Q&A: How Timnit Gebru on AI

Timnit Gebru. (Forbes)


Q&A: How Timnit Gebru Brought Diversity to Artificial Intelligence

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 to increase 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.

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