by Jordan Jacobs, Managing Partner and Co-Founder, Radical Ventures
Radical’s Scientific Partner Fei-Fei Li’s memoir, The Worlds I See: Curiosity, Exploration, and Discovery at the Dawn of AI, was released this week. It is a first-hand look at modern AI’s rapid development, written from the perspective of a central figure in the development of artificial intelligence. The story of AI and its breakthrough moment in 2012, when Geoffrey Hinton and two of his students won the ImageNet competition Fei-Fei created, is interwoven with Fei-Fei’s journey. From a new immigrant who came to the US as a teen without English, money or relationships beyond her parents, Fei-Fei emerges as a pioneering figure in modern AI, which includes founding and becoming Co-Director of Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Institute, and advisor to the White House and leaders in industry.
Fei-Fei’s story starts in China, where she was born to parents caught in the political turmoil of a Communist government critical of those who were perceived to be loyal to the previous government which had fled to Taiwan during the Communist takeover. At school, Fei-Fei outshone the boys, which was deemed unacceptable by teachers. Eventually, her family emigrated from China to the United States, where they rebuilt their lives from the ground up, starting from nothing.
On arriving in the United States, Fei-Fei struggled to adapt to a new language and culture while working long hours at a restaurant to help her parents make ends meet. It was her high school math teacher, Bob Sabella, who engaged with Fei-Fei, discovering her love for literature and science, which transcended language barriers. Fei-Fei’s connection with Sabella and his family evolved into a lifelong mentorship. Sabella’s guidance played a crucial role in shaping Fei-Fei’s educational path, leading to a degree in physics from Princeton University followed by a Ph.D. at CalTech, and a tenured professorship at Stanford University. Fei-Fei credits Sabella for instilling in her a sense of curiosity that became foundational to her groundbreaking work in AI.
I have been fortunate to work alongside Fei-Fei in her capacity as Scientific Partner at Radical and I have seen up close her love for learning and her desire to inspire the next generation of innovators. Today, when Fei-Fei meets with students or young founders, she is acutely aware of the profound impact one special teacher or mentor can have: “My experience learning from Bob comes flooding back during moments like these — Mr. Sabella, as I knew him back then — and how deep an imprint a teacher can leave on the trajectory of youth. We’re entrusted with sharing a special kind of joy — the thrill of knowledge, the rush of new possibilities.”
Aside from being a moving memoir and compelling history of AI, this book illustrates how one person’s kindness can change another person’s destiny in a way that impacts the entire world. It is one of the best cases you can make for the role teachers and mentors play in shaping the future of their proteges – not just academically, but in fostering qualities that ultimately contribute to our collective progress.
I was privileged to read “The Worlds I See” manuscript over a year ago. As a friend, I have seen firsthand the talents and qualities that make Fei-Fei truly remarkable. Beyond her extraordinary scientific credentials, she is a thoughtful and dedicated mother and wife, a supporting caregiver to her parents, an engaged professor and mentor to a generation of Stanford students, and a global advocate for developing AI that benefits the world, with human-centred values at the technology’s core.
With so few women in leadership roles in AI, Fei-Fei’s achievements remind us of a continuing gender imbalance in AI that her story will hopefully help to rectify in generations to come. For anyone interested in the rise of AI or seeking inspiration to pursue their dreams, this story of an immigrant who starts with nothing but smarts, determination and some kindness from a teacher, and works their way to the top of a field impacting the world, Fei-Fei’s memoir is a must read.
The Worlds I See: Curiosity, Exploration, and Discovery at the Dawn of AI is now in bookstores.