Kathleen Siminyu, 29

Machine Learning Fellow

Mozilla Foundation

Kathleen enjoys all things artificial intelligence and machine learning. She holds multiple licences and certifications in machine learning, including edX honour codes ineffective thinking through mathematics, scalable machine learning, and introduction to big data.

The graduate of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology is part of a team of researchers who are building natural language processing (NLP) tools for African languages.

At Mozilla, where she is a fellow, she is working on a project called Common Voice. ‘‘It is a platform for building language data sets in Swahili. There is a growing interest in Swahili. It is being pushed as the language that can unite Africa. As of last year, there were 200 million speakers of Swahili globally,’’ she says.

"Having your views taken in high regard is fulfilling."

In terms of language technology, Kathleen says it is important to use ‘‘a pivot language’’ that is not western. ‘‘Nearly all the machine transition tools we build in my field use English as the pivot language. This needs to change.’’

While she enjoys reading and writing, she did not study a language. Her background is in maths and computer science.

‘‘Through my work, I have discovered a huge gap that exists in language tools, especially for African languages. This should not be the case because the technology to bridge this gap is available.’’

The reason for this, she notes, has been the inadequacy of talent to work on plugging the gap. ‘‘Although there has been a lot of work to create data sets in the last five years, access to data is a big problem. Funding from big tech to build data sets has also been minimal.’’

Her team has created translation tools for more than 40 African languages. ‘‘Commercial viability determines the attention a language gets. Swahili is doing well given the growing number of speakers.’’

In her small world, Kathleen journals about money, travel and relationships. ‘‘Before I used to blog on different topics such as AI and religion.’’

She describes herself as a work in progress to become a better person. ‘‘I am not sure what that looks like because it is a fast-changing world.’’

On success, Kathleen says the ability to make one’s own decisions is priceless.

‘‘Having your views taken in high regard is fulfilling.’’

As a woman who is building her life, Kathleen says she would not hesitate to take any opportunity that ‘‘puts more money in my bank account.’’

Watching her parents grow old and ‘‘the shifting responsibilities of having to take care of them’’ scare her. ‘‘The time you spend with family as you grow older becomes infinitely less. Nothing prepares you for this.’’

James Kahongeh