AJung Moon, PhD '18, Mechanical Engineering

AJung Moon
"It is not rare for me to find myself disagreeing with, or correcting, much older and more senior experts in the room"

My PhD specialized in making robots that move and communicate like humans. During my graduate journey at UBC, I started a student research initiative called the Open Roboethics, to study the social and ethical implications of robotics technologies, including autonomous cars, care robots and robots used in warfare. With about six years of research under our belt, I continue to lead the initiative, which has now become an international non-profit think tank called Open Roboethics Institute (ORI). I have also started a new consulting company with my colleagues called Generation R, which is the first company in the world to create AI ethics roadmap for companies and to provide a full example available for free online.

Why did you choose engineering?

I chose to study engineering, first because it was one of those rare things that my older sister wasn’t interested in when I was younger. But as I grew my interest in technology in general, I realized that engineering gives you superpowers that turn ideas into reality. If learning to use your superpowers is not exciting, I don’t know what is.

What has made your time at UBC the most memorable?

The people. I chose to do my PhD at UBC, the same university where I obtained my master’s degree. Many people would say that remaining in your home university for both of your graduate degrees can subject you to a case of an academic suicide. But the choice to stay here for my doctoral degree was easy for me, since the incredible advisors and mentors who supported my highly interdisciplinary research interest were at UBC. UBC has a special place in my heart because of the many memories of going through the ups and downs of my graduate career.

What have you learned in engineering that is most valuable?

None of your grades or the technical stuff you learn in engineering is useful in real world (including in academia). Sure, you should know the basic concepts, but you really don’t need to worry too much about being that guy or gal who gets 100% on exams.

What is more important is your ability to take up a topic or project of your own choosing, dig deep into it, and digest it into something of your own, knowing that there isn’t going to be anyone waiting to quiz you at the end of that journey. This ability not only helps you to adapt to the ever changing technological landscape, and naturally helps you to develop the highly necessary skill of reaching out to and effectively communicating with people outside of your circle, so that you never stop learning.

How are you applying the skills you learned through your studies at UBC?

In my role as a director of an international roboethics think tank, I often find myself in rooms full of renowned experts from around the world to discuss some of the most important issues of today’s societies concerning robotics and AI — such as presenting some of our research results on the topic of weaponised robots at the United Nations in Geneva. In this role, it is not rare for me to find myself disagreeing with, or correcting, much older and more senior experts in the room. The open-minded communication skills I learned by actively reaching out to and connecting with experts outside of my own field of expertise as a student helped me to become a much better and effective communicator than I would have been otherwise.

What has been your most memorable/valuable non-academic experience studying engineering at UBC?

Telling my story to an audience of hundreds of people at the Chan Centre for the 100 Years WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) event is one of many memorable experiences while I was still a student at UBC. At the event, I got to talk about the gender inequality I experienced the first time I was at the United Nations in Geneva. I was invited there to share the voice of the public on the topic of lethal autonomous weapons systems, and I came home distraught by the way I was made to feel marginalized by a female and a male delegate who were there. I was able