“Godmother of A.I.” Fei-Fei Li on technology development: “The power lies within people”

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Fei-Fei Li, known as the “Godmother of A.I.,” has spent more than 20 years in the field of artificial intelligence, developing the groundbreaking technology and advocating for its use in ethical ways. 

Now, Li helms Stanford University’s artificial intelligence lab, where the professor leads a team of graduate students teaching robots to mimic human behavior. She also leads a campaign that advocates for all A.I. being driven by people, and has taken that message to Congress. 

Li, 47, advocates for bringing artificial intelligence to healthcare, and has advised President Joe Biden on the urgent need for more public-sector funding so that the U.S. can become the global leader in the technology. 

Despite her achievements in the field, she’s uncomfortable with her nickname.

“I would never call myself that,” she said. “I don’t know how to balance my personal discomfort with the fact that, throughout history, men are always called godfathers of something.” 

Li made a major breakthrough in the field years ago when she built a system to teach computers to recognize or “see” millions of images and describe the world around us. She called it “ImageNet,” and at the time, many doubted it, with one colleague even telling her that it was too big of a leap too far ahead of its time. 

In 2012, ImageNet was used to power a deep learning neural network algorithm called AlexNet, developed by researchers at the University of Toronto. That became a model for A.I. models like ChatGPT that are popular today. 

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Fei-Fei Li.

“I think that when you see something that’s too early, it’s often a different way of saying ‘We haven’t seen this before,'” Li said. “In hindsight, we bet on something we were right about. Our hypothesis of A.I. needs to be data-driven, and data-centric was the right hypothesis.” 

When she’s not working on A.I., Li is trying to bring more people into the world of artificial intelligence and technology. She is the co-founder of AI4ALL, an organization that pushes for more diversity in the field. 

“We don’t have enough diversity for this technology,” Li said. “We’re seeing improvements, there’s more women, but the number of students from diverse backgrounds, especially people of color, we have a long way to go.” 

Li is also the author of a memoir “The Worlds I See.” Within its pages, she documents her hardscrabble beginnings and immigration to the U.S. from China as a child and her rise to the top of her field. It wasn’t a linear path: Her family immigrated to New Jersey in a move that she said turned her world upside down, and at various points in her life, she worked odd jobs, like working at her parents’ dry cleaning shop in college and doing shifts at a Chinese restaurant for just $2 an hour. 

“I don’t know how it happened,” she said. “You’re uprooted from everything you knew. You don’t even know the language, and you see the challenges you’re dealing with.” 

Those experiences helped mold Li into the groundbreaking technology leader she is today, and her hard work resulted in a nearly full ride to Princeton University, where she studied physics before earning a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology.

Within the memoir, Li also notes her lingering doubts about her work in artificial intelligence, saying in one passage that she feels a “twinge of culpability” in the development of the technology, which she describes as something a phenomenon and responsibility that’s capable of both destruction and inspiration. 

“Because we are seeing the consequences, and many of them are unintended, in ushering this technology, I do feel we have more responsibility as scientists and technology leaders and educators than just creating the tech,” she said. “I don’t want to give agency to A.I. itself. It’s going to be used by people, and the power lies within people.”



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