Fei-Fei Li, Google’s AI maven, returns to academia
In early June, Google retreated from a Pentagon cloud contract following employee protests
San Francisco — Fei-Fei Li, chief scientist at Google’s cloud-computing division, is leaving after controversy over the use of the company’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology and a deal with the Pentagon.
Li, a venerated researcher in the field of AI, is returning to Stanford University, where she was a professor before joining Google about two years ago. Andrew Moore, dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh will become head of AI at Google Cloud at the end of 2018, the Alphabet company said on Monday. Moore worked at Google from 2006 to 2014.
In early June, Google retreated from a Pentagon cloud contract following employee protests. The programme, called Project Maven, used Google’s AI-powered image-recognition software. In internal e-mails, Li praised the contract but cautioned colleagues to avoid mentioning the AI component of the deal for fear that the public would latch onto concern about "weaponised" AI. "This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google," Li wrote in an e-mail reported by The New York Times.
Li also led Google’s move to open an AI research lab in Beijing. This is part of a broader effort by the company to return to mainland China since pulling its search service from the country in 2010. These plans have also sparked internal debate, and criticism by some US politicians.
Google hired Li in 2016, although the China-born scientist continued in her AI role at Stanford. While working at Google, she helped create applications the company could package for businesses that buy its cloud services. Many of these offerings built on Li’s specialty in computer vision, giving machines the ability to recognise and process images at tremendous speed. As the third-place competitor, behind Amazon and Microsoft in the cloud industry, Google’s unit leans heavily on its AI tools to lure potential clients.
At Google, Li’s mantra was "democratising AI" — spreading the advanced tools to more software developers and academic researchers. She spearheaded the acquisition of Kaggle, a company that organises more than 2-million data scientists.
In March, six months after the Project Maven deal was signed, Li penned an op-ed for The New York Times titled, How to Make AI That’s Good for People.
Li will become an adviser to the company, Diane Greene, CEO of Google’s cloud unit, said in the statement.