If a toxic standoff on the Texas border, the cultural firefights over DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), or the would-be Casandras wringing their hands over the future of artificial intelligence have you down, let me share some food for thought. In fact, there’s a feast of inspiration in the marvelous new book by AI sage Fei-Fei Li.
Perhaps most marvelous of all is that The World I See is not a book on immigration. That now radioactive acronym, DEI, appears nowhere in its pages. It’s not even really a book on technology — though there is a good and accessible history of AI’s evolution that will enlighten both pros and novices in the AI space. Rather, it’s a technologist’s muse on the elements in the cover’s subtitle: Curiosity, Exploration, and Discovery… Together, these combine into a conclusion that is an ethos toward the future unfolding with AI.
Above all, this is a book on intentionality, the capacity to understand awareness and consciousness and use these very human attributes to shape our behavior as individuals and society — and ultimately to shape our technologies. That, I’ll argue, is what is most sorely lacking in so much of our thinking and performative civic discourse, even beyond these three interlocking topics I want to tackle today. For at a moment of primitive mind proliferation, cribbing from Tim Urban about whom I’ve written separately, Dr. Li’s work is a high mind frame around all of these issues and more — through the triumph and example of her own inspiring journey, without a hint of partisan advocacy (thankfully).
“I believe our civilization stands on the cusp of a new technological revolution with the power to reshape life, as we know it,” Dr. Li argues. “To ignore the millennia of human struggle that serves as our society’s foundation, however — to merely “disrupt”, with the blitheness that has accompanied so much of this century’s innovation — would be an intolerable mistake.”
In the face of that, her book is a call for intentionality — my term, not hers. So let me expand on that term. Intentionality is something quite distinct from the related word of intention. Intentions are mere plans and aspirations. Intentionality is a philosophy, a way of planning with purpose. Elsewhere, I’ve written and spoken extensively on Conscious Capitalism, as a movement and passion of mine (I served on their Board of Directors), the view that business is about much more than profit, that it must be focused on service to people and community. From that flows the related concept of the Public Benefit Corporation, that firms should be legally chartered to serve the interests of not just shareholders, but the stakeholders of employees, community, and the environment. My company data.world is a proud B Corp. In sum, commerce must be intentional.
While Dr. Li focuses on the essence of that sentiment, bringing it broadly to her life’s work of AI, her often poignant memoir of family, migration, friendship, loss, sacrifice, and the search for purpose boils down to this concept of intentionality. In this sense, The Worlds I See is a book about the very best of America. Or about what should be the best in our nation.
Now, I apologize in advance to Dr. Li for pulling her work toward the fraught polemical spaces that she, as a scientist, surely loathes. In fact, while writing this post, I got a note that in ten weeks Dr. Li will be speaking at this year’s TED Conference, which I attend every year in Vancouver. So perhaps I can explain this in person; I’ve no doubt that her presentation will be a major highlight of the gathering. I also want to assure readers that I’m not edging toward some sort of liberal or conservative paean to any faction in the nation’s troubled state of affairs. My centrist politics are more in line with my hero Leonard Cohen’s 1992 lyrics in his song Democracy: “I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean…I love the country but I can’t stand the scene… And I’m neither left or right… I’m just staying home tonight…”
Except that, unlike Leonard, I can’t stay home with so many fires outside: Our border is broken, and no amount of deflection by the Biden Administration can obscure that fact even while the political opportunism of our age adds its own many burdens. I hope for some resolution. But in all events, the buck stops at the White House and the challenge is much greater than just what’s happening at the Rio Grande — as tragic a mess as that is. We need to get intentional about the border. Meanwhile however, there’s another almost invisible crisis in our immigration reality that we’re not discussing.
Meanwhile in the DEI debate, we’re far beyond just the squalls in the Ivy League; the storm is better seen in our self-censorship that is such that neither the Me Too movement or the National Organization for Women (NOW) can bring themselves to condemn the brutal rape of Israeli innocents by the terrorists of Hamas. Yes, we do need pluralistic backgrounds, worldviews, and perspectives for reasons that include basic justice. But we must proceed in ways liberated from conformist groupthink. Trading in the dogma of DEI for the various counter-progressive dogmas that pose as alternatives is hardly a solution. But intentionality will be at the foundation of the solution we will ultimately devise.
On AI, few love science fiction as much as I do. But it sure makes for lousy public policy as I wrote about last fall in another book review, on Inflection AI co-founder Mustafa Suleyman’s equally foundational work, The Coming Wave, another brilliant call for intentionality.
So let’s bring all of this back to a scientist’s memoir. Let’s start with immigration, the bedrock of our country’s founding.
The American dream in action — the immigrant story
Consider a 15-year-old girl who arrives from China with scarcely any English to enroll as a sophomore at a New Jersey high school, with all the bewilderment and uncertainty such a transition implies. On a random weekend outing in search of a yard sale or two, young Li and her parents stumble almost unknowingly onto the campus of Princeton University. “I was impressed by the landscaping and architecture but found very little else of interest,” she remembers. But there she encounters a statue of another immigrant, Albert Einstein. “I practically shivered with each word, as if a fever were breaking,” she recalls of her reading the inscription for the Nobel Laureate, best known for his general theory of relativity. The experience ignited a latent passion for physics. “I had something to chase again,” she recalls, and less than three years later Ph.D.-to-be Li wins a full scholarship to the same university.
