Last week, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang surprised attendees of the San Francisco AI Meetup with the unexpected announcement of Titan X, the companys new GPU, which will be on the market August 2 and is expected to retail for $1,200. The focus of the Meetup was a presentation by Stanford professor and Chief Scientist at Baidu, Andrew Ng, and while VR people are more likely to think of GPUs as high-end gaming tech, theyre also crucial for machine learning applications. So it made sense for the company to debut Titan X in a room full of AI professionals.
As part of the announcement Nvidia raffled off two Titan Xs to members of the audience, and when the first recipient appeared, Huang responded to the appearance of a young woman with, You dont even know what a GPU is, huh? The young woman laughed, but there were some groans from the room.
I saw Huangs comment on Friday, where it was being discussed on a Women in VR Facebook group. I am literally sick to my stomach, wrote group member Carolyn Farino. As if one must have a penis to understand what a GPU is. I dont want to believe what I just heard. NVIDIA is the only GPU Id want in my machinethat GTX 1080 is *THE* card for VR right now. I feel like I was just stabbed in the chest.
And Farino wasnt the only one who felt that way. Comments quickly appeared on the thread, ranging from mild exasperation and a GIF of a princess flipping a table to outraged vows to boycott Nvidia GPUs. (I dont think Nvidia was aiming to connote invidiousness, but that was the effect.)
I went back and watched the stream of the video to see if there was some other context for the remark, and judge for yourself, but I didnt see anything. So I reached out to Nvidia for comment. Their spokesperson responded with remarks from Huang:
I was expressing delight that a young intern knew about GPUs, which for many years had been an obscure component. Still, I can understand how my comment could have been taken the wrong way, and I am sorry.
We all must support young people and be advocates for diversity. Nothing gives me more joy than to champion the work of young researchers, and to see people of all backgrounds getting into science and engineering. Your comments are a reminder that we all have to be vigilant to support diversityparticularly leaders and role models like me.
So essentially: it was a joke. Its always painful to deconstruct a jokeeven when its actually funny. But here, we have to ask, whats being skewered? Huang says its a general ignorance about GPUs, but that strains credulity a bit given that he was speaking to a room full of AI professionals. If he were announcing at the Super Bowl, it would be a different story, but the likelihood that anyone in AI Meetup wouldnt be familiar with GPUs is pretty much zero. So what seems to be the butt of the joke is womens ability to understand (and interest in) technology.
If that is the case, even taking into consideration that it was an off-the-cuff remark, and probably indicative of some subconscious biases rather than overt impulses, it clearly merits discussion.
Why? Because Nvidia is a major player in both the AI and VR spaces (which we at There Is Only R assume are fundamentally intertwined long-term) and Huang is the CEO. Thats not to say that soft condescension and dumb jokes about whether lady brains can handle the complexities of technology X are okay coming from junior engineers, but senior leadership is more visible and more powerful, and by virtue of that, more responsible for how they present themselves and their companies.
Personally, when I saw the clip, I wasnt outragedin part because Ive been working in male-dominated fields for so long that what I think of as Dumb Widdle Girl syndrome is so common that I think of it as background noise at this point. But I was disappointed. I cringed when I heard Huangs remark.
And I imagine that any young female engineer or data scientist watching felt the same way. When we talk about the dearth of women and minorities in technology, we can point to a variety of systemic reasons that dont help, and this is one of them: if women do make it into the field, men express surprise that theyre there.
Sometimes they even frame it as a complimenta pat on the head for doing exactly the same thing your male counterparts did to achieve exactly the same results. If they were being more direct: Its impressive that you overcame the intellectually debilitating condition of being female to understand the nuances of deep learning. Youre really smartfor a girl.
This is incredibly demoralizing to women who are entering the field, because even if its not intentional, it conveys to them that they dont really belong there. They are interlopers.
The lesson here isnt that if youre the CEO of a major company in the space that you need to watch what you say around women; its that you need to have some empathy for people who are looking to you to set the tone for the industry. If you dont convey that women are welcomeand respected for their work the same way men aremen in your organization will do the same. People who look up to you will do the same. Women will decline to work for you because they dont think they will be treated as peers, and their work will be discounted by soft biases.
My experience working in VR so far is that its actually more friendly to women than other areas of tech. But that is admittedly a low bar.
The good news is that VR is still very new and these things arent culturally entrenched yet. Its not even clear who the major players in VR are going to be five years from now. Things are changing rapidly. Now would be a good time for leaders in the field to be vocal about the fact that not only do women belong in the field, but that theyre expected to be there, because theres no good rational reason why they wouldnt be.
I do believe Jen-Hsun Huang when he says that hes sorry about the comment. But I hope he thinks a bit more about the reaction and pays more attention to the way women are talked to in his own company (and outside of it), and notices whether men in his company are talked to in the same way. Because every year theres a new class of brilliant female engineers trying to suss out who they should work for, where their work will be respected, and where they will be respected.
And they notice.