Leyla is leading engineering at Preamble, a Trousdale Venture’s portfolio company. Preamble is a pioneer in bringing ethical values and safety to AI systems. Throughout her career Leyla has worked on products evolving around AI systems ever motivated by the potential this technology has in improving our lives. Leyla was part of the core team who developed Jibbigo which led to a successful acquisition by Facebook where she worked as tech lead on search and integrity teams before returning to the startup world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path in AI?
Ibecame fascinated with AI, it’s potential, dangers and applications while pursuing my undergrad CS degree during a time this field experienced tremendous progress and growth. In my thesis I developed a system that determined people’s engagement with content they were watching on TV using image recognition techniques and proposed to use these signals to change the recommendations and advertisements shown to them. While this was a technically exciting endeavor, it also raised considerable ethical questions which gave me a lot of food for thought and anxiety.
Instead of working on an Orwellian dystopia I sought out ways where AI can be employed safely to improve people’s life for the better. At my first startup, Jibbigo, we created offline speech-to-speech translation apps that enabled people to communicate with each other who otherwise couldn’t. Jibbigo was destined to be used by travelers abroad where roaming fees were expensive or cell phone coverage unavailable. But it also found applications in the medical field where it helped doctors working for aid organizations abroad communicate with patients without the need for human translators. These use cases of bringing people together made my work incredibly rewarding and motivating and thus guided my career.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
AI could be described as the blackpowder of our times. In a sense my two early and contrasting experiences illustrate that. Whenever we work with AI systems we must be aware of its implications and aware of its purpose. There’s enormous potential to serve people but there’s also enormous potential to harm them. Technology is neutral per se, it’s what we use it for that matters. For the sake of making this world a better place we must always put people and their wellbeing first, above every other goal.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
My career has been anything but a straight line and I consider myself lucky that this allowed me to gain a very diverse set of skills and knowledge. But if there’s one theme that’s weaving through all of it then it’s striving to add to the good in the world. Throughout my 6 year tenure at Facebook I had ample opportunities to closely witness large AI systems at work, that determine what content the world is served. I got first hand experience with how flawed these systems are and how difficult it is to address and solve these issues.
That is why Preamble and its mission to bring ethics and safety to AI systems is so important and so dear to my heart. We are moving into a new, exciting and largely uncharted territory that is unequivocally necessary and important.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
That’s a very interesting question and one I’ve been reflecting on a lot. Our self-perception is often so skewed and obscured that we need others to see something in us we can’t see ourselves. It’s strange how chance and hard work takes you to people who turn your whole world upside down and change the tracks you’re on.
For one there’s my dear friend Tom Neufeld whose friendship and support got me through college and some of the worst times in my life. Then there’s Max Warsewa, an incredibly bright mind and engineer, from whom I’ve learned everything I know about software engineering over the long years we worked together. Last but not least there’s Alex Waibel, founder of Jibbigo, who gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.