Working in AI came as a complete accident. In fact, AI visionary Stela Solar was originally meant to be a film composer and live and breathe the world of creative arts.

Today, the director of the National Artificial Intelligence Centre, is on a mission to help companies embrace AI securely and responsibly, rallying individuals together. Ironically, she finds herself leading what she deems the ultimate team sport, something she confessed to never engaging in before.

 “Playing the cello was my version of a team sport. Music always clashes with team sport, so I’ve never done a team sport in my life. However, my equivalent was performing with chamber music groups.”  

 If anything, AI is a collaborative endeavour. “In the realm of AI, there are so many organisations, people, interests and communities to bring along this journey, underscoring the necessity for collaboration across diverse perspectives.”  

 And her vision is big. So big in fact that she understands the power of using technology to uplift human well-being and address critical challenges of our time, such as healthcare and environmental sustainability.

 “My hope is that AI will enable us to understand complex relationships and make informed decisions that benefit humanity and our planet.” 

 In a candid conversation with Solar, Stories Ink delves into her unique journey, her passion for technology, and her vision for the future. From her accidental entry into the tech world to her love for sailing, Solar shares her insights and experiences that have shaped her career and perspective.

You mentioned your career in AI and technology began almost by accident. Can you share more about how you made the transition from your initial aspirations in the arts to becoming an AI visionary?

My journey into the world of AI was indeed quite unexpected. It was a complete accident. Initially, I had dreams of becoming a film composer and was a musician all throughout primary and high school. I received music scholarships – I truly thought I was going to be a musician. But then I realised I had to negotiate with my parents, who both wanted me to find a ‘real job.’ We compromised on finding a career that blended both my passion for the arts and commerce. This was a happy medium. It allowed me to pursue the arts while also engaging with business-related subjects. 

 I got into inside sales for a tech startup in cybersecurity. It was during this role that I began to immerse myself in technology, learning on the job and seeking guidance from mentors and customers. This unexpected entry into the tech world set me on a path of continuous learning and exploration. 

 From there, I delved into cloud computing during the era when organisations were transitioning from on-premise setups to the cloud. Next, I jumped into the Internet of Things (IoT), where I worked with a host of manufacturers to transform their business models. I found the magic in IoT was actually AI that was creating the magical experiences – and so I moved into AI. Through that process, I also felt that I wanted to fortify my technical experience while also embracing creativity, and so I did a Masters of Interaction Design in Electronic Arts, which involved a lot of device making and coding. I developed an emotion sensing dress; an interactive sleep cocoon that would optimise your sleep; and a robot that could draw your portraits. 

How did your background in music and the arts influence your approach to technology and innovation in your career?

My background in music and the arts has had a significant impact on how I approach technology and innovation. Creativity has always been a core part of my DNA, and I believe that technology, particularly AI, has the power to unlock new levels of creativity and innovation. I’m passionate about harnessing technology to achieve meaningful outcomes and ensure that it benefits humanity. Just as music and the arts allow for self-expression and emotional connection, I see technology as a tool to create positive change and make the world a better place.

Can you discuss the interplay between your creative upbringing, sustainability lens, and how these factors have guided your approach to your technology career?

Being a musician since the age of three – playing cello and piano – I mistakenly thought creativity was only in the creative arts like music and drama. But the technology sphere is so creative. This happy accident of landing a first job in tech is where I discovered this. And while I have a creative upbringing as a musician, I also bring a sustainability lens to a lot of what I do. Through University, in particular, I was involved with Greenpeace and I received a certificate in environmental and corporate social responsibility. I was set to explore that career given I’m driven by purpose and fostering meaningful outcomes. I would say creativity and sustainability are core to my DNA – and that’s how I’ve approached my technology career as well. 

As the director of the National Artificial Intelligence Centre, what are your main responsibilities?

In this role, we’re enabling Australia’s business to make the most of the AI wave while doing it responsibly. To do that, businesses want to do AI well, but it’s not clear how to do that. So, what are the frameworks? The guidelines? The best practices for doing AI responsibly? We’re collaborating with many organisations to bring together the diversity of expertise that’s needed to do AI well. This includes expertise from law standards, ethics; technology; and design; just to name a few.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding AI. What do you find most exciting? 

AI, along with technology, possesses the capability to unlock creativity on levels and scales previously unattainable through conventional means. Imagine if we could do it really well – really responsibly – so that it’s not propagating any biases from the past or not creating unintended consequences. That’s what really motivates me. I see the creativity that AI can bring; it can help us achieve so much more. How do we do it well and ensure it’s not creating unintended harms. That’s what excites me.

You mentioned your love for sailing. How has this passion influenced your approach to collaboration and teamwork in your professional life?

Sailing has taught me valuable lessons about collaboration and teamwork. On a sailboat, there’s no room for discord or grumpiness; teamwork and effective communication are essential. The confined space of a boat necessitates close collaboration, optimisation of resources, and staying balanced for maximum speed. These principles translate well into my professional life, where collaboration with diverse stakeholders is crucial, and effective teamwork is key to achieving our goals. Sailing has reinforced the importance of constructive collaboration and optimising efforts for the best outcomes.

Can you tell us about a key milestone in your career that stands out to you?

There’s been several pivotal moments in my career, which I didn’t realise were important at the time. But one that stands out is when I moved to the US for work. This experience exposed me to international dynamics, diverse cultures, and how different regions were embracing innovation and technology. My experience in technology and moving organisations into the cloud became very valuable because companies around the world were trying to do this. It was during this time that I realised the value of my expertise in helping organisations transition from on-premise systems to the cloud. This transferable knowledge became invaluable as businesses worldwide embarked on similar journeys. It taught me the importance of adaptability and seizing opportunities, even when they appear as unknowns.

What’s something that’s enabled you on this journey? 

I’ve always embraced the unknown. In fact, I actually enjoy ambiguity and the unknown. It’s what I seek in my roles. One reason is I like learning; another reason is the belief that if it’s the unknown, then no one else knows either. So I’m happy to roll up my sleeves and solve it. But I think this approach, this business model, has enabled me to get into opportunities without even realising how important that they are.  

 More importantly, one of the things that has enabled me on this journey is something that my Mum taught me, which is: “With good ingredients you can’t go wrong.” Interestingly, I hate cooking, but those words resonated with me and always gave me the confidence to step into the unknown. Knowing if I bring the basics – good ingredients like collaboration, communication, curiosity, learning – I can’t go wrong, so I will create value. 

Looking to the future, what’s your vision for the role of AI and tech in shaping a better world?

I’m eager to contribute towards advancing humanity. Throughout history and guided by various leaders, we’ve witnessed injustices and biases. Additionally, there have been instances where actions were taken without foreseeing the consequences that could unfold decades or even centuries later. This is why I believe in the potential of AI to assist us in doing better.

 AI has the capacity to enhance our understanding of intricate relationships and dynamics, empowering us to make informed and meaningful decisions. It holds promise in promoting greater sustainability, influencing design choices, and fostering responsible practices. I’m optimistic that AI can facilitate the provision of expert and specialised services to people globally, bridging gaps and extending assistance to remote communities.

 When considering how AI can democratise specialised knowledge, I envision its ability to scale and disseminate expertise to remote areas. For instance, a doctor in a community could access specialised expertise through an AI solution, augmenting their abilities and benefiting those in need. My hope is that technology will uplift humanity by promoting well-being and fostering a healthier planet.

Do you know of a worthy ‘Close-Up’ contender? Get in touch with Jennifer at jennifer@storiesink.com.au to get the story captured.