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Lenore and Manuel Blum discuss AI and Gender Balance at Portuguese Universities

Between October 23rd and 25th, Lenore and Manuel Blum, both Professors at Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, visited for the first time Portugal, under the CMU Portugal Program, to participate in two seminars on gender Balance and for the “duet-talk” “Towards a Conscious AI – A computer architecture inspired by cognitive neuroscience” in Lisbon (Instituto Superior Técnico) and Porto (INESC TEC and Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade do Porto).

In Lisbon, the Seminar on Gender Balance was hosted by Instituto Superior Técnico and organized by the University’s  Diversity and Gender Balance group  in partnership with the CMU Portugal Program.

The day started with an opening by the Minister of Science, Technology and Higher Education, Manuel Heitor, that spoke on the importance of promoting policies to support the role of Women in STEM.

After the presentation and introduction by the Minister, Lenore gave a talk on Gender Balance entitled “CMU: a case study promoting Computer Science in underrepresented groups” focusing on her experience at CMU.

Lenore Blum is highly recognized for her work in supporting the participation of girls and women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. She was a founder of the Association for Women in Mathematics and the Expanding Your Horizons Network for middle and high school girls. At Carnegie Mellon she founded the Women@SCS program and supported innumerous initiatives to increase the number of women in Engineering Courses, both internally and externally.

During her stay in Lisbon she was interviewed by LUSA, the Portuguese News Agency and her testimony was shared by Público Newspaper.  “When there is a small percentage of women in institutions and businesses, they don’t have the same educational experience, like any other minority, and end up by not benefiting from the same professional and social advantages as the majority” – said Lenore-  “it´s always the same idea, it’s not rocket science but common sense. Maybe common sense is not that common, but basically my thesis is that we can change it on a microculture level”.

At Carnegie Mellon there’s currently 50% of girls enrolling in Computer Science courses, a great number of them due to the work developed by the CMU Professor: “I’ve always defended for example that there should be role models to follow in University, like an older sister/younger sister system to help in the integration of those who arrived and provide opportunities for all women to give lectures, stand as role models and be able to create good networks”, a measure that has proven to be very effective. Making life at campus more women friendly, so that they feel welcomed and supported throughout their academic experience and doing outreach programs for high school girls and teaching teachers activities to promote programming and computer sciences from an early age have proven to be very important initiatives in getting more girls at university levels: “We did not change the course curriculum to be women friendly, we changed cultural and social experience of being there. Role models, mentors, community, connections, experiential learning, leadership opportunities, those are the factors that make a difference”, adds Lenore Blum.

The talk was followed by two Roundtables, one about “Women in STEM: Breaking the Glass Ceiling” that counted with Catarina Carvalho from Diário de Notícias as moderator; Teresa Fragoso, President of the Portuguese Commission for Gender Equality; Mariana Araújo, Técnico Alumni and PhD Student; Isabel Sá Correia and Pedro Lima, Full Professors at Técnico and Cristina Fonseca, founder of Talkdesk, Instituto Superior Técnico Alumni.

The second roundtable discussion was on “Gender equality Policies in Lisbon Universities” with the Rector from Universidade de Lisboa António Cruz Serra; Instituto Superior Técnico President Arlindo Oliveira and ISCTE-IUL Vice Rector Maria das Dores Guerreiro.

Lenore and Manuel Blum ended their Lisbon visit with a distinguished lecture “Towards a Conscious AI – A computer architecture inspired by cognitive neuroscience”, that attracted an impressive audience to the Técnico Congress Center Auditorium.

This talk discussed consciousness from the perspective of theoretical computer science and presented various approaches to Consciousness based on the work developed by the cognitive neuroscientist Bernard Baars’ that proposed a Global Workspace Model (GWM) of the brain, sketched its computer architecture, and outlined its implications for understanding consciousness.

Dealing with consciousness formulates according to the authors, an easy problem that is to make a robot simulate feelings of pain and joy and a hard problem that is to make a robot that truly experiences feelings like pain and joy. These are the hardest feelings to explain scientifically.

One of the research major contributions lies in the precise formal definition of a Conscious Turing Machine (CTM), also called Conscious AI. The CTM is defined in the spirit of Alan Turing’s simple yet powerful definition of a computing machine, the Turing Machine (TM), as a way to formalize rigorously, explicitly, mathematically and simply Baars’ GWM.

On October 25th, Lenore Blum also participated in a Gender Balance Seminar at INESC TEC in the morning entitled “Raising awareness for Gender Balance”, promoted by the Gender Balance Group of INESC TEC, with the support of CMU Portugal Program. The opening was led by INESC TEC President Professor José Manuel Mendonça followed by Lenore’s Blum Talk “CMU: a case study promoting Computer Science in underrepresented groups”.

The Seminar continued with a discussion moderated by Prof. Mendonça with invited guests from FEUP, INEGI e FEP, who spoke about the work being done at their Institutions to increase diversity and what their perspectives for the future are. The primary goal of the session which was raising awareness in the institution and among other partners towards these issues was clearly achieved.

After lunch, the discussion continued on a work meeting with some INESC TEC members focused on concrete measures and actions to pursue gender balance at the Institution.

Later on the day, Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade do Porto also hosted the “duet talk” of  Manuel and Lenore Blum on “Towards a Conscious AI”, identical to the session in Lisbon.

News in the Media: LUSA, Público, Diário de Notícias, SIC Notícias, Notícias ao Minuto.