Wisdom From The Women Leading The AI Industry, With Natalia Vassilieva of Cerebras

Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine
Published in
8 min readDec 12, 2021


I’m a strong believer in education and that we need to spread our knowledge. I like to teach people and have done a lot of teaching and developing university courses for universities in Russia. The ability to share my knowledge and educate people is what I am doing for the good of the world.

As part of our series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalia Vassilieva, Director of Product, Machine Learning at Cerebras Systems.

Natalia Vassilieva is Director of Product, Machine Learning at Cerebras Systems, a computer systems company dedicated to accelerating deep learning. Her focus is machine learning and artificial intelligence, analytics, and application-driven software-hardware optimization and co-design. Prior to joining Cerebras, Natalia was a Sr. Research Manager at Hewlett Packard Labs, where she led the Software and AI group and served as the head of HP Labs Russia from 2011 until 2015. Prior to HPE, she was an Associate Professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia and worked as a software engineer for several IT companies. Natalia holds a Ph.D. in computer science from St. Petersburg State University.

Thank you so much for joining us in this series! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path in AI?

From an early age, my teachers noticed that I had a talent for math and encouraged my interest in it. I also got interested in computers and programming and got a Master’s degree in CS with strong math foundation. I guess, this can be considered similar to double majors in the USA, applied math + CS. I got accepted to a PhD program focusing on software engineering but decided to take a break and got an internship in a foreign country. I choose a lab in Grenoble, France, mostly because of the location — right in the middle of the Alps, and because my math background matched the requirements. It turned out that this research lab was focusing on image analysis, and I became really fascinated with computer vision and information retrieval. So much so that I ended up switching my scientific advisor and PhD dissertation to this topic upon my return.

In computer vision, you do a lot of machine learning. By the time deep learning became a hot topic and it became clear that deep neural networks were a better way to deal with images, I was already right in the middle of it!

What lessons can others learn from your story?

Do what you want to do and what interests you. Have confidence that you can do that. It doesn’t matter if it’s AI or something else. For example, if something captures your attention in such a way that you forget to eat or drink and can’t stop thinking about it because the problem is so interesting, focus on that.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

I’m lucky to be part of the team at Cerebras Systems, building special purpose hardware for deep learning. Every project is really interesting because we are making what previously was impossible, possible. I’ve learned a lot about purpose-built hardware and the importance of design choices in pushing technology forward. AI is becoming pervasive in our lives and it’s fascinating to be in the middle of it all.

Every day is different for me because I work with a wide spectrum of customers in different verticals. For example, I may start my morning talking with researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory about their cutting-edge nuclear fusion work. Then in the afternoon, I might be speaking with GlaxoSmithKline on accelerating drug discovery. Our customers come from such a wide variety of disciplines and use cases for machine learning — it’s fascinating.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Several people along the way helped me become who I am, from my parents and grandmother who were all engineers, to teachers who encouraged my interest in math.

Also being raised in the Soviet Union had a big impact on who I am. Growing up, there were no expectations that certain jobs were better suited for men or for women. Everyone was encouraged to follow their interests and work hard. And this is what I would advise to everyone — follow your interests, work hard and be confident. Nothing else should matter.

What most excites you about the AI industry?

I’m most excited about two things. First, the proliferation and variety of use cases where deep learning is used. For example, when someone asks me to give an example of where AI can be used, it can be difficult to answer. Because in fact, every field can benefit from AI and automation. AI has a true cross discipline capability.

Second, I’m excited to see the speed of development. AI is the fastest growing field today and it can actually be challenging to keep up. Every day there are new research ideas emerging and being tested, and this is what makes it so interesting.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the AI industry?

While I am very excited about the ways in which AI will help us there are some areas of concern. I’m concerned about the potential for misuse of the technology in the future. Although I don’t believe that terminator or an AI will rule the world anytime soon. Andrew Ng once said that he’s not worrying about AI overtaking the world, just as he doesn’t worry about the overpopulation of Mars. I agree with that. But at the same time, it’s important for us a society to understand AI and its potential dangers:

  • There is potential for misuse with automated drones and machine learning in military applications. We need strong governance to ensure transparency, no misuse and a human-in-the-loop for critical applications and decisions.
  • Misinformation is spread via technology, and it is concerning to see that our society is becoming more and more separated because of recommendation engines. We are only reading what an algorithm thinks we will be interested in, instead of being exposed to a large variety of opinions.
  • While AI will make our lives much easier, it is also disrupting jobs and tasks that can be automated. These are often tasks with repetitive motions and we must ensure that the people who may be displaced (from cashiers to truck drivers) receive new job training and a social package to help them in the transition. This is like the industrial revolution where some jobs will be automated and new jobs will emerge — it’s exciting but we can’t leave anyone behind.

As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?

AI has a long way to go before it has consciousness or what we call AGI. But as a society we need to discuss this and raise our concerns, so together we can look for ways to prevent and address it.

My main concern is about potential mistakes in how AI is programmed or used by the wrong people for bad things. We need to take the potential danger seriously and develop government policies to ensure no misuse of the technology. AI should not be making decisions — it should not replace a human in this. Rather it should be augmenting people in their roles, helping them to find defects on a manufacturing line or areas of interest in an x-ray. AI is a tool to help us. There must also be a mechanism to shut it down if something goes wrong.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

I’m a strong believer in education and that we need to spread our knowledge. I like to teach people and have done a lot of teaching and developing university courses for universities in Russia. The ability to share my knowledge and educate people is what I am doing for the good of the world.

As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share your advice to other women in the AI space to thrive?

My main advice is to believe in yourself. Don’t focus on whether you are surrounded by all men or all women or a mix. We are all human beings. I do understand that this is easier said than done.

When I moved to the U.S. I was shocked by the number of events for women only and how frequently the topic is encouraging women in math or that there are professions for men only. For me it was a huge surprise, because as I mentioned, I grew up learning that gender does not play a role in your professional opportunities. Women-only events force segregation, which isn’t good. Gender shouldn’t matter in your work and technical conferences should be for everyone. We must work at being a heterogeneous society. There are conversations about increasing the number of women in science and technology fields, but I’m not concerned about what the percentage is. I’m more focused on how cohesive a team is and how we treat each other.

Sometimes what you believe in, is projected in how you behave. So, for women and anyone interested in the AI field, you must have confidence in yourself and your abilities. I believe that people are good and treat others well. I also expect that treatment for myself. When I walk into a room, I expect to be treated evenly, not differently, and that sets the tone.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?

A long time ago my father-in-law gave me a present with the quote, “Live the life you love, love the life you live.” To me, that’s really great advice. It’s not related to work only, but if you enjoy what you are doing and doing what you enjoy, then you will be happy and successful.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I believe that some things are more important than others: good healthcare, quality education, and making sure the planet will still survive humans. So, the initiative would be around making sure that we are cleaning the oceans and are providing quality healthcare and education for everyone in the world. I don’t have an easy solution for how to achieve this, but it is the most important thing to get done.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!



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