Founder of the Week: Noelle Cicilia and Brush AI

Every week, we highlight one woman founder. This week, Noelle Cicilia, founder of Brush AI, is put in the spotlight.

The Toeslagenaffaire (also known as the Dutch Childcare Benefits Scandal), the Apple gender discrimination credit card scandal, and the Google photo categorization software labelling black people as gorillas. These are just a few of the many examples of how algorithms too often exclude women and marginalized communities. Examples that make you shiver only thinking about them, leading you to the acknowledgement that the issue does not lie in the algorithms, but in who creates them.  

But… How do algorithms work?

An algorithm, indeed, is nothing more than a mathematical function. Models are algorithms that got trained on data. Once trained, the model is used to make predictions helping automatize and optimise decisions. These decisions range from diagnosing a patient with cancer to accepting mortgage applications. Inherently, algorithms aren’t biased by themselves. It’s the data with which we feed these algorithms that lead to a biased model. Long story short: it is not the technology being wrong, but how we are using this technology.   

This is what started bothering Noelle Cicilia, founder of Brush AI, once she realized it during her tech studies. 

“I was really enjoying my studies, creating algorithms, optimising and automatizing processes, but I also felt bad about the way technology wasn’t being used, I didn’t really like it. When the Toeslagenaffaire happened, along with many other tech scandals, I figured out that I wanted to do something with AI and ethics”.   

Combining tech and entrepreneurship

With an Information Studies bachelor’s and Data Science and Entrepreneurship master’s, Noelle has a solid tech background. Recently she became co-founder of Brush AI, next to her engineering doctorate. “The university itself was incentivizing students to initiate a start-up, offering many different programmes. I joined an online meeting of one of these programs and shared my story and my ideas. This is where I met other three guys who had a similar idea and asked me to join them!”   

AI from an ethical point of view

And that’s what she did. From the initial four of them, Noelle and co-founder Max kept working on the project, which formalised into Brush AI, a responsible consultancy agency.   

“The core idea is to help companies get started with AI, but in a responsible way. We specifically focus on companies, having some sort of responsibility towards society. Of course, many companies have that, but for some companies, this is clearer than for others. Think of insurance companies, healthcare institutes, and other companies working with sensitive personal data. They establish a fragile trust relationship with their customers. If a mistake is made, the customer won’t trust them anymore or will even terminate the relationship” explains Noelle.  

Many companies, especially in the Netherlands, are just starting with AI and ethics. Doing this in a responsible way isn’t their first priority. If you are thinking of starting with AI, and want to know what Brush AI is doing, continue reading.   

Getting the data right

“We get the data, and start our analysis: how can the data help in fixing the customer’s problem? But also: what are the ethical questions behind it? How was the data collected? We go through the data science life cycle. These are all the iterative steps to build, deliver and maintain any data science product. In each of these steps, we have ethical questions related to the collection, the use and understanding of the data”.   

An approach that is certainly necessary, taking into consideration the scandals that have been happening since everything is being automated. Indeed, the way we test algorithms is really limited, as it is based only on statistical and technical parameters. Therefore, the broader qualitative spectrum is overlooked. 

“We train algorithms using data. This data becomes the reality of the algorithm, even though you can never have all the data. Still, we apply this algorithm as if it would know everything about reality, even though it only offers a narrow view of reality” affirms Noelle.   

The future of Brush AI

For now, Brush AI will start its consultancy service from September onwards. With an investor backing them up, the first clients are already in the pipeline. But that’s not all. Aside from working full-time for Brush AI, Noelle is doing her Engineering doctorate, focusing on creating a fairness metric. 

“Within the next year, I’ll be trying to develop a technical system that complements our consultancy service. The idea is to create a metric helping us to measure how ethical and fair an algorithm is. This metric combines statistical and technical measurements with more a qualitative approach. For the first half year, I’ll be doing lots of research, and then I will create the software. Eventually, I will test it on one of our clients to see if it’s implementable”.   

Is tech worth it?

Although Noelle never imagined studying something technical and did not really know what she was getting herself into, today, she is more than happy about the choice she made.   

“I didn’t have any technical background before, so it was challenging at times. The business-oriented course was easy for me, but for the technical course, I had to work hard. Here, I got to see the results immediately. Also, when you are programming, you are creating something, which I think is really fun.  

I feel like the problem with many girls is that we don’t have an example of people we can identify with. Even though I did have that example I only realised this later. A friend of my parents was tutoring me in mathematics, and she was working in cyber security in a really cool position. She moved from the Dutch Caribbean to Leiden, when still no woman was studying something technical, let alone a woman of colour. Only now that I’m older I realised what she achieved” concludes Noelle.   

Noelle Cicilia recently joined the Equals Class ‘22, being part of a cohort of 22 women trained in public speaking skills and media presence. If you are curious about Noelle and Brush AI, check out their website 

Want to read more about amazing woman founders? Click here to read our other Founder of the Week blogs.