Joanna Peña-Bickley is an inventor and a design technologist known as the mother of Cognitive Experience Design. Named one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, she’s been at the forefront of A.I.-aided generative design and has created her own framework with principles to ensure that A.I. enhances humans.
Born a dyslexic child in San Antonio, TX, a thread throughout Joanna’s unlikely career is crafting magical experiences, whether inventing one of the first streaming video players for ABC or designing the first banking app on the Apple Watch for Citibank. She’s also developed the first smart mobility platform for General Motors, invented new ambient intelligent Alexa Devices for Amazon, and reimagined the world’s mobility for Uber.
A fan of science fiction and a Trekkie at heart, Joanna has always seen the link between fiction and invention. She’s bringing this to Sensory6, her new A.I. company focusing on making people more resilient through bio-wearable technology and human digital twins. The company is on a mission to augment our intelligence and give us superpowers to adapt.
And in being unapologetically herself, she’s also an avid organizer and advocate for women and girls in design and tech. She co-founded Designed By Us, a cooperative dedicated to accelerating gender equity in S.T.E.A.M.D, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math, and Design education.
Joanna believes that we all have the power to design a better future, and A.I. needs infinite diversity and infinite combinations to bring its promise of an equitable future to fruition.
Learn how Joanna thinks about creativity and A.I., what shaped her career trajectory, her ethical framework, how we need to embrace – not ban – A.I., the call for positive A.I. stories, and how she dares to design a better future, today.
Joanna’s story is intimately tied to San Antonio, where she was born and raised. It was the space that was a launching pad both for her imagination and dreams. When she left for Chicago for college, she realized that being a light-skinned Latina would open spaces that her family was shut out of. This experience had a profound impact on her to be unapologetically Latina.
“When you are invited to walk through a door, the worst thing that can happen when you walk through that door is that you’ll learn something.”Joanna Peña-Bickley
She could have never imagined being raised in middle-class San Antonio that she would be where she is today. However, she has had incredible stewards in her life who have guided her career and believed in her. Innovation and invention are team sports and cannot be done alone.
Whether she was at Uber, Amazon, or IBM, she has learned something from every single one of them, and all the places she has worked are steps in a journey. She believes in learning through a series of questions and “what if” scenarios, making her a good designer. She’s willing to explore things that make most people uncomfortable.
Joanna grew up in the age of computing, watched Star Trek, and was influenced by Sci-Fi and shows like The Jetsons. She was inspired by the writings of Arthur C. Clarke and his book Profiles of the Future, which explores the future of technology and the ethics behind it. She believes that being a good designer requires balancing wonder and rigor, dreaming of a better future, and putting in the work to make it happen.
She has always thrived in spaces with people who love Sci-Fi and could have deep discussions about what things could be like and how they should be. Her favorite sandbox to play in is one where you can explore the “what ifs” that get you to a result.
Another part of Sci-Fi that speaks to Joanna is the representation. Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, played by Nichelle Nichols, showed her that women of color could work in technology and space. The “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” concept from Star Trek celebrates and values diversity among people and has influenced Joanna’s leadership style in her career. Joanna emphasized the importance of representation and visibility in inspiring and empowering individuals. They urge writers to consider the impact of their stories and the potential to inspire people from all backgrounds, including those in less diverse areas.
And this belief has led her to co-found Designed by Us. Designed by Us is a cooperative founded in 2019 by a family of artists and designers to accelerate gender equity in science, technology, engineering, arts, math, and design (S.T.E.A.M.D.) education. The organization’s mission is to cultivate tech literacy and ethical equity through the creation of new pathways to education that aim to prepare people for the jobs of today, utilizing action learning and hybrid training. They aim to launch a service that will bring accessible learning to everyone within S.T.E.A.M.D. frameworks. The organization believes that investing in women, girls, and non-binary creators and builders is investing in the future of society.
Her work with Sensory6 aims to empower people through bio wearables, technologies, and human digital twins that augment human intelligence. Sensory6’s mission is to accelerate intelligent human-machine integration to enhance humanity’s resilience. She wants to reach everyone, everywhere to have access to this technology.
While she doesn’t necessarily believe in utopia, she does feel that the dystopian conversation needs to change and has a call to more positive A.I. stories so that we build the future we want and not be scared of this technology. She also emphasized the importance of ethical considerations in A.I. development.
The people building A.I. tools need to be informed and understand the potential consequences of their work and be transparent about their intentions, who are working on the tools, and how their A.I. systems make decisions. Joanna established her own ethical framework focusing on truth, authenticity, transparency, and intention in A.I. development. The system must work to build trust, and users deserve to know where datasets come from and who they include. We have to be intentional in design. This again refers back to representation. She believes that we must respectfully and with dignity, never just virtue signal towards inclusivity, but actually include everyone and as many people as we can in those datasets so that we are not promoting empty promises.
The intention behind computing and A.I. is to help with everyday tasks and enable people to focus on what matters most, such as family. A.I. is designed to augment human abilities and not replace them. For example, prompt writing is a necessary skill to make A.I. work effectively. A.I. technology still needs human beings to plug in the information. In five years, A.I. tools like ChatGPT will be as commonplace as calculators. A.I. is a transformational technology that can fundamentally change the way we work and do things in the world if used properly. Instead of banning or fearing A.I., teach people the skills needed to use it for forward progress.
Joanna doesn’t predict the future, but she does dare to design it, today. The future is not some far-off concept, but something we can all build together. She wants to leave behind a better world for her children and future grandchildren. To do that, you have to work really hard and be diligent about bringing people together around the table to intentionally change the world.
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Thank you, Joanna, for being our guest on Creativity Squared!
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