AI Innovators: How One Woman Followed Her Passion and Brought Diversity to AI
Lisa Lahde Brand Contributor NVIDIABRANDVOICEJul 10, 2018,2:47 pm• 6,805 views
•#ChangeTheWorldIn this profile series, we interview AI innovators
on the front-lines – those who have dedicated their life’s work to improving the human condition through technology advancements.
Meet Timnit Gebru. Born and raised in Ethiopia, Gebru immigrated to the US at 16 to earn her PhD from Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and just finished her year as a post-doctoral researcher at Microsoft Research in New York. While she was still a PhD student, she co-founded Black in AI, an organization fostering collaboration and discussing initiatives toincrease the representation of Black people in the field.
Was there a moment where you questioned your path?
All the time. I mean, when I first did analog circuit design, I was very much into hardware and that was my main focus while at Apple. Then, I went back to school to get my master’s in hardware. After I took many classes in device physics and did research with device physics for over a year I ultimately decided that device physics wasn’t for me. At first, I was a bit hesitant to change paths, but I was trying to see what I was interested in.
Do you follow your passion with everything?
Sort of. When I was doing research, I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on. I changed from device physics to a completely different thing, optics. It was still applied physics, but I didn’t know as much about optics. Learning something new like optics or image processing sparked a new interest in how my research could change the world for the better — for instance, how could I think of new ways of doing low-cost image processing from a phone for developing countries, because I am also from a developing country. I’m always thinking about that in whatever I do. I found myself really interested in computer vision. At the end of the one year in research, I decided, you know what? This is not for me. I’m just not going to do a PhD. So, I left, and worked on a startup instead. Eventually, I left that too, pursued Hacker School just for fun, and eventually asked myself, what am I doing with my life?
I had to do a lot of soul searching. I really enjoyed computer vision, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to spend my time doing something I wouldn’t still be passionate about. I was so confused. Am I a software person or am I a hardware person? Should I go back to Apple? Should I interview for jobs? What should I do?
If you work so hard on something and you put so much investment in your education, to not feel like you have a path can feel very defeating.
I think it’s important for people to understand that you have difficult times. Even successful people. In Ethiopian culture, not 100% of your identity is based on your achievement or work. I think it’s dangerous when that’s the case, and I think at that point too much of my identity was tied to what sort of career I was doing.
How did you snap out of it?
I had to figure out what I was going to do next. I had to interview for jobs or I had to figure out if I was going to go back into my PhD or something. I said, Okay, I’m going to just try to audit classes. It doesn’t have to amount to anything. After one quarter, I said I was going to re-enroll. I was on a leave of absence from Stanford at that time. I re-enrolled in two classes, one was advanced computer vision class, and one was a data mining class. A paper came out of the data mining class and I met one of my collaborators there. I was like, okay, no pressure, you can just take classes; I don’t have to figure out whether I should do a PhD or not now. I’m just re-enrolling, so I didn’t want to give myself a lot of pressure.
How much does your background influence your life’s work? And what change are you hoping to make?
It’s part of me. My mom would even tell you, ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always thought about how to change the socioeconomic status of some neighborhoods around the place that I grew up. This is always something I’ve thought about because of where I came from. And, based on my experiences from immigrating to the U.S., I learned what marginalization is because I felt it a lot, in many ways.
The positive impacts that you bring to the world don’t have to necessarily be connected to your work. For me, there was also a separate side of me where I was always involved in social justice. I always organized events or I was always part of something towards that goal.
Listen to Timnit’s interview on The AI Podcast where collecting data using street view and AI can help estimate the demographic makeup of neighborhoods to identify how people will vote in the elections.
source : FORBES