6 min read

The Coolest Jobs in the World

If I could be any superhero, I would choose Doctor Who[1]. This was a rather disappointing revelation when it struck me.

It’s a classic kids’ debate: what superpower would you choose, flight or invisibility. As a child I could imagine so many amazing superpowers and complex origin stories I might want for myself. Who would pass up all Superman’s godlike powers (and willingness to do good despite them). What kid didn’t dream of delivering Spider-Man’s smart alec one-liners while webbing up a school bully. And then there are the somewhat more esoteric options such as the Defenestrator, Flex Mentallo, or Wonder Woman[2].

Early in my life I might have chosen flight and the chance to see all the grand scope of the world. Later, when times were hard, invisibility had its appeal. When I really think hard over the last many years of my life, though, it’s not soaring above the earth or hiding from the world. It's not super strength or lame fire powers. My dream is a mind capable of understanding everything it encounters, the tools I need to change the world, and all of time to make a difference. In the end, the “superhero” that fits all of those abilities is The Doctor.

What a disappointment to realize my deepest fantasy is to be a cantankerous old crank flying throughout time and space, eating jujubes, making mischief, and very occasionally saving all of reality from destruction. Of course when I think back on my childhood, it does seem inevitable. It’s all right there, on Sunday nights, in the late 70s.

My father smoked a pipe when I was a kid. Its smoke would slowly fill the living room each Sunday night, eventually driving the rest of the family to their rooms. With them gone, we’d switch the channel to PBS[3] and our late night collection began with the science shows: Nature, Cosmos, Connections[4], and more. The wonder of science, nature, and technology piped into my head every Sunday via KQED help make me the kind of student who did nonfiction book reports while everyone else built dioramas on Superfudge or designed mobiles[5] capturing the essence of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

After the science block came the British comedy shows. The most obvious was Monty Python, of course, and then Fawlty Towers and Blackadder (and The Young Ones later). If any of you have ever attended one of my talks, or God forbid actually worked for me and had to endure my sense of humor around the office, then you know the absurdist and indulgent sense of human imprinted on me on those Sunday nights. Whether my sense of humor is funny to anyone but me…well that’s something completely different.

At the end of every Sunday night, long after everyone else has gone to bed, even my Dad and his smoke, after all middlebrow science and brow-scratching comedy was done, it was time for Doctor Who. This was the Fourth Doctor, with googly eyes, 10 foot scarf, and floppy hat. He fought upside-down trash cans screaming, “Ex-term-in-ate!”, but without ever throwing a punch. With his robot dog and occasional idiot human companion, he would defeat cybermen and autocrats simply by exploring every mystery and applying brilliant acts of mischief. Without any intent or plan, the Doctor became my role model, and those Sunday nights with my father made me who I am: someone with the coolest job in the whole world.

People bring me problems:

  • "My daughter struggles with bipolar disorder, what can we do?"
  • "What is the biggest untracked driver of productivity in our company?"
  • "Our country’s standardized test scores go up every year; why are our citizens still underemployed?"

If I think my team and I can make a unique and meaningful difference, I pay for everything, and we give away whatever we invent. It’s possibly the worst business idea ever, but I get to nerd out with AI and machine learning (ML), economics, cyborgs, and any other science, technology, or science fiction just to help someone. For lack of a more grown up title, I call this job "professional mad scientist" and I hope to do it for the rest of my life.

The path to this absurd career wound through academia, entrepreneurship, parenthood, and philanthropy. In fact, my very first ML project as an undergrad in 1999 (yes, we were partying like it was) concerned building a lie detection system for the CIA using face tracking and expression recognition. This was, to say the least, rather morally gray, but years later I used what I’d first learned on that project to build an AI “game” to reunite orphaned refugees with their extended family. Later still, I helped develop an expression recognition system on Google Glass for autistic children learning to read facial expressions.

As a grad student I told prospective advisors that I wanted to build cyborgs. Most (quite justifiably) thought I was crazy, but not all. At CMU, I developed ML that learned to hear and helped improve hearing aid design. Today I’m helping launch 3 separate startups mashing up ML and neurotech to augment creativity, treat Alzhiemers, and prevent postpartum depression. I’ve built ML systems to treat my son’s type 1 diabetes, predict manic episodes, and model causal effects in public policy questions (like, which policies improve job and patent creation by women entrepreneurs?). I’ve dragged you through all of the above absurd bragging not because I’m special but to explain why I do what I do. It is because none of this should have happened—no inventions invented, companies launched, or lives saved…mine least of all.

Just a few years before that CIA face analysis project I was homeless. Despite having every advantage, despite all of the expectations of my family and school, I had simply given up on life. The years in between taught me the most important lesson I could ever learn, which had nothing to do with inverse Wishart Distributions or Variational Autoencoder. I learned that life is not about me. It’s not about my happiness and supposed brilliance. Life is about our opportunities to build something bigger than ourselves. I just happen to do my building with the most overhyped and yet underappreciated technology of our time.

There’s a paradox that comes from realizing that life isn’t about you: you finally get to be yourself. For me that meant becoming a better person, a person that just happened to be a woman. (Estrogen is the greatest drug ever invented—I highly recommend it!) It meant being willing to launch products not because I thought they’d pay my rent but because I believed they should happen no matter the cost. And every year my life got better…and the AI became cooler :)

Machine learning is an astonishingly powerful tool, and I’m so lucky to have found it just at the dawn of my career. It is a tool that goes beyond my scifi dreams or nerd aesthetics. It’s a tool I use to help others do what I did for myself: build a better person. I’ve run ML models over trillions of data points from hundreds of millions of people and it all points at a simple truth: if you want an amazing life, you have to give it to someone else.

What follows are my stories of being a professional mad scientist. Some ended in triumph and others in failure, but every one was a chance to build a better person. And perhaps, you see the chance to build something amazing in these stories. Build something no one else in the world would build because no one else can see the world the same as you. And know that every life you touch with your own superpower will go on to touch innumerable other lives.

[1] The character is actually called The Doctor, but it is a sign of my great respect for you that I assume you won’t get the reference.

[2] To be clear, I don’t mean the Amazonian Princess but rather the Elseworlds Wonder Woman whose superpower is to “wonder” about the world and thereby change reality.

[3] Specifically, KQED, a station which, if I recall correctly, was in a constant state of pledge drive. Before Comic-Con, you had the phone bank volunteers for PBS’s Sunday late night pledge drives.

[4] Connections, despite its bell-bottomed 70’s cringiness, remains one of the greatest science shows of all time. Darron Aronofsky once asked me what ideas I might have for a Netflix series (yep, that really happened). Without pitch ready to go, I simply offered Connections as the sort of nonfiction series I’d love to create. He shared a strange look with his producing partner, and then said, “We just bought the option to remake Connections.” For a solid year, my staff then pestered him with the obvious choice (as they saw it) that I should host the show. I’m sure he’s going to call back any moment now…

[5] Dissertations, dioramas, or mobiles—which has the least pedagogical value?