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Meet Joanna Ng, AI Pioneer Computer Scientist and Disciple of Jesus

Joanna Ng is the founder of Devarim Design. She pivoted to innovate in an entrepreneurial start-up setting, when she left IBM in 2018 after three decades.  At Devarim Joanna is continuing in AI, integrating with IoT and Blockchain, focusing on augmented cognition, and applying to all of it her design-thinking methodology. Joanna’s niche is translating complex abstractions and theories into useful solutions.  Joanna worked at IBM for several decades, culminating in a seven-year tenure (October 2008 – October 2015) as the Head of Research and Director of the Centre for Advanced Studies, IBM Canada Lab. She was granted forty-five patents by U.S. and other countries’ Patent Offices, with eleven additional patents filed and pending for grant. Joanna co-authored two computer science books with Springer: The Smart Internet (2010) and The Personal Web (2013). She also published and co-authored over twenty peer-reviewed academic papers. Since leaving IBM, Joanna has founded a ministry to integrate faith and work called  KOE (Kingdom On Earth)

Q: Joanna, IBM gave you the title of IBM Master Inventor in honor of your remarkable contributions as a pioneer in researching the Internet of Things, cyber security, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies. Would you please tell us what that means and how you have come to hold that title?

A:  IBM Master Inventors are selected from a community of serial inventors of IBM across the globe, who maintain a track record of sustainable and current inventions, with demonstrable mastery of patenting knowledge and skills. Master Inventors differentiate from other serial inventors by: (a) having a patent portfolio of high business value with technological breakthroughs; (b) making significant contributions to IBM’s patent eco-system, including operating patent review boards to screen global patent applications for invention excellence that are strategic for IBM, and providing technical assistance to IP legal team, including litigation; and  (c) nurturing a culture of invention as a champion, by discovering potential inventors and mentoring junior ones.

Becoming a Master Inventor was never my career goal. My passion has always been to solve real world problems with the most optimal solution. I am naturally fidgety and frustrated with the status quo, and hard-wired as extra sensitive to what is wrong, missing and could have been. If composers always have a song in their head they need to ‘externalize’ before they can rest, I am haunted by mental pictures of idealized systems, ‘seeing’ the gaps. Most of my patenting ideas come from externalizing the solutions and bridging those gaps in my head into implementable methods and apparatus. I love to bring others along and let them pick up the patenting mindset by working alongside me. The Master Inventor title to me was more an external validation of how God wired me.


Q:  People who aren’t computer scientists think that you must be the most logical people in the world, and yet I know from our conversations that there is a great deal of creativity involved in achieving major breakthroughs.  What is it about your approach to your work that led to all those patents?

A: I believe creativity and logic go hand in hand. I see empathy as a starting point of innovation. I am guilty many times of creating technologies looking for a problem. But the technologies won’t take off until other people and I understand and empathize with the need. I used to say to my team, if only engineering PhDs drove cars, the rest of the world would have no cars.

Each technology space has many perspectives. Seeing the same technology space through different lenses exposes what is wrong, missing and could have been. For example, Thomas Edison discovered electricity. But it initially was not accessible or affordable. His frustration with the world not  benefitting from the great potential of electricity, brewed his further passion that led to  enabling inventions like the power grid, the light bulb and the rest of the end-to-end electrical eco-system. I used this approach in the Internet of Things, AI, 5G, cyber security, and distributed computing in blockchains; I saw so many gaps in what the world could be. This has been my approach that led to many patents and hopefully more to come. Now is indeed an exciting time.


Q:  How does your Christian faith inform your work?  Now that you have left IBM to do your own AI start-up and started your ministry to gather other technologists for spiritual formation, has that changed your approach to your work?

A: I consider myself very blessed to journey on a career path that  aligns with God’s design of me. I never take this for granted. To me, honoring Him, my audience of One, with what He gifted me, through the works of my hands and my intellect, is a form of worship. It never stops to intrigue me that the humbler and more insignificant I can be in divine partnership with Him, the more I experience embodiment of His divine wisdom (DW). DW is way more intriguing than AI. Mingling working and praying; waiting upon the Lord; receiving visuals, ideas, unusual perspectives to solutions that I knew were outside of my normal thinking framework; together contributed in a very significant way to the formation of  my patent portfolio. I am grateful that He truly has done immeasurably more than I could ever hope for or imagine.

