Lately, there has been a lot of buzz around artificial intelligence(AI). Many leading tech companies are now including AI in their products and services. Besides Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, AI is helping us in our everyday life. I know we all love those snazzy filters in Instagram and Snapchat, those netflix recommendations companies like Amazon, IBM, Google, Microsoft et al have been including AI in their products that literally read our minds and let’s not forget our darling ride sharing apps. Artificial intelligence is revolutionizing the way the world interacts. AI has literally made our lives easier. It is a hot and growing industry, and we love seeing women in the forefront.
Timnit Gerbu is one of our favorite Black Girl Nerds! She currently works at Microsoft Research. She earned her PhD at Stanford where she studied computer vision (AI) under Fei- Fei Li. Her research work has been published by the economist and other prestigious publications. She is the cofounder of the group Black in AI ; an organization that works to increase diversity in AI and reduce the impact of racial bias in AI algorithms.
We had a brief discussion with Timnit to learn about her career journey and her passion for AI!
AI is not a novel innovation, it has been around for a while but it is now getting some traction. What sparked your interest in AI and where do you see it in the future?I was interested first in mage processing, later in computer vision, so I wasn’t really thinking “AI” but computer vision. Later on I saw the lack of representation of Black people from around the world in this field, not just like the US but the entire world, like the entire continent of Africa e.g. was missing from all of these international conferences. And at the same time we see things like drones being used in various African countries. We see predictive policing and all sorts of things used in the US. So I started getting very alarmed by the mismatch of who has the power to create this technology and who its being used against. Where its going in the future is up to us humans. Its where we decide it should go. Its tied to how invest in our society, what political institutions we choose, and how many wars we choose vs healthcare and education for all for example.
What’s your favorite part about working with Google? The employee activism that I saw in the last year that I haven’t seen in other places.
As a woman of color in tech, what challenges did you face(if any) in the corporate space? You are asking me this question on a particularly difficult week 🙂 so I have many to draw from. Racism, sexism, trying to change things and receiving attacks, not drawing boundaries and protecting myself so inability to concentrate on my work and research.
What does diversity mean to you? How do you contribute to the promotion of diversity and inclusivity in the workplace? I spend too much time consoling people who have issues and trying to convince them not to leave, trying to have more representation of people who are underrepresented in this sector, trying to learn about my blind spots, trying to educate others. Its at the point where I’m too overwhelmed and am trying to figure out how to scale back.
What advice do you have for black millennial women who want to pursue a career in AI but don’t quite know where to start from? You can have any background and work in this field. Math, physics, computer science, social science, anthropology, history. In fact we are in dire need of people from different backgrounds and perspectives. I’m currently collaborating with a history student. Don’t let people intimidate you. Try to see how you can apply your expertise to the field, or if you want to learn, start from some coursera classes, or some of the classes offered at e.g. Sanford (like CS231n) where all the material is online. fast.ai has a great program and resources. Try to work on a personal project and have a study group. And don’t be afraid to start from scratch. If you feel like you don’t know the pre-requisites for some class, then see what it is and try to learn that. But at the same time don’t try to know everything perfectly before you delve in and try to work on some personal projects.