What compelled you to write The Worlds I See?
Before the pandemic in early 2020, I was invited to write a book about AI for the public which I was very excited to pursue. I spent a year writing it, showing the first version to my good friend and colleague John Etchemendy, a former Stanford provost and my co-director of the Stanford Institute of Human-Centered AI. After reading, he told me it was not very good. John said that many scientists could write a popular technical book about AI but for many young people from all walks of life and from all backgrounds, especially young women and immigrants, they want to hear their voices heard and identify with someone’s life journey. That was the reason my co-writer Alex Varanese and I decided we would do a double helix structure of the book which intertwines the coming of age of a young scientist with the coming of age of AI, and technology’s role in my life and my role in technology’s.
Most people don’t realize how much human effort went into AI, especially at the beginning and early stages. Can you elaborate more on this?
AI is a very new and powerful technology and, for what it’s worth, the name says it’s “artificial intelligence”, but like all science and technology, many humans are behind the steering wheel. In fact, it is humans that invented math, physics, and biology and it is humans who invented AI. It’s a young, nascent field compared to the more established fields like physics, chemistry, and biology but we’ve already had generations of scientists and engineers and thinkers behind this technology. In addition to that, it’s also an engineering field and to make progress in this field, a lot of people are behind the scenes building systems, building infrastructure, building data. My own work focusing on big data’s role on AI at the beginning of this technological revolution involved many people – not only my students and collaborators but people we’ve had to hire to curate or label data sets so AI is very much a field created by people, used by people, and should, eventually, be governed by people.
Most of your work at Stanford HAI and in general focuses on prioritizing human-centered AI. How can we continue to recognize the profoundness of human dignity in an automation society?
This technology is going to be profoundly impacting human lives. We might not even see it but in our everyday life we’re already using AI, whether we’re looking at recommended shopping items, selecting movies, working with driving apps the guide us, or using software suggesting text message replies or translating documents. So as AI becomes more and more powerful, we’ll see more of the human applications in society. Recognizing this power is very important because AI is a tool and humanity’s relationship to tools is always a double-edge sword. We want to create a tool to make our life and work better and more productive and to become more prosperous, but new tools are also used to harm each other or create unintended consequences. It’s been shown that AI may even exacerbate human bias. It might become a tool to inflict damage and pain. That’s why at Stanford HAI we firmly advocate for human-centered AI as we believe at the core of every technology is the mission to better human conditions and further humanity. Whether we are creating it, studying it, or showing its applications we should place human well-being and human dignity at the center so we don’t deviate from the purpose.
The Worlds I See is also a coming of age book. What would you say to parents who want to be supportive of their kids’ dreams but also worry about them making enough money? And, what advice would you give to the next-generation of scientists, leaders, and trailblazers who want to break into a difficult industry or unconventional career?
As I mentioned, this book is a double-helix structure of my history and AI’s history. If there is one message I want me readers, especially young readers and their parents, to recognize is the passion, the curiosity, the resilience, and the persistence in going after one’s dreams – even if it’s an audacious dream and a North Star dream. I’m very lucky that I found my North Star early in life and a lot of that had to do with my parents allowing me to protect that curiosity and passion. It’s really important in the age of AI to see the technology as a tool to superpower us, to superpower our work, to superpower our learning, and yet the most important thing is the human grit. My hope that by reading this book, young readers and their families are inspired to seek their own North Star. I hope many of their North Stars will be harnessing AI to make a better world. And even if it’s not in AI, be brave and persistent in following your passions and pursuing your ambitions.
As a woman of color in a predominantly male industry did you find it intimidating or run into any roadblocks in your life and career? What advice would you give to other women when faced in workplace situations where no one else looks like them?
I’m very aware that still today I’m one of the few women, few immigrants, and few people of color who are in the male dominated field of technology and AI, but I do want to say that I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t have the support of my colleagues and mentors and, just because of the field demographic, most of them happen to be male. The book actually put an emphasis in celebrating some of them including my high school math teacher Mr. Bob Sabella. He and his family all became my support network. It didn’t matter what my background is or what his background is, his support and the unconditional teacher-mentor love was critical to me. I also talk about my graduate school mentors and colleagues and my students who are incredibly diverse.
Of course I’m very aware that there are many challenges faced by women and women of color, and I think it’s important as a more senior woman in the field to continue to support the younger generation of students and scientists of all backgrounds, especially those from traditionally underrepresented groups. That’s why I cofound AI4All with Dr. Olga Russokovsky and Dr. Rick Sommer, to support young high school age students from diverse backgrounds to enter the field of AI. That’s why it’s incredibly important for me to be aware and give back and give forward wherever I can and to create an ecosystem with other women and people of different backgrounds, but also with the incredible men I work with, to create technologies with humans front and center.
The Worlds I See: Curiosity, Exploration, And Discovery At The Dawn Of AI by Dr. Fei-Fei LI, published by Flatiron Books: A Moment of Lift Book, November 7, 2023