When I worked for IBM, my time, the ‘why’ and ‘what’ I worked on were ‘owned’ by IBM. Now my time, the ‘why’ and ‘what’ I work on are set between the Lord and me, in a more divine partnership than I previously experienced. Though my work approach remains the same, the freedom gives me great joy. In the spirit of giving back, I have started a ministry called tech.koe to gather technologists for Jesus to build up one another in Christ. I am also continuing to build products in the space of augmented cognition that incorporate other dimensions such as data privacy, instrumentation via IoT and distributed computing in blockchain.


Q:  In his book “Tools and Weapons”, Microsoft president Brad Smith emphasizes that artificial intelligence can produce positive and negative outcomes, like any other tool.  Please share how your perspective on artificial intelligence has changed over the years – where do you find “hope” and where do you find “risk”? 

A: Every technology can be a blessing and a curse. It depends on whose hands it ends up in to control and use it. I wrote an article for Christianity Today last June, called How Artificial Super-Intelligence is today’s tower of babel. In this article, I warned against the high opportunity cost of investing the scarcity of AI resources and talents to chase after artificial super-intelligence to make it a reality, at the expense of using AI in fundamental transformations that improve people’s lives, such as dramatic increases in manufacturing productivity, smarter and more efficient governments, makeovers in healthcare etc., just as electricity changed people’s lives in the second industrial revolution. Countries adopting a transformational approach in AI, like China, will earn a competitive edge.

The risk posed by AI is high, ranging from barriers against equity; invisible bias as a form of silent discrimination; violation of human rights such as China’s use of face recognition for government control; enabling misinformation and fake news that can impact election outcomes;  and relinquishing human decision making and responsibility to AI that is far inferior to human wisdom and even more so to DW (divine wisdom), just to name a few. I am greatly encouraged by more Christian lawyers and leaders stepping into AI, social media and other forms of digital platforms around governing policies. It all goes back to the question ‘why’. AI can be for love,  for pride,  for greed, or for evil. I believe Jesus and the Gospel message provide a much better ‘why’.


Q: This issue of the AI&F Newsletter focuses especially on AI and privacy. I know you have thought a lot about data ownership and personal privacy.  Do you see a Biblical or spiritual element to the preservation of privacy and personal ownership of information that closely defines who we are as individuals?

A: I do not think personal data, including its privacy and ownership, define who we are as individuals. In fact, it is the other way around. Personal data digitally captures our behaviour, externalizing our inner self as individuals. From what I purchase, the digital content I consume, what apps I use, what platforms I am active on, sentiment I show and language I use of my online presence, etc., I am  wearing my heart on my sleeve. A pastor can say whatever he wants about  loving Jesus with all his heart, but if his personal data shows that he is active on multiple dating sites as a married man, that  data does not define him but externalizes his heart by his digital footprint.

Having said that, I do believe that personal data is an extension of an individual. Therefore, each individual should have the right to own and control his own personal data. It is a matter of human right and human dignity.


Q:  The default today on personal data ownership is toward corporate ownership and use as individuals trade away  privacy rights to gain access to desirable applications.  Do you see much possibility for changing that default, either through public policy, cultural change, or a shift in technology?

A: One of MetaFilter’s lines is, “If you are not paying for it, you become the product.” Companies like Google and Facebook offer high value services for free. The free business model enables the building up of gigantic user bases in the unit of billions. Our data is sold in this gold mine for advertising. With advertising as their main source of income, they become the most wealthy and powerful companies in the world. This is Web 1.0.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web thirty years ago, is actively advocating and devising Web 2.0 to fix the data ownership issue of Web 1.0, branding it as ‘data sovereignty’ – to give individuals the power to control their own data. Web 2.0 starts a war to claim back the control of personal data that we willingly yielded to the big tech companies.

I do see a possibility of changing the default in Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. Apart from the backing  of the WWW’s  original inventor, there are other forces at play. Firstly, governments and policy makers from the US, EU and Australia, are motivated to disrupt the current phenomenon of tech giant monopolies for many critical societal reasons. Secondly, IoT, 5G, and blockchains are bringing a convergence of tech forces around internet platforms that will be used for more transactional high value services such as healthcare, personal finances and others. Asking consumers to simply surrender their equally high value private data to such services under a  Web 1.0 model will be too much to ask. Thirdly, other enabling technologies such as data vaults and personal online data stores (aka ‘pods’) will soon enable an alternative model to give consumers a choice to realize the market value of  their private data that is not an option today. As these forces converge, the disruption of tech-giant dominance will happen –  it is only a matter of time.

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