My Journey to the Microsoft Research AI Residency
Interview with Andi Peng, AI Resident
Tell us a bit about your background/education/experience?
In school, I’d always been a bit of an academic mutt—I graduated from Yale with a BS in cognitive science and a BA in global affairs/security studies. If you’re wondering as to how orbitofrontal cortices relate to military statecraft and grand strategy, rest assured knowing that I, too, am still trying to figure this out. However, as disparate as these two disciplines seem, I think a fundamental question lies at the core of both: how do decisions get made in the real world, especially when one is faced with risk and uncertainty?
At Yale, I had the chance to explore that question from both bottom-up and top-down perspectives. In my cognitive science classes, I learned how psychologists and neuroscientists study human decision-making at the individual level, and how to model those processes computationally. In my global affairs classes, I learned how large-scale institutions, such as states and militaries, apply different models of decision-making in implementing policy at the organizational level. Along the way, I had the chance to work with a variety of different organizations, ranging from NASA to the UN, all who sought to understand and apply these principles in ways that would ultimately contribute to the betterment of the world.
How did you find out about the AI Residency and why did you decide to apply?
For the nine months prior to the residency, I was working in Washington, DC (the other, albeit very different, Washington!) on federal science policy, both at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Before the White House, I was a security engineer at Facebook and saw how targeted disinformation and the malicious use of technology can quickly impact our society. Then at the White House, I saw just how difficult it is to fix organizational problems on such a large scale. It’s no secret that this has been a tumultuous time in American history, both due to unprecedented political upheaval and unforeseen challenges posed by the rise of technology. Thus, I knew that the place I wanted to be at needed to have both the technical expertise to push forward the fundamental science on these issues, but also have strong leadership and demonstrate a willingness to engage on the ethical and social side. When I heard about the Microsoft Research residency, which has both, I knew it would be a great fit.
What do you want to get out of your year-long residency? What are your goals?
In this upcoming year, I hope to further develop technical expertise in the realm of AI and also continue contributing to the social dialogue on the ethics and fairness issues that have arisen. For example, when we as researchers develop state-of-the-art facial recognition software, how much responsibility should we have in ensuring that it’s not used to deliberately target people in a discriminatory manner? Or even worse, accidentally target them? My goal for my research is to ask questions such as these, informed both by an understanding of these technologies and their applications, as well as by the social contexts that shape and are shaped by these technologies.
Six weeks in, what are your initial thoughts on Microsoft Research and your experience?
The past six weeks have blown the expectations I had out of the water. Microsoft Research is an incredible place to work, filled with brilliant and engaging mentors that are all deeply engaged in advancing state-of-the-art AI in a way that positively contributes to the world. The first two weeks began with various project teams pitching proposals to the residents, and then a mutual match-making process began. For me, it was clear from the onset that one project was the best fit for my interests. I will be spending most of this upcoming year working with Eric Horvitz, Ece Kamar, and Emre Kiciman on a human-AI collaborative decision-making project. The Adaptive Systems and Interaction research group has adopted me as one of their own and I feel the love and support of belonging to a close-knit group of researchers who are all working on similar questions. I’m excited to have another ten-plus months to roll up my sleeves and dive deeper into these issues while working here.