Her experience as a physics major at one of the world’s most exclusive universities was hardly typical. No supper clubs or ski trips to Vermont. On occasion she’d step out of Palmer Hall — the very place where Einstein once lectured — to translate Mandarin by cell phone for her mother when there was a tricky issue with a customer’s linens at the dry cleaners her parents ran. And on weekends she helped run the shop herself. This was the foundation toward, much later, the pinnacle of achievement from which Dr. Li writes the book. From Princeton, to a pivot from physics to AI, a brief stop at Berkeley, and on to CalTech. From there, it’s a quick stop at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign before arriving back at Princeton. Which leads to another pivot — and a lab moved across the country — to Stanford University where she is today. She also came up with a complicated 22-month sabbatical that blended her work at the lab with service as Google Cloud’s Chief AI Scientist — a work/life balance that only a scientist could love.
Hers is the American dream in action, the immigrant story. But it is also the story of the generations of innovation, creativity, and dynamism that have defined America generally, and certainly the technology sector specifically. I often think of famed film director Billy Wilder, who on receiving a special Oscar at the 1988 Academy Awards, recalled his flight from Nazi Germany in 1934 and how, after a brief stay in the United States, he was forced to go to Mexico to seek a new visa. “I had to get out of Berlin with 20 minutes notice,” he explained to a U.S. customs officer in Mexicali, who found his paperwork totally inadequate. Terrified of being sent back to face the Nazis, Wilder described his fear that all appeared lost. The taciturn officer then asked, “What do you do professionally?” Wilder responded, “I write movie scripts.” They sat in silence, Wilder sweating profusely. “Well, write some good ones,” the officer finally said, with the thump of a rubber stamp pounding into Wilder’s passport. Intentionality in action.
“I would specifically like to thank one specific gentleman without whose help I would not be standing here tonight,” Wilder said 54 years later, as he accepted his award from Jack Lemmon. “I have forgotten his name, but I have never forgotten his compassion.” Hollywood would certainly be all the poorer — as would we — were he to have been turned back at the border. But Wilder’s story is also Dr. Li’s.
In my own realm of technology innovation, I think of Georges Doriot, the “father of venture capitalism” who immigrated from France in 1922, became a professor at the Harvard Business School, and went on to form the world’s first VC investment firm, the American Research and Development Corporation in 1946. Or Intel founder Andy Grove who immigrated from Hungary in 1956. Immigrants have made the world in which I live and thrive.
More recent arrivals include not just Dr. Li from China, or AI entrepreneur Suleyman mentioned above, an immigrant from the United Kingdom whose taxi driver father was in turn an immigrant from Syria. Just a few names from India would include CEOs Satya Nadella at Microsoft, Sundar Pinchai at Alphabet, and Shantanu Narayen at Adobe Systems. Google’s Sergey Brin came from Russia and Tesla’s Elon Musk from South Africa. It’s hard to imagine where sectors from healthcare to gaming to data centers, and from cloud computing to autonomous car technology, and of course from AI to machine learning, would be without the chip technology of NVIDIA, founded by an immigrant from Taiwan, Jensen Huang.
Few decisions are as intentional as resolving to leave one’s native land for foreign shores. Consider that a third of American engineering and technology companies have been founded by immigrants, and more than half of startups in the Silicon Valley, according to the National Bureau of Research. Immigrants have founded an astonishing 43.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies, which employ more than 12.8 million people globally, according to a comprehensive 2022 study by the Council on Foreign Relations.
The other immigration crisis scarcely in the headlines
I could go on and on. But the larger point I want to make is that we are blithely placing this at risk. For while we have waves of headline-making immigrants illegally entering the country — driven in many cases by ghastly circumstances to encounter an often-callous bureaucracy that defines fecklessness, a situation we must get under control — we’ve also severely shuttered the legal pathways that have made us the technological envy of the world. It’s fair to wonder today whether this brilliant scientist Dr. Li, the founder of Stanford University’s Institute for Human-Centered AI, who immigrated to the United States in 1992, would make it to a New Jersey high school in 2024. Reading The World I See, my mind went to Katelin Kariko, the Hungarian native who won last year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on the mRNA Covid vaccine that has saved millions of lives. As Kariko has herself pointed out, she probably wouldn’t qualify for entry to the United States today.
You’ll often read that we haven’t reformed our general immigration system for all aspiring immigrants to America since 1986, which is both true and a scandal. But far less discussed is that we’ve been neglecting our system to woo the world’s best and brightest for almost as long. The culprit is the three-decade-old visa system known as H-1B. In short, it allocates three-year visas to highly skilled workers, researchers, and scientists, with the option of a three-year extension and allowance in many cases for newcomers to additionally apply for a green card, the first step to citizenship. About the time I founded what was to become my first large company, Coremetrics in 1999, the cap originally set by Congress at 65,000 was raised to almost 200,000 visas a year. Coremetrics benefited from that move, hiring quite a few brilliant engineers on the H-1B program in an incredibly tight dot-com-fueled hiring market. But in 2004, the program was allowed to revert back to the cap set in 1990, where it remains. This cap was set a year before the world’s first website was launched in 1991, at a time when a new Apple Macintosh II came with just one megabyte of RAM (as compared to the Mac on which I’m now typing with more than 32,000 times that). America’s tech sector was a fraction of what it is today. With some exceptions for universities, hospitals, and a handful of other sectors, the H1-B cap is the same as it was back then, the same year Microsoft launched Windows 3.0.
