From Academia to AI
By Kolby Harvey, VP of Conversational Technologies
After six years pursuing advanced degrees, it feels odd, to say the least, to be working for a tech startup. I spent the past decade studying French and German literature, creative writing, and practice-based research-creation, which is, essentially, a type of scholarly work that uses research to produce some kind of creative artifact (an infographic, sculpture, video, etc.), one that better exemplifies the ideas of the project than a traditional research paper would. As part of that (and also on the side), I’ve been making digital art, editing video, and doing graphic design for about 10 years now. All of this is a long way of saying that the worlds of tech and business feel scarily new. It’s a jarring shift from the university and graduate studies, but it’s one I chose. Here’s why:
If you haven’t had much experience with the inner-workings of higher education, I’ll forgive you for thinking of the academy as some bastion of progress and open-mindedness. In reality, the university, like every other place on earth, can be a nightmare for marginalized students, especially outspoken ones. One of the worst things you can do as one who is different is to remind academia of its shortcomings, its blind spots. Often, we accomplish this simply by existing. Allow me to make something clear: I’m saying this as a queer, non-binary/genderqueer person who is also white and able-bodied. Right now, there are graduate students struggling in ways I can’t fully understand or articulate here, students who need even more support than I did but are not receiving it.
At a certain point, I questioned whether it was worth it to continue to fight for my place in a system designed to push me out, with only the slimmest chance of landing a tenure-track position, god knows where, on the horizon. So here we are.
While it’s strange to talk to my friends—many writers and artists, most of them queer or non-binary themselves—about working for a tech company, I’m grateful for the opportunity to challenge myself in new ways, to expand. Most of all, I’m excited to be part of an organization at its inception, to help shape its culture and practices from the ground up. In academia, rigid and siloed, it often felt as if the only people who cared about (or even listened to) what I had to say were staff and faculty who were themselves marginalized and exploited by the system. With InfinitAI, I was chosen because of my abilities, but also because of who I am and what I bring to the table as a result of that. In this organization, this is appreciated and respected: my boss is black; I work with women, queer and straight; our lead developer is Argentinean.
I offer all of this not as some kind of diversity checklist in hopes of gaining a pat on the back. I want InfinitAI to be transparent about the voices shaping our company and its decisions. I want people to know which voices are represented and which currently are not. I want the public to see, as our team grows, which voices have joined ours.
I want this, because the makeup of our team and the decisions this leads to has significance beyond our own lives. The coming years hold incredible advances in the development and implementation of AI technologies. As with any new tech, it’s crucial to consider the implications of its development, usage, and distribution on populations who are not white and wealthy, who are working class, who live outside the United States, and so on. While I believe that fears of AI “taking jobs” are somewhat exaggerated, it will be incredibly important for companies like InfinitAI to conceptualize and implement automation in responsible ways. We must ask ourselves, at every turn, “Who benefits from automation and how?”
I walked away from the world of academia because I saw in my position with InfinitAI an opportunity to shape a developing technology that will affect the lives of millions of people. It is my hope and the hope of the other members of the InfinitAI staff that we are a force of accountability and thoughtfulness in the future development of AI technologies.
VP of Conversational Technologies
Kolby is a writer, designer, and artist living in Washington state. In 2018, he earned the University of Colorado’s first creative doctorate in Intermedia Art, Writing and Performance.