April 19, 2024
Fei-Fei Li and the binders full of women in AI | The AI Beat


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I thought about Fei-Fei Li this weekend. Fei-Fei Li, the computer science researcher known for creating ImageNet, the image dataset that enabled the rapid AI advances in computer vision that led to AlexNet, the convolutional neural network that fired up the deep learning “revolution” that began in 2012. Fei-Fei Li, professor of computer science at Stanford University for nearly 15 years and co-director of the Stanford University Human-Centered AI Institute. Fei-Fei Li, the former chief scientist of AI and ML at Google. Fei-Fei Li, author of the recently-released The Worlds I See, who was interviewed about her book by top publications including the Economist, NPR, Fortune, MIT Technology Review and Wired.

This is the Fei-Fei Li who was mysteriously missing from a list published yesterday by the New York Times called “Who’s Who Behind the Dawn of the Modern Artificial Intelligence Movement.” In fact, there were no women at all on the list of twelve, which was comprised of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, Anthropic co-founder Dario Amodei, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis, AI researcher Geoffrey Hinton, venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, Tesla and X leader Elon Musk, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Google co-founder Larry Page, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, “internet philosopher” Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

I imagined millions of eye rolls happening at once

I imagined millions of eye rolls happening at once across the country and around the world upon reading this list, which was described by the Times as “a group of researchers, tech executives and venture capitalists” who “had worked for more than a decade to fuel AI” before chatbots “exploded in popularity.”

But for Fei-Fei Li and the thousands of other women who have played a role in the “modern artificial intelligence movement,” I also imagine what happened before the eye roll. Before the eyes gazed upward, likely accompanied by a slow head-shake of displeasure, I’m certain there was a slight furrowing of the eyebrows, a squinting of the eyes (perhaps wondering if one had read the list correctly) — and perhaps a long, drawn-out sigh, a shoulder slump, and a rubbing of the temples.

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That’s definitely how it was for me when I read the list, though I added a nostril flare and a curled lip. Li, for her part, gave little away about any behind-the-scenes eye rolls or other gestures. She simply shared an X post by journalist Kara Swisher in which she echoed Swisher’s take on having “binders” filled with women in AI:

Fei-Fei Li’s erasure is just a glaring symptom of a larger problem

Leaving off Li from what is, ultimately, a rather silly list that offers zero historical context is really just a glaring symptom of a larger “where’s the women” problem that every woman in AI (and most people, probably) is weary of addressing. Aren’t we all tired of it?

As a female journalist covering AI, I certainly am. I would prefer to never address it again. I’d rather write about the governance problems related to OpenAI’s nonprofit board, for example, instead of the fact that OpenAI eliminated the only female board members and that “white men ‘Bret, Larry and Adam’ will work hard to build a diverse board.” I’d prefer to moderate conference panels that focus squarely on serious and interesting AI issues without being embarrassed by the fact that the only female panelists in the entire conference are on my panel (as happened recently), or discomfort by the weird optics of my panel (with four industry representatives) having no women at all (as also happened recently).

Dudes — bros — guys — come on. You — we — must do better. There are plenty of gender-biased issues surrounding AI that are complex to solve. Including Fei-Fei Li and other women AI pioneers in a Who’s Who list is not.

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