Scott Bair is a key voice at Intel Labs, sharing insights into innovative research for inventing tomorrow’s technology. Javier Turek is an AI Researcher working on the Human-Robot Collaboration Team at Intel Labs.
During Hispanic Heritage Month, we proudly celebrate the culture and contributions of the Latinx community, comprising immigrants and American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Portugal, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. The theme for this year is “Unidos; Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation.” Members of the Latinx community have played a crucial role in shaping the United States for centuries. However, there is a large representation gap in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. In April 2021, the Pew Research Center reported that Hispanic people make up 17% of the total workforce but only 8% of workers in STEM fields. While this is a slight improvement from 2018, there is still a lot of room for growth. Several institutions have stepped up to close the gap by spearheading various programs. For example, The National Science Foundation (NSF) has an Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program, which seeks to spark interest and provide real opportunities for Latinx youth to pursue STEM education. Behind the work of NSF and other programs, are visionary individuals with hope and determination to make a difference. Here at Intel Labs, one such individual is Javier Turek.
Turek is an AI researcher on the Human-Robot Collaboration team. There, he works towards novel neural networks techniques for achieving maximum performance with applications regarding human-robot collaboration. Specifically, his research aims to improve the capabilities of AI to solve new problems efficiently while amplifying human abilities. Turek was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at a tumultuous time as a military regime held power with an open threat of violence to citizens who opposed them. Despite this shadow of circumstance, he showed curiosity to understand how things worked, always motivated by his parents to try further. For his 9th birthday, his parents, Mariana and Carlos gave him his first PC, an Intel 8086. A rare item in an Argentinian home those days, that computer turned out to be the spark that would light the fire in his future to study computers. When he was 12, he learned programming in Pascal from a book as there was still no Internet in his home country. His interest continued to grow as he experimented with games and applications. In high school, he specialized in electronics and joined a club for programming competitions, which ended in obtaining several prizes, including a bronze medal in the International Olympiads in Informatics.
At the age of 21, he moved to Israel, and began studying Computer Science at the Israel Institute of Technology. Looking to support himself economically, Turek applied to jobs in the area. While most companies were looking for more experienced candidates, a kind engineer from Intel IDC took a chance on a young, ambitious student. Two months later, Javier was starting as software engineer at Intel IDC, where he developed CAD tools that HW designers would use to validate Intel’s processors. “I would always be thankful to Intel. That job allowed me to learn tools, and to cover my costs of living, all that while studying”, he affirms. A few years later, he moved to another company where he learned about compiler optimization and high performance computing. During the undergrad studies, there was a set of topics that drew his attention: numerical methods, image processing, and machine learning. Driven by curiosity, he embarked in research for his M.A. and Ph.D. on image processing problems with machine learning and numerical methods, where he applied sparsity methods to various imaging modalities and developed novel algorithms. Towards the end of the PhD, Turek attended a workshop on Deep Learning presented by an Intel technologist, whom a few months later would contact him with his next challenge.
After finishing his PhD in 2015, Javier joined the Parallel Computing Lab in Intel Labs. Fresh from grad school, he began to collaborate with many professors and students from the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. He developed novel machine learning methods for aligning fMRI brain images across multiple subjects in milliseconds. One such method showed for the first time that it is possible to simultaneously analyze 1000 subjects in a minute. Moreover, with his colleagues at Intel and Princeton, they created BrainIAK, a set of open source tools for advanced brain image analysis, broadly used today for new studies in neuroscience. Unexpectedly, an opportunity came up for Javier to join the Snotbot crew in Alaska to develop computer vision tools that would help them study the humpback whales and the oceans. Later on, he became part of the Brain-inspired Computing Lab and led a collaboration project with the Huth Lab in UT Austin. That project produced novel methods and insights on neural networks for Natural Language Processing and prediction of brain data for neuroscience. Recently, he has begun a new chapter in his career with the Human-Robot Collaboration team in the Intelligent Systems Research lab.
At home, Javier is the proud father of Shirley, married to the lovely Natacha, and a Dino (dog) lover. They love to spend time together sharing the dinner table for a family meal each day, going out for nature walks, and traveling. In particular, he spends lots of time with his young daughter programming in the computer and experimenting with science just for fun. “We love to show our daughter the bounty in the Argentinian and Latin American culture. We speak Spanish at home, eat typical Argentinean meals, and celebrate with family and friends.” Javier also enjoys playing soccer, cooking asado (Argentinian BBQ), and growing vegetables in the garden. Beyond work and family, Javier volunteers in STEM projects. Following his parents' example from his childhood, he believes in the importance of enabling children to discover science and engineering. He often participates in the National Engineers Week that Intel organizes every year at local elementary schools. “It is impressive to realize that there is an inclusion disparity in local schools, despite all the new technologies that exist. There is a lot of work to be done and I like to volunteer to reduce this gap for the minorities”, he explains.
In 2019, Turek volunteered for the first time with the LatinX in AI organization. The organization works towards increasing participation in AI conferences, improving research, access to tools, and career advice of Latinx individuals globally. Since then, he organized several research workshops and social events as part of top AI conferences. These events enable participants to share their work, learn to present, learn from other scientists, and find collaborators. Some attendees receive travel grants that are higher than a student annual pay in many Latin American countries. Last July, he led the organization of the LatinX in AI research workshop on Natural Language Processing. This was the first workshop of its kind in NLP with 10 research papers accepted from LatinX researchers and more than 50 attendees from around the Globe in a hybrid format. Additionally, Javier is part of the LatinX in AI mentorship program. He mentors individuals so they reach the next step in their careers. He suggests that
“mentoring is an excellent way to give back at a personal level to a person that is willing to listen, learn, and be guided to get where they want to be.”
Inclusivity is an ongoing challenge throughout the world. It is our charge to take responsibility for these disparities. Acknowledging the issues at hand and actively working to remedy them can make us stronger. Perhaps, realizing that we are the strongest together will foster collaboration and help us to be more kind to one another. Intel’s RISE 2030 goals aim at creating an inclusive company globally, but it has to start at an individual level as well. Hopefully, examples like Javier Turek can inspire us to look closer to home and find our own opportunities to make a difference. The future is bright, but it is even brighter when everyone is included.
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