deal with the challenges of the male-dominated tech industry and the male-dominated artificial intelligence industry?

Frankly, my response to challenges in engineering in the 1990s was to adapt (without realizing I was adapting). It was a different time, and there is no doubt that most leadership positions in engineering and law firms were more dominated by men than they are today. Some of my male colleagues have suggested to me that I need to learn how to smile less. But I find joy in life and what I do! I remember speaking in front of a room full of women at a women’s conference we created in the mid-2000s (before women’s conferences became the norm). When I finished speaking, some members of the audience came up to me and congratulated me on my speech and told me that they had never seen me so animated. I’m talking about patent law. That’s when I had an “aha” moment—being appreciated for being authentic is how I feel included and successful at work.

Since then, I have been intentional about staying authentic and creating inclusive environments where women can thrive. For example, I improved recruiting and promotion practices in the organizations I worked for. Recently, at the USPTO, our agency’s leadership diversity increased by nearly 5 percent in one year as a result of these changes. I have been working to advocate for policies that open doors for more women to participate in innovation, and I recognized that while more than 40% of people who file patent applications using our free legal services are women, only 13% of patent inventors are women— —So we’re trying to close that gap. I’m proud to have worked with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to create the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative at the U.S. Department of Commerce to empower more women business leaders and provide them with the information and assistance they need to succeed to advance policies that not only advance the status of women but other communities historically underrepresented in our innovation ecosystem through the work I help lead on the Inclusive Innovation Council and the Economic Development Administration’s National Innovation and Entrepreneurship Advisory Council. I also spend my free time mentoring others, sharing lessons learned and developing the next generation of leaders and advocates. Obviously, I can’t do any of this alone – it all takes a team of like-minded men and women.

What advice would you give to women seeking to enter the field of artificial intelligence?

First, we need you, so keep going. To reduce bias or safety risks, it is important to include women in shaping the AI ​​models of the future. There are many trailblazers out there, such as Fei-Fei Li of Stanford University and Elham Tabassi of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). I am honored to work with outstanding leaders on the frontier of AI—Commerce Secretaries Raimondo and Zoë Baird, NIST Director Laurie Locascio, Copyright Office Director Shira Perlmutter, and new AI Security Institute leader Elizabeth Kelly. We must work together in government and the private sector to create the future, or the future will be created for us. This may not be the future we believe in or want.

Second, find a ride and stick to it. Make requests and state your goals to attract others to support you on your journey. Don’t take “no” personally. Think of “no”s and resistance as headwinds. Find your niche and mentors and sponsors who recognize you, your success, and the contribution you can make in this incredibly important area.

What are the most pressing issues facing artificial intelligence in its development?

The United States is fortunate to lead the world in innovation among AI developers, so we also have a responsibility to lead policies that make AI safe and secure and further our values. We are working with other countries on multiple multilateral and bilateral forums to achieve this goal. The USPTO has a long history of this kind of collaboration and leadership. To ensure American values ​​are embedded in AI policy, our Partnership on Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies, beginning in 2022, supports the Biden administration’s whole-of-government approach to AI, including the National Artificial Intelligence Plan to advance U.S. leadership in AI status. Recently, we published guidance that clarifies the level of human contribution required to patent AI inventions, promoting human creativity and incentivizing investment in AI innovation without unnecessarily locking out innovation or stifling competition. hindering future innovation. To our knowledge, this is the first guide of its kind in the world. In the creative sector, we must achieve the same goals and balance, and we are working with stakeholders and the Copyright Office to achieve this.

While the USPTO is focused on leveraging AI to democratize and scale innovation and policy at the intersection of AI and intellectual property, we are also working with NIST and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to address other pressing issues, including security, The development and use of safe and trustworthy AI and the mechanisms by which trust in AI can be earned.

What issues should artificial intelligence users pay attention to?

As President Biden stated in his executive order on artificial intelligence, responsible use of artificial intelligence has the potential to help solve pressing challenges and make our world more prosperous, productive, innovative, and secure, while irresponsible use can Will exacerbate social harm, “such as fraud, discrimination, prejudice.” and disinformation; displaces and disempowers workers; stifles competition; and poses a risk to national security. “AI users need to be thoughtful and deliberate in their use of AI so that they do not perpetuate these harms. One key way to do this is to understand the work that NIST is doing through its AI Risk Management Framework and the National AI Safety Institute.”

What is the best way to build artificial intelligence responsibly?

Together. Building artificial intelligence responsibly requires not only government intervention and policies, but also industry leadership. President Biden recognizes this when he convenes private AI companies and secures their voluntary commitments to manage the risks posed by AI. We in the U.S. Government also need your feedback as we carry out our work. We regularly solicit your input through public participation and through requests for information or comments that we publish in the Federal Register. For example, through our Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies partnership, we solicit your input before designing invention guidance for AI-assisted inventions. We are using your comments to respond to the Copyright Office’s request for information related to the intersection of copyright and artificial intelligence in order to advise the Biden administration on national and international strategies. NIST asks you to provide input and information to support the development and use of safe, reliable, and trustworthy AI, and NTIA asks you to provide feedback on AI accountability. We at the USPTO will soon issue another request for comment to explore how our patent laws may need to evolve to account for the ways in which artificial intelligence may impact other patentability factors or may create “prior art ” minefield, making patenting more difficult. The best thing you can do is continue to follow the government’s work on AI, including NIST, USPTO, NTIA, and the entire Department of Commerce, and provide your feedback so that together we can build responsible AI.

How can investors better promote responsible AI?

Investors should do what they do best – invest in jobs. Progress in responsible AI cannot happen out of nowhere; we need companies in this space to work hard to build the responsible AI companies of the future. We need investors to ask the right questions, drive responsible development, and use their capital to support a responsible AI future. Additionally, they should impress upon the companies in which they invest the need to prioritize intellectual property protection, cybersecurity, and not accept investments from questionable sources. All three are necessary to ensure control over jobs, ensure jobs create jobs and strengthen national security.

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