Geertrui Mieke De Ketelaere makes a particularly energetic impression throughout the interview. And yet she calls herself functionally lazy.
"I am someone who really doesn't get energy from silly, repetitive actions, but prefers to be creative. As a kid, I was always optimizing my imposed tasks and thus often automating them. This is probably where my passion for tech comes from. Technology takes over certain tasks from humans. Think about a dishwasher or a car. I quickly saw the benefits of that."
Interests enough, but not for school
"Tinkering with toy cars and stylo's and putting them back together again, I could spend hours doing that. But I had absolutely no interest in school. I didn't see how the content of all those subjects could be relevant to my life. My results were not really brilliant. Until the fourth grade in secondary school. There I had a very good math teacher who saw right through me. He decided to question me in a different way and present me with almost impossible questions. That approach finally triggered me."
"By presenting me with nearly impossible problems, my fourth-grade teacher got me excited about math."
So were your points better?
"For mathematics and physics for sure! So in the final year, where we had to be 'average through it' in our school , I had failed many other, in my eyes useless, subjects. Going straight to study civil engineering was therefore out of the question, according to the school's advice, even though I wanted it the most. In the end it became a master's degree in industrial sciences and electromechanics. I decided on that in ten minutes, during an open day, just because it seemed like fun."
In retrospect, was it a good decision?
"Definitely. I still enjoy every day the practical experience I gained then. The combo with the theoretical subjects, which suddenly gave everything more context, I personally found ideal at that time as a start to my studies. I graduated with great distinction and was hungry for even more knowledge. Through Leuven, I then had the opportunity to get an additional master's degree in civil engineering at the University of Stuttgart. At that point, AI came into my life."
Artificial Intelligence (AI) became the great passion
"With AI, I had suddenly found a solution to my laziness! I quickly realized: the bigger my computer, the more data it could process for me and the more accurate my predictions would be. My fellow students were all working with an IBM 386. So I knew, if I wanted to do better, I needed a 486. At the time, that was an incredibly expensive machine, but when I have a goal, I always go for it 100%. I then started working in a factory at night to make enough money fast, because my goal was clear: to get 18 out of 20 on my thesis, by making my computer do smart things. And it did! Pure nostalgia, when I think back about it. In those days, it was still possible to go surfing on Lake Garda for three days while the computer was doing all the math, and I just had to wait anyway."
In the early '90s, AI wasn't really popular, was it?
"Correct. At the time, the industry didn't bother yet. But in 1993 the use of the Internet was first opened up to companies and individuals, and I immediately jumped on the digital train. Initially mostly in technical-commercial roles, but when AI really started booming, about ten years ago, I went all the way back in that direction. I now work primarily as an AI teacher, mentor and advisor."
Had much changed since your college days?
"What struck me and shocked me slightly after all these years was that the most important lesson had not reached the outside world. If you train and activate an AI system in one context, it won't necessarily work the same way in another context. Worse, it is likely to misbehave there. That's exactly what many people don't realize. The focus was - and often still is - too much on having data and not on solving a problem. Data and AI systems are still too often linked one-to-one to the business gains that can be made from them. But of course it's not that simple. Fortunately, today's data science community is helping to make us increasingly critical of AI and thinking more carefully about what can be useful to whom, where and when."
"I see AI as an extension of my limited brain."
The enthusiasm rises with every word Geertrui Mieke utters. "I fully embrace AI! I see it as an extension of my limited brain. AI offers us infinite application possibilities to eliminate certain uncertainties. Weather forecasting for example, or in medicine, you name it. Especially for what I call "the difficult tasks," AI can show us what we as humans can no longer see. It's enormously valuable, provided you use it correctly."
The conversation takes a slightly different turn. Geertrui Mieke looks back on her growth path as a human being. "Data can in no way match gut feeling. It's important to listen to your gut feeling and act on it, but you have to learn to do that. I would advise anyone between the ages of 20 and 30 not to jump on a career right away, but to look for themselves first. I backpacked around the world three times during that period. Only when you find yourself do you realize what is really important to you, and what is best to strive for and not to strive for. Since then, I've always made my own decisions and made sure no one was plotting my career on my behalf. I'm quite proud of that."
Always staying close to yourself, how do you do that in practice?
"It sounds funny, but I've consciously learned to see other people as animals, with very specific, predictable characteristics. It helps me to put things in perspective. It helps me step out of a situation when it gets a little tricky and look at it from a distance. That's how I protect myself. But you know, always following your own feelings and only making the choices you think are important, is also very lonely. It doesn't make you popular everywhere."
Is there anything else like that that you run into?
"What annoys me a bit today is that there is too much focus on fields of study like STEM and engineering. As if that is the future. While I think that many of those tasks will be taken over by computers and that we have a huge lack of social, interpersonal skills. People no longer learn how to deal with each other - or with themselves! In my opinion, this will cause a lot of unnecessary stress. Suppose technology fails, we'll have to solve it together, won't we? People among themselves."
What is your favorite thing to do these days?
"Passing on knowledge to the next generation is something I really enjoy! That is why I am so happy with what Brainjar do. Helping interesting start-ups and young people make strategic choices, which means you can almost literally see them grow, that's fantastic."
"It's for the same reason that I love to teach. Teaching students to see that there is more than the typical existing silos within companies. I want to give them tools to think out of the box and - as I call it - to become an AI translator who knows a little bit about everything. With the emphasis on three domains: the ethical part, the legal part and everything around sustainability."
Is AI translator a profile that companies are looking for?
"You don't hear that very often yet, no. Anyone looking for a job as a human-AI translator is best off going to companies that have already felt the pain. For example, because they brought a product onto the market that was ethically incorrect. A company that has never failed in the field of AI is not going to see the need for an AI translator."
"Those looking for a job as an AI translator are best served by companies that have already felt the pain."
"By the way, an AI translator needs social skills above all. More so than the essential technical skills. You have to be able to communicate very well, empathize, keep asking questions and try to 'read' people's reactions correctly."
Geertrui or Mieke?
To close, we ask if Geertrui Mieke would like to share something about herself that not many people know.
"You're probably not going to believe it, but I'm actually very introverted.
She laughs out loud and immediately pounces. "You're probably not going to believe it, but I'm actually very introverted. I grew up in a strict Catholic, conservative household and I loved nothing more than reading philosophical books. Even today, I get extremely happy from a day all alone in nature. But that doesn't get you very far in life, does it?"
"I also had a playful side, but I always found it difficult to reconcile it with my serious self. When I moved abroad, the solution kind of came naturally. My official name is Geertrui. In an international context, that's a disaster. Unpronounceable! My second name is Mieke and that's how they started calling me there, purely out of convenience. And the Mieke sitting in front of you now is the frivolous, extroverted layer around the nerd called Geertrui. Kind of strange maybe, but that duality is true somewhere. I'm an extroverted nerd!"
Actually, everyone should have a middle name!
"Yes, with that you can then, when needed, step out of yourself for a while. Two things are important in life: passion and discipline. If your passion drops a bit and your Mieke has a hard time, you can fall back on your boring Geertrui who will help you back on top with the necessary discipline. In business it also has its advantages. In the corridors I walk around light-hearted and friendly like Mieke, but during a meeting I can be tough when necessary. Then my Geertrui takes over. I truly believe that it's that combination that got me this far in life."
Thanks to Clusity. for this interview. Clusity offers an inspiring network, workshops, events and career opportunities to ensure that more women enter, grow and belong in tech.