Fei-Fei graduated from Princeton in 1999 and went on to pursue her PhD at Caltech.
It might come as a surprise that Fei-Fei Li’s favorite class in high school was not math or physics, but instead United States history. She is, after all, one of the world’s leading artificial intelligence scientists, and she loved science from an early age. But when Fei-Fei first arrived in the US with her parents as a sixteen-year-old Chinese immigrant, she was fascinated by the American colonies, the Founding Fathers, and the Constitution.
These days, in the world of computer science and machine learning, Fei-Fei is doing something not all that dissimilar from what her favorite Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, did. Along with her peers in Silicon Valley, Fei-Fei is building technology that reshapes the ways humans live on this planet. She calls it the fourth Industrial Revolution.
Fei-Fei, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University, has been at the forefront of artificial intelligence since the early 2000s, when she was a computer science PhD student at the
California Institute of Technology and a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow. At the time, she was beginning her groundbreaking work teaching computers how to see and understand images. Fei-Fei’s team developed algorithms that allowed computers to identify objects in images. But instead of focusing on strengthening the algorithms to improve computer capabilities, she turned to big data to provide the computers with the high-quality information they needed to learn to see. This initiative became ImageNet, a project that Fei-Fei launched with Princeton University Professor Kai Li in 2007.
The ImageNet team downloaded nearly one billion images from the internet and, working with
crowdsourcing technology, utilized the help of 48,940 people to label each image with the correct language necessary for a computer to be able to understand what’s in it. Thanks to this work, computers can not only identify objects in an image, but they can then look for patterns across the images. For example, computers scanned Google Street View images from hundreds of US cities and identified every single car by make and year. They were then able to crossreference that data with geographic information to understand how the price of cars correlated with societal information like voting behavior and crime rates.
As a mother of two, a professor, a nonprofit leader, and a chief scientist at Google, Fei-Fei never has a dull moment.
In her newest professional role as the chief scientist of artificial intelligence and machine learning at Google Cloud, Fei-Fei is focused on delivering strong cloud computing systems to every industry across the globe in an effort to democratize the technology and improve it. “They might not realize it, but as far as I’m concerned, almost every field is going through a transformation because of data, machine learning, and the interconnected world we live in,” Fei-Fei explained over a Google Hangout in June. “It’s incredibly inspiring, and it really does inspire me to think a lot about how to deliver that technology to people in the way that they need it.”
Fei-Fei’s machine learning and research team at Google Cloud has doubled in size since her arrival. They are working with companies like eBay and Lush to improve data security, decrease wait times, and improve the consumer experience. Recently, they helped HSBC reduce the time it took to generate a finance liquidity report from six hours to six minutes.
“The impact of technology has many facades. It can help to increase productivity, and reduce inefficiency and error, and improve quality of life, but it also changes the landscape of the economy, the labor market, and the environment,” she continued. “We need to be very thoughtful and invest in these fundamental technologies and opportunities, so that’s what brought me to Google Cloud.”
One way that Fei-Fei is investing in the field outside her work at Stanford and Google Cloud is through her nonprofit, AI4ALL, which exposes underrepresented high school students to the field of artificial intelligence. “Diversity and inclusion is a huge problem in tech, it’s a huge problem in Silicon Valley, it’s a huge problem in computer science, and it’s a huge problem in AI,” she noted. “The technology we create for society needs to reflect the values of the society as a whole. In order to do that, we need technologists that can represent who we are as humans. I think that the education of a diverse next generation of technologists and thought leaders is critical to ensure the benevolence of AI as a technology.”
Fei-Fei’s commitment to all sides of the field of artificial intelligence makes her the remarkable leader that she is. Her decisions will shape the way we interact with technology and the way it
improves our lives.
Fei-Fei and her parents in Chengdu, China. The family immigrated to the US when Fei-Fei was a teenager.