‘We are at the forefront of AI in the marketplace’

14 Dec 2018

Medb Corcoran. Image: Ruth Medjber/ruthlessimagery.com

Medb Corcoran from Accenture Labs in Dublin is looking at how emerging data and AI trends can help businesses. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

If the Ghost of Christmas Future visited us, what could they tell us about artificial intelligence (AI)? And how can we take steps today to make that future a better place?

For Medb Corcoran, exploring the future of AI currently means focusing on transparency, harnessing the power of machine learning with human creativity and ensuring that people can learn the skills to work with AI long beyond today.

Future-proofing with technology

Corcoran has just been appointed as Ireland lead for Accenture Labs in Dublin, which is a hub of Accenture’s global R&D operations in technology.

“We work as part of the global network of Accenture tech labs and we are always scouting the marketplace, universities, start-ups and client companies to see what is coming through,” she explained. “We look at how to apply technologies in new ways to solve problems that clients have today, or more often the problems that they may have in the future.”

The main areas of search at the moment are:

  • explainable or transparent AI, which seeks to better understand how AI arrives at results and outputs
  • computational creativity, which uses AI to augment human creativity in design
  • how AI can help to support the future workforce by identifying the skills that will be needed
woman with short blonde curly hair wearing patterned dress and green cardigan, laughing and standing in front of bright pink wall.

Medb Corcoran, Accenture Labs Ireland lead. Image: Accenture

“As an example of using AI to enhance human creativity, that might be using AI to generate combinations of chemicals for new flavours in the food and ingredients industry,” she explained.

“The AI can do that based on the rules of chemistry, and it gives the human experts suggestions that may otherwise have taken a long time to find. Then, the humans, who have an idea of what works for flavours in practice, can build on those suggestions.”

Visibility counts

Last month, Corcoran was presented with the Disruptor Award at the Women in Tech Awards, and named Data Leader of the Year at the Women in IT Awards, and she appreciates how that shines a light on the work.

“On the awards nights I had no expectations, so it was a real surprise to win,” she recalled.

“And I am glad that the awards have made what I do a bit more visible. I had loads of messages of congratulations online, including a number of leaders who are men saying how important it is for their daughters to see this. I think, by making women leaders more visible, we can show young girls that there are interesting careers in science, technology, engineering and maths, and that in tech there are lots of opportunities, including jobs where you don’t need to be a coder.”

Corcoran’s own pathway into the area was initially through a degree in pure mathematics at the University of Oxford, then a master’s in industrial mathematics at Dublin City University (DCU). She worked in the financial sector with Bank of Ireland Asset Management and Allied Irish Banks, and as a consultant with Accenture, where she helped companies to build AI into their processes.

“I am very lucky because I have enjoyed all my jobs,” she said. “And what I am doing now gives me a lot of freedom to look at how things are changing. We are really at the forefront of AI in the marketplace.”

Next-generation talent

Corcoran now works with University College Dublin and DCU to help inform their courses on data science and analytics, and she sees the importance for students of learning how to learn as soon they can.

“In the Irish secondary education system, there is a focus on exams, and students are rote-learning to get points to get a degree, so I advise students to look further and learn about critical thinking and keeping curious,” she said. “And then you also have transition year, where students have a great opportunity to learn about business and the world of work.”

She also encourages students to factor in the power of data, whether they see it at the forefront of their career plans or not. “Even if you don’t really love maths or data, data is going to be so prevalent in everything,” she said. “If you like it then go for it but, even if you don’t, it is essential to think about that, as it applies to your career.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication