In our new Working Smarter series, we hear from AI experts about how they’re leveraging machine learning to solve interesting problems and dramatically change the way we work for the better.
In Jordan Harrod’s YouTube videos, AI never feels impenetrable or needlessly complex, but thoughtful, engaging, and easy to understand.
The accessibility of Harrod’s videos has made her a popular destination for AI education—not just on YouTube, but Instagram and TikTok too, where she now has more than 100,000 subscribers across the three platforms combined. She breaks down research, theory, and the latest AI news with curiosity, humor, and empathy, contextualizing why it all matters and its impact on our lives.
“There are interesting, fun, and creative uses of these systems,” says Harrod “And I think that we can, ideally, use them to augment our human experience where possible.”
Harrod frequently draws on her academic experience working with AI—she is a PhD candidate in medical engineering and medical physics at Harvard-MIT—and her personal experience as an early adopter of AI tools. Already, she’s turned to AI for help writing scripts, editing videos, managing her schedule, even planning a trip to London. But she’s especially interested in applications of AI in the places we’d least expect—things that push the conversation beyond Bing or ChatGPT.
She points to a company called Parfait that makes custom wigs for Black women, using AI to better match skin tone and fit. “I think that's really cool,” says Harrod, and “a fantastic use of these technologies in a way that helps people be the version of themselves that they want to be in the world.”
Now in her fifth year making educational videos about AI, Harrod spoke with Work in Progress about how she uses AI to be more creative and take on the tasks she doesn’t want to do, why not everything needs to be solved with AI, and the uses of AI that interest her the most.
“I'm excited for new and interesting creative tools,” she says. "I'm also excited to see the people that find their way into this field, and the ways that they end up wielding these tools. And I hope that we can do that in a way that is fair and equitable for everyone, which I think will be the hard part.”
~ ~ ~
Why is a question like “can AI be used to design a better wig?” more interesting to you right now than the latest capabilities of ChatGPT or Bard or Bing?
The questions that I tend to find interesting are questions where AI isn’t necessarily the first thing you thought of as the solution. I feel like there's often a bit of people seeing these tools and trying to create problems that can be solved with the AI hammer. And so companies or products or research in which it’s not the AI hammer in search of a nail, but it’s “we had a problem, and there were lots of other things that we could have looked to for a solution, but AI actually ended up being a really interesting and compelling one”—that’s what I find interesting. And those are also the kinds of applications I would be interested in developing or working with.
For me, it’s another tool in the toolkit. And it doesn’t need to be the first thing I use every time. But if it does work well, then that’s interesting, and maybe we can pull something from that.
How much machine learning is already sprinkled into the tools that people are using day-to-day that they might not realize?
It all depends on your definition of AI. It’s become a bit of a buzzword. If you're on Zoom and you're using live captions, that is using an algorithm to transcribe the things that you are saying into text. I use Otter.ai all the time to record conversations for notes later on, and that's something that you encounter on a fairly regular basis. If you look at Google, their knowledge graph is using algorithms to figure out what ideas and topics are connected to each other. We can call that AI. I think that if you own a smartphone, you’re probably interacting with AI every time you pick it up. If you’re working on your computer, there’s recommendation systems and social media. It’s hard not to interact with some system that you could reasonably call AI. Up until six months ago, I think it’s less likely that you’re interacting with, like, GPT-4. Now you might be.
How much of the current interest in AI is because large language models like Bing and ChatGPT let the average person interact with AI in a really visible, tangible way?
The evolution of industry AI research kind of facilitated that in a way. If you look pre-2012, most of this work was happening at academic research institutions where there wasn't a whole PR campaign about it. Whereas I think that as social media has grown and as these companies have started to invest more in this kind of work, there has been a lot more industry interest. Things like OpenAI announcing something every other week, and having blog posts to talk about the progress that they're making, and how they're thinking about these types of systems—academia is not really built for that.
The PR campaigns have made people more aware of what's happening. And because they're companies, they’re more likely to be developing APIs and releasing these systems to the public.
In your day-to-day work, how is AI already helping you make decisions or get things done?
On the content side of things, I use it to manage things like writer's block. If I'm trying to write a script, and I'm running into a wall with the ideation process, I’m probably going to have Notion AI do it—but I might also use ChatGPT. I make all my thumbnails in Canva, which has background remover tools and magic eraser tools. Depending on the video, I might edit it out of Descript, which transcribes the video you give it and then you can edit the transcript to edit the video. It also does voice cloning, so if you said something you didn't mean to say, you can delete it and then have Descript generate a replacement with your voice. I’ve also been using Reclaim to manage my schedule—it’s an AI scheduling tool—but I haven’t decided if I like it yet.
What effect did you hope these tools would have on the quality of your work, or the way you work?
Two things. One is efficiency. Anything that can make the process of making content faster—or just cut out aspects of the process that I don't necessarily enjoy. I did not go into YouTube to be an editor or graphic designer, so things that take that off my plate are awesome. And then the other is augmenting creativity and brainstorming. For those moments when I'm trying to write a script, or trying to draft an outline for a talk—or something like that—and I'm not totally sure what I want to say, or the points I want to hit, it can be helpful to use AI tools to give me something to work with. What often happens is that whatever is generated, I look at and I'm like, this is not what I want. But now that I know what I don't want, I can start writing things that I do.
Those are pretty much the two ways that that I tend to use it: making it so that I don't have to do things that I don't want to do, and helping me brainstorm when my mind is not working correctly.
In those moments do you view AI as a collaborator, or a tool you’re using?
In my mind, you collaborate with people, and you use tools. I would say there are cases in which I think “augment” works. But when I use Canva’s background remover, I don’t see that as being functionally different than doing it manually in Photoshop. So if Photoshop is also augmenting my productivity, then yeah, the AI tool is too. But they’re both tools that I’m using for a particular end.
As a creator, can you elaborate on the creative side of things? What is it about AI and creativity that you find most exciting?
I hope that it makes getting into creative pursuits more accessible to more people. If you aren’t someone who would normally draw things, but you might want to get into graphic design, and you want to use these tools to help you create cool and interesting things, I think that's great. There's obviously the underlying dataset copyright issue that come with that. But because I use AI primarily to help me be more creative, I'm always on the lookout for tools that will keep helping me do that.
Are there any particular areas? You make videos, you write, you speak, and you’ve even used it to cook and make drinks—
I’m not holding my breath for AI being a good cook. I’m not waiting on that one.
This isn’t for creativity, but tools that help you spend more time being creative—Opus comes to mind. You give it a YouTube link, and it cuts your video into shorts with captions. And it uses GPT-4 to figure out what areas have the best hook, so that it can optimize for performance. That's an example of something I think is cool, because I don't enjoy the process of recutting my videos down for short form. It gives me much more time to go make more content that I think is interesting than having to deal with this.
For the person who’s been hearing a lot about AI and AI tools, and is maybe wondering how to use them in their working lives, how do they decide what’s worth paying attention to and what they can ignore?
If you are a business owner, or if you work at a company that is interested in using AI, what is your goal? What do you want to achieve? What is the thing that your company is trying to do? Ideally, you find the tools—or the AI tools—that help you reach that. But the goal shouldn’t necessarily be, “GPT-6 just came out, so now we have to figure out how we're going to shoehorn it into our company workflow.” The human goal should come first. In my head, at least, the goal should never be to use AI for the sake of using AI.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.