“I want to make artificial intelligence and machine learning more approachable”

Gabrielle Mantell runs a website that explains topics like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and data science in an understandable and accessible manner, with the aim to encourage more diversity in the field. She also wants to combine her knowledge of international relations with tech expertise in order to identify ‘the essential’ from the ‘information overload’. Master’s studies at the University of Helsinki helps her to achieve her goals.

It was like magic. In autumn 2017, Mantell was surfing the web and stumbled across some Harry Potter fan fiction. Someone had put all seven books of this magical series through an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm. Based on this, the algorithm created new text and stories. Even though the content was rather absurd, this way of using data was fascinating to Mantell.

Mantell started to look for information about algorithms and machine learning but struggled to find anything accessible on the topic.

 “All I wanted to know was how to make AI write Harry Potter fan fiction but it was just horrible!”

Two years later, Mantell runs her own website where she writes, among other topics, about AI, machine learning and data science. She presents the information in a format that is easily understood and accessible to as many as possible. At the same time, she is writing her master’s thesis at the University of Helsinki, in which she analyses a huge ‘big data’ image dataset with the help of machine learning.

How did she get from knowing nearly nothing to teaching others?

Diversity is needed to make algorithms that reflect society  

Before moving to Finland, Mantell studied international relations and science and security in both the United States and United Kingdom. She then worked in the tech sector with user experience design. Therefore, the tech world was not entirely unfamiliar to her. However, she had limited technical training and no programming skills.

In 2017, Mantell started her studies in the Master’s Programme in European and Nordic Studies at the University of Helsinki in Finland. She wanted to obtain theoretical tools to better understand the dramatic events taking place across the world.

Soon Mantell realised that combining international relations and geopolitics with computational methods could open completely new doors and opportunities. She started studying, as a minor subject, computational social science which includes for example data science and machine learning.

Mantell quickly noticed that without a technical background it was challenging to gain a deeper understanding of the field. When looking for information, she wanted a place where she could easily get answers to even the simplest of questions. As she could not find one, she decided to create it herself. 

Mantell established Elle Knows Machines, a website where she compiles everything she’s learnt on data analysis, artificial intelligence and machine learning, along with other thought provoking topics. As somebody looking at the field from the outside with a fresh perspective, Mantell is able to describe matters in an understandable manner to others who might not have pre-existing technical knowledge. At first, she targeted her website specifically at women but soon noticed that men also found their way to the site.

By sharing information on her website, Mantell not only wants to encourage people to use cutting-edge technology but also to start developing it. Despite many attempts to boost diversity in the technology sector, it remains a very homogeneous field where the majority of the developers and decision makers are male with a technical education. According to Mantell, it is important that more people with a variety of different backgrounds take part in developing new technology. This way, the systems will better reflect ever increasing diversity and different voices.

“For instance, a political scientist may ask how technology effects elections, while a computer scientist may consider how the same system would be able to process data in a faster or safer way.”

Studies help to understand the complexity of the world

Mantell not only wants to introduce more people to work with advanced technology, but she also dreams about making it easier to understand the complex world of today. Her studies in the Master’s Programme in European and Nordic Studies at the University of Helsinki have helped her to better understand the world from different perspectives and angles.

For instance, in the beginning of her studies, she attended a lecture where a Finnish researcher talked about colonialism and the United States from a perspective that was completely new to her.

“It opened my eyes, since I had previously learned about the topic mainly from an American or a British standpoint. It is important for scholars of international relations to understand and remember that, for example, historical events can be viewed from many different angles.”

Mantell also praises the academic freedom at the University of Helsinki. She can take courses in different disciplines than her own from more than one faculty.

“I must have about 50 extra course credits. When I began my studies, I was like a kid in the candy store. I value the broad selection of courses and the freedom to choose the courses that are most useful to me.”

“I want to design a tool to analyse computational propaganda”

Currently, Mantell is writing her master’s thesis on disinformation disseminated from Russian sources on Twitter. She is using a dataset of more than 100 000 images. With the help of machine learning, the data was analysed and distilled into a sample of just over 1 400 images that are relevant to her research.

After graduation, Mantell plans to apply for doctoral education. She wants to develop an algorithm of her own that can be used to study propaganda spread by different states. Her goal is to uncover strategic objectives of a country through data analysis.

“Nowadays, there is an overload of information available. I want to develop tools that can help people structure and make sense of all this information and understand what’s really going on in the world.”

Mantell specialises in computational international relations, a field that is only in its infancy. This makes it even more exciting.

“I have learnt so much about computational methods during my time at the University of Helsinki and have uncovered an entirely new way of working with data. My mind is still being blown every time I realise new ways of processing data.”

Mantell has also come to understand the algorithm that writes Potter fan fiction.

“My studies have given me the confidence to experiment with algorithms, input various values and analyse the outcome. I now understand how machine learning works and could even create fan fiction of my own.”