What an honour it has been to be a recipient of the Samsung Ho-Am Prize in Engineering in 2021. Ho-Am Prize of about 275,000 USD is one of the biggest, and perhaps the most recognized, awards in Korea.
Since, as I see it, this prize recognizes our field of deep learning, and more broadly artificial intelligence and data science, rather than myself as an individual, I’ve decided to use it to serve a broader society. One of the donation targets I have decided to give a part of the prize is Aalto University’s Master's Programme in Computer, Communication and Information Sciences: Machine Learning, Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (MACADAMIA), with a condition that it will be used to support female students from non-EU countries entering the program.
One of the most fortunate moments in my career so far was one day in Fall 2008. My friend and I were taking a course designed for freshman students in a non-computer science major. One day, he showed me a brochure by Aalto University (back then Helsinki University of Technology) about an international master’s program in machine learning and data mining.
Until then, I never planned to continue my study beyond my undergraduate degree, I never thought of going abroad for studying further, and I never even imagined moving to Finland. Nevertheless, within a few months, I was on a flight to Helsinki. And, until now, that has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
Just by talking with, hanging out with and just simply listening to people from all over the world, we not only learn how others live, but we ourselves live, experience, understand and accept how others live all over the world. In doing so, we become more tolerant and open-minded. We must strive to actively create an environment in which no group of people is marginalized and in which everyone is welcome and can interact with each other.
Diversity matters from at least two aspects. First, diversity self-reinforces. For instance, it’s quite difficult for me to imagine my little niece dreaming of becoming an AI researcher, because it’s not easy for me to see how she would find the field of artificial intelligence welcoming, when the whole field is pretty much dominated by men. The only way to break this is to make sure all, truly all, are represented.
Second, diversity is a path toward safety, equity and fairness in engineering and science. I might sound a bit like a broken record at this point, but for instance quite a bit of issues arising from deploying AI/ML systems could have been caught before their deployment had those systems been developed and vetted by a team of developers that properly represent the diversity of the society.
Compared to my experience back in Korea, Aalto University provided me an environment which was much better internationalized and had generally better diversity across various aspects. This greatly helped me broaden my view and perspective on a diverse set of topics, and really changed how I perceive the world in general. Looking back, however, I must unfortunately say that my bar was very low.
Aalto University, and the Finnish society in general, also suffer from the (relative) lack of internationalization and diversity. Outside the international master’s programs, it was reasonably rare to find any non-Finnish students at Aalto University in the early 2010’s.
Furthermore, within my cohort of MACADAMIA, was one female student out of 12. This balance seems particularly bad, but the balance wasn’t too good among students as well as faculty members within general computer science.
As I’ve explored beyond Finland, I’ve seen, experienced and enjoyed places that are more internationalized and have a more diverse population. Aalto, and more broadly Finland, could benefit even more from having a more diverse set of students so that the whole society, and its members, continue to stay (and become even more) open-minded and tolerant.
This donation is my small gesture of thanking the non-EU female students for coming to Aalto University and Finland to study, which in turn improves diversity, and make Aalto and Finland even more awesome!
Associate Professor at New York University and an alumnus of Aalto University School of Science
Read more on Kyunghyun Cho's larger blog post on the topic