That was a long, long time ago given the breathtaking pace of technological development.
It gets worse.
Since 2014, the backlog has grown so large that the Department of Homeland Security instituted a lottery system for the coveted visas. Gaming of the system, including double registration in some cases, has turned the visa hunt into a frenzied hustle. Since March, nearly 800,000 applications for the coveted visa category have been registered, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, meaning the odds of getting one are about 15%. Meanwhile, when it comes to the transition to permanent residency, the backlog is at an all-time high. Some 1.8 million workers in the US, mainly in technology jobs, are now awaiting action on green card applications. And while the numbers are fuzzy, as many as 15% of workers laid off in the tech sector in the past 18 months are H-1B visa-holders, who have 60 days to find a job or be deported. Very concerning stories abound in the sector that now produces almost 11% of America’s GDP, doubling since 1990 — while the cap remains unchanged.
We need to get intentional about immigration generally, but urgently so when it comes to attracting and enabling the world’s finest minds to get here. This is my first takeaway from The Worlds I See.
Mobilizing to share our common humanity
My second takeaway is the importance of diversity in our institutions — real diversity — that liberates us from the oppressor vs. oppressed mindset. I won’t dwell on this, but to recommend an excerpt from another book, The Coddling of the American Mind by Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff as a must-read. Their book sheds light on how those now-infamous university professors could be so “confused” as to morph into moral bankruptcy before the world in their congressional testimony.
“Identity can be mobilized in ways that emphasize an overarching common humanity while making the case that some fellow human beings are denied dignity and rights because they belong to a particular group,” Haidt and Lukianoff write, “or it can be mobilized in ways that amplify our ancient tribalism and bind people together in shared hatred of a group that serves as the unifying common enemy.” Again, intentionality is the key concept here, and it’s a subject I explored in depth in the conclusion of my own book, The Entrepreneur’s Essentials. (Note that the proceeds from my book all go to the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute at the University of Texas at Austin).
In 2015, Dr. Li took such intentionality to what became international scale. In that year, she and a graduate student, Olga Russakovsky (now a professor herself at Princeton), launched what became a dramatic outreach to groups excluded from AI. Commiserating on what she references as the “sea of dudes” reality in tech generally and AI specifically, they were inspired first to launch a program to bring ninth- and tenth-grade girls to a special class at Stanford. That initiative led in 2015 to the founding of AI4ALL, a nonprofit serving women and others historically excluded from AI, with summer programs and mentorship. The program has now reached more than 10,000 young people in all 50 states and Canada.
Technologists who understand philosophy, ethics, and even law
The third and final takeaway from The Worlds I See is the most important of all. It is on the intentionality that we must bring to the development of this technology of AI to serve humanity, and not proceed with the “blitheness” I referenced at the outset.
“The practitioners of coming years will need much more than technological expertise,” Dr. Li writes. “They’ll have to understand philosophy, and ethics, and even law.”
Dr. Li’s mid-2010s epiphany on this comes suddenly — much like her encounter years before as a teenager stumbling across the inscription beneath a Princeton statue of Einstein — in a conversation with her mother, in the hospital where she is battling chronic illness. Dr. Li casually muses to her mother about AI, the potential of self-driving cars to offer more mobility. This prompts a deeper discussion between them. Her fiercely determined mother — an aristocrat whose family was undone for its Kuomintang associations during the strife in China that followed the second world war — doesn’t really understand what her daughter does. A discussion of AI and science ensues between mother and daughter. Greater mobility sounds nice, her mother allows, but then she demands: “Fei-Fei, what else can AI do to help people?” And once again, the daughter is off to a new North Star.
Her passion ignited to unite AI with service to humanity first leads Dr. Li to help found “eICU”, an edge computing (also known as the internet of things) initiative to provide what she calls “ambient intelligence” in hospitals to help monitor critical systems, follow patients’ vital signs, and track hygiene protocols. Ultimately, it’s what leads her to found the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI in 2019. As an interdisciplinary hub, the institute is now pioneering ways to bring diverse actors — philosophers, lawyers, students, anthropologists, and other academic practitioners — into the AI conversation and help us build a better future. Intentionality institutionalized.
“The future of AI remains deeply uncertain, and we have as many reasons for optimism as we do for concern,” Dr. Li concludes. “But it’s all a product of something deeper and far more consequential than mere technology: the question of what motivates us, in our hearts and in our minds, as we create.”
There’s no more elegant way to frame the challenge than that. This is really the “North Star” for all of us in AI. We must constantly return to our motivations, to our hearts, and to our minds…
And above all, to our intentionality.