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Illustration by TIME; reference image courtesy of Fei-Fei Li

AI won’t be the first time technology has changed the world, Fei-Fei Li points out, and each time the change is for the better. “If we … teleport ourselves into any moment in history—the moment fire was discovered, the moment the steam engine was made, electricity—I think the discussions will be very similar: the double-edged sword of technology. Technology is empowering, but with that power comes danger. I think the same goes with AI.”

Li knows more than most about the promise and the perils she describes. Her research laid the foundations for the image-recognition AI systems operating today and expanded the use of AI for health care. She has been a vocal advocate for diversity in AI as a co-founder of AI4ALL, a U.S.-based nonprofit aiming to increase diversity and inclusion in AI.

Born in Chengdu, China, she moved to the U.S. at 15, studied physics and computer science at Princeton, and completed her Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. In 2006, Li began work on ImageNet, a database of images accompanied by text descriptions of their contents. By 2009, Li and her team, with the help of crowdsourced workers, had labeled 3.2 million images. A year later, they hosted a competition to see who could design an AI system that would most accurately determine the contents of the images. By giving researchers a common benchmark, Li supercharged the development of AI image-recognition systems.

Aside from a stint at Google from 2017 to 2018, Li has spent her career in academia. Recently, as AI developers have been training their systems using greater amounts of computational power, academics have struggled to keep up with the vast sums required to train the most powerful AI systems. “I am concerned about the global gap of resources between academic AI and industry AI,” says Li.

At a meeting with President Biden in June 2023, Li called for a “moonshot mentality,” arguing for ambitious government investment to ensure that AI is harnessed to serve the public good. In particular, Li, as a member of the National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource (NAIRR) Task Force, has called for government provision of AI computing resources. Her efforts, along with those of the other members of the task force, appear to be bearing fruit. In July, the leadership of the Congressional Artificial Intelligence Caucus introduced a bill that would establish NAIRR, to provide a wide range of researchers with the resources required to develop AI safely.Watching Oppenheimer with her children, Li, who is co-director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI, was struck by the similarities between the movie and the moment. “I do resonate really, really deeply with the sense of responsibility that scientists have. We’re all citizens of the world.”

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