Laurence Mooney lives in the Seattle area in the US. He is the Artificial Intelligence Advocacy lead at Google. It is his job to “inform and inspire the technical world about the possibilities around AI”. He makes videos, writes best-selling books, teaches at universities and online where he has more than one million students
While I wasn’t born there, my family roots are in Drogheda, Co Louth and I spent a large chunk of my childhood and teenage years there.
One day in secondary school, my geography teacher gave us a take-home assignment with many questions that weren’t immediately easy to answer. We didn’t have Google and the Internet to help.
One question was: “What is an invisible export?” It stumped me and everyone I knew. I couldn’t find a book in the library or an encyclopaedia entry.
On the day it was due, I asked a classmate, and he laughed. “It’s Irish people living abroad and always doing the right thing to set a good example and reflect well on the country,” he told me.
I didn’t believe him.
I graduated into the a significant recession to discover that nobody would hire somebody with a physics degree and an Irish accent. To some, even the concept of an Irish physicist was a joke
Of course, he was right, and little did I know that it would be something that would change my life.
While Ireland was the home of my family, another country I had lived in, Wales, was special to me. I left at the end of the 1980s to take a spot in university in Cardiff. I graduated into the most significant recession since the second World War to discover that nobody would hire somebody with a physics degree and an Irish accent. To some, even the concept of an Irish physicist was a joke.
Returning to Ireland wasn’t really an option. It would have been be cruel to my girlfriend, now wife of almost 28 years, to uproot and emigrate again. She had settled in London from Hong Kong, and she had family there. So I moseyed on.
One day, the British government had the foresight to understand that Artificial Intelligence was a wave of the future. They organised a scheme to build a cohort of 20 people who would be trained on the latest technology. This cohort could form a backbone that might help companies navigate the AI waters. If successful, it could also be the model for future groups. It would be the seed to boost the economy should the dream of AI become real.
This was 1992.
They put out a call for people to apply, and hundreds descended on a test centre in Birmingham to do a battery of tests, from intelligence to spatial reasoning to psychological.
At the end of the day, they stopped me at the door and asked me to go upstairs to meet with the program director, a British government minister. I had got top marks across the board and was the model of what they were looking for. They had decided that they couldn’t let me go without offering me the first spot.
I hadn’t yet opened my mouth, and by the time I could accept, say “Thank you,”’ and let them hear my accent, I had already signed the papers.
Of course, given that it was 1992, the program was a complete failure. The tools just didn’t exist to support the theory, but the idea of being an “invisible export” worked. Many in the cohort were in open revolt at spending all day in a classroom learning useless knowledge. I made it my motto to be that good example my friend had described. To work hard. To solve problems instead of making them.
So, when the program shut down, the British MP offered me another option – a fully-paid scholarship to a local university to study for a Master’s degree, including everything – a home in Birmingham and London. Tuition. Books. Everything I needed to live and succeed.
Before all of this, I had calculated that I was roughly three weeks away from being homeless on the streets of London. I had only the kindness of strangers in the Asian community keeping me from hitting rock bottom. Now, an MP was offering me a free scholarship to do a Master’s.
I never forgot my time at the bottom. It has helped me work with others who are similarly running against the wind
My journey continued, bringing me to the US, where I ended up working in big tech. Something in my bearing, the Irish “gift of the gab” gave me skills to communicate complex concepts clearly and concisely. That brought me back to Artificial Intelligence. The difference between now and 1992 is that the tooling is available to make a difference. Given the opportunity to make a change, I now lead AI advocacy at Google, have multiple best-selling books, over a million online students. I have taught at universities worldwide, from Harvard to Oxford to Beijing. I am hoping to spend some time at UCD this summer.
It has helped me inspire people to transform lives. From African farmers using AI to spot crop disease to researchers saving the environment or governments improving healthcare, the dream of AI is becoming real, and I am delighted to be a part of it.
But I never forgot my time at the bottom. It has helped me work with others who are similarly running against the wind. It helped me link the opportunities of AI to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, bringing others to options they may not have had previously.
Women have it hard in tech as a whole, but there aren’t many places where they have it harder than in Japan. In 2019, I was asked to host some workshops in Japan for women in AI. Some universities were putting together a cohort of 40 women to become AI trainers themselves. They would, in turn, create safe environments where other women could train in AI development. The hope is for the snowball effect to kick in.
At the end of the workshops, I was leaving to meet some friends, holding Irish and Japanese rugby jerseys. One of my students asked me why. I told her that I had made a bet, that if Ireland beat Japan in the Rugby World Cup, my Japanese friends would have to wear a green jersey for a photo.
As we all know, Japan beat Ireland, so I lost the bet and I had to wear Samurai Red.
“You’re Irish?” she asked me, wide-eyed.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Sugoi!” she exclaimed. “That explains why you would do all this,” stretching her arms to show the classroom. She was from Shizuoka, host of the Ireland game. She told me how the Irish fans were terrific, well-behaved, and fun. She had been worried about many Westerners descending on her town, but in the end they all missed the Irish when they left.
Invisible exports indeed.
If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abr[email protected] with a little information about you and what you do