Women at IBM

How IBMer Benin Put the AI in HAIR

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(4 min read) By Benin Saffo

The women of IBM are doing some amazing things to change the world, so let’s celebrate them! This March to celebrate women’s history month and #IWD2020, our incredible female IBMers are sharing their stories with you. Want to learn more about the incredible women at IBM and how you can join them and work at IBM? Head over to our Careers Page to learn more!

Today we’re sharing a story from Benin Saffo, previously published on her Medium page. Benin is a Lead Product Manager with IBM Watson in NYC. She works on building and scaling products in the cloud using AI. When asked about Women’s History Month, she had this to say:

“Being a woman in tech during this time is monumental and very personal for me. STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. I mean, it’s a huge problem being tackled day by day! I’m one of the few young Black women working in AI with a tech background at one of the best tech companies in the world. While I’m still learning and growing, the power in uplifting and educating my community is one of my missions – to bridge the gap and create impactful change.”

 

If someone were to ask you what your superpower is? What would you say? Further still, what are your passions and how do they inspire you?

My name is Benin Saffo and I can say without a doubt a few of my passions are technology, engaging with people, and hair — having it, doing it, and loving it!

 

Technology

From the time I was a child, science fascinated me. Holding the power to inspire humans, technology allows us to challenge the boundaries of our world, test our capabilities, and question the unknown.

I’ve always had an interest in pursuing math and science. While both areas were challenging for me, I consistently pushed to learn more, to understand why a+b= c. Earning a BS in Physics taught me not only the wonders that make the world go round. But a unique part of science that has evolved, transformed, and revolutionized how we utilize human intelligence to improve the world in limitless ways: Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Hair

I never realized how difficult it was for others to describe my natural hair, its texture, and my variety of styles until I started working professionally. In my office, being an African American woman with a thick curly afro has always made me stand out. I’m known for coming into the office with a variety of hairstyles. I love to explore the versatility of my hair, fashioning bouncing curls, intricate braids and even straight and sleek styles – the list goes on!

Hair is my language. It’s a way I express myself. So, one day when a coworker jokingly asked, “Benin, your hair was just curly yesterday! How did you get it so wavy or spirally or I mean- what would you call that?!” It was then I had an epiphany – how could I use technology to familiarize others with the vast vocabulary surrounding hair? Could I categorize, catalog, and canonize unique combinations of hair types and characteristics using Watson, the AI superhero? The answer was, “Yes, I could.”

 

Project overview in Watson Studio using Visual Recognition

Bringing the Two Together

Working as a Product Manager at IBM has been an awesome opportunity. Working intimately with tech, specifically in AI, has been exhilarating, challenging, and so rewarding. However, I find that it can be extremely difficult to articulate how wonderfully complex this technology is. Tapping into my other superpower, engaging with people, I am always looking for new ways to answer the questions I get most often, like, “What is AI?” and, “How can it be used?”

AI according to Watson, is when machines work intelligently. It’s the concept that machines can be “taught” to mimic human decision-making and learning behaviors. Starting this project, I wanted to produce something fun and educational, that would bring AI into a tangible space with a real-world application that everyone can benefit from.

Using machine learning and cognitive computing, I built a custom model to define different hair types through Watson Visual Recognition. This highlighted the unique characteristics associated with different hair textures. Using the same steps and employing the vast array of tools within its design, I could continue to further define the subsets of the hair types, narrowing them again and again based on color, coil, or even the cut. With only a few images I was able to quickly and accurately tag, classify and train my custom model using the tool in Watson Studio.

 

 

Why IBM

One of the greatest things I’ve experienced since becoming a part of the IBM team is the encouragement to work on projects like this. As a creative individual with a passion for wellness and self-care, to be given the flexibility and freedom to write and direct my first professional how-to was really special.

It’s been a privilege to introduce some of my passions to you. Technology is here for all of us. Learning and being able to employ it in any space is its ultimate value. I’m continuously looking for ways that technology can further my vision. It’s my highest hope, that in the future, AI will prove itself invaluable in bridging the gap between my passions.

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