Leading the Robot Invasion of the Old Boys’ Club

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Shutterstock

Manuela Veloso grew up in Portugal in the 1960s and ’70s in a household where innovations, from the moon landing to the building of a huge bridge in Lisbon, were the subject of dinner-table discussion. In 1994, she moved to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree in computer science, and she went on to get her Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon. It was the golden era of artificial intelligence, the “years of deep thoughts, chess playing, hopping robots,” she tells the Cut. Veloso spent more than two decades at the university, working her way up to become the head of its machine-learning department, and has been researching artificial intelligence ever since — now as head of AI research at JPMorgan and professor emeritus at Carnegie Mellon.

Despite being one of few women in her field, Veloso is internationally recognized as an expert in AI, with a long list of accolades under her belt: She was the president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence from 2012 to 2014, the co-founder and a former president of the RoboCup Federation, and a fellow at several important institutions, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and American Association for the Advancement of Science. She’s also the co-founder of RoboCup, an annual international robotics competition, and the robots she helped build to play soccer won the Cup several times.

In her current role at JPMorgan, Veloso uses AI to find solutions in economics, data management, and gender equity. She spoke to the Cut about working harder to prove others wrong, the importance of having empathy at work, and the “roller coaster of emotions” that comes with life in research.

So tell me more about ending up with a career in technology — specifically artificial intelligence — especially when there were few women role models in the field when you were growing up.
I first studied electrical engineering, because I really loved math. My father is a mechanical engineer, and both of my parents thought that an engineering discipline would enable me to both fulfill my passion for math and be an interesting career. When I was very young, my mom gave me the biography of Madame Curie — other people grow with music and art and science and nature and I don’t know what. For us it was technology.

Why the switch from electrical engineering to artificial intelligence?
I did a master’s thesis in Portugal in which I helped digitize a company’s production line — they were building refrigerators and freezers, and they had a lot of parts. Through that experience, I became passionate about AI. That was when I understood computers could actually help in tasks that were repetitive and exhaustive and that they would enable less errors.

That was the beginning of AI. I was never a science-fiction person, but I really transformed my way of thinking through that project.

Was there a moment during your career where you faced any pushback or weren’t encouraged to follow your goals?
I was fortunate to be in an environment where people did not necessarily raise constraints about crazy ideas. Building robots to play soccer in ’97, ’96 was quite novel and daring in some sense, because we barely had any robots that moved. We barely had small robots. It was all about these robots going to space and these robots going down volcanoes, but it was not these small robots indoors doing tasks as teams. And Carnegie Mellon was this very nurturing environment for ideas that were novel and interesting.

I was always able to pursue most of the things I wanted. If I wanted to turn this stone and see what’s underneath, nobody told me, “No, you can’t.”

What other factors led to your success in your career?
I’m giving credit to the Carnegie Mellon environment, but we should give credit to the fact that I am very ambitious. I don’t like papers and research that is only trying to do better than someone else. I like studying new areas, and I always did thesis projects that were more revolutionary.

Women in technology are underrepresented — have you faced any specific challenges because of your background, especially as a woman from another country?
I don’t think I was discriminated against for being a woman or having an accent. My profile is very successful. But we should never forget that someone is successful only if someone behind the scenes is making it happen. I cannot say that people didn’t give me value and helped bring me up, that’s for sure.

I do think that there are many little things that for some people, women in particular and women with an accent, throughout the execution of their career, are more difficult than for other people. One is that it’s very hard for others in a daily environment to get credit for your ideas — very hard. You have to work extra hard to prove that what you want to do makes sense, because nobody says, “Let’s do what Manuela says,” and supports your ideas. It’s always a little bit of a fight to get your ideas across.

It’s also very important to have the support of the family themselves. My husband, my kids, my parents — the environment where you are outside of work makes a difference, because you have days in which you are happier, days in which you are less happy. And the environment at home needs to be understanding that the research career is a life of ups and downs. It’s not a very kind life. Things get rejected, things get accepted, you get work, you get rejections. It’s just a roller coaster of emotions.

It’s important for us to understand that for women, in particular, and foreigners, there’s the inevitable fact that it’s going to be difficult. What matters is that that difficulty cannot stop you from making great work progress. It’s almost as if you are constantly in this mode of, I’ll prove you wrong. I’ll do great. This persistence … it’s like turtles that have huge shells to protect them. You have to build that shell to protect you.

What advice have you been given that has most influenced your career?When I was applying for grad school, I was afraid of being rejected. So I said, “I’m not going to apply here.” Or even later, with papers or proposals, I had a lack of confidence. Then my husband would always say, “You don’t know if it’s rejected until you submit.” It was a very interesting approach, to not be afraid. And the moment you submit, you must disconnect from the decision. So it was a beautiful concept of doing something, and then disconnecting — when it was outside of your control.

Another piece of advice was from Herb Simon, my mentor. I was upset one day, and he told me: “You cannot be in the hands of people giving you awards and rejections — these external evaluations. Just build your own metrics.”

What advice would you have given your younger self?
A research career requires a strong involvement with others, empathy, and teamwork. As a woman, more than anyone, we need to have a high emotional intelligence, if we want to push forward transformative ideas. I was fortunate to closely work with my own remarkable PhD students and team. There was always a fantastic enthusiasm and trust in our lab to follow our own new scientific and engineering pursuits.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Leading the Robot Invasion of the Old Boys’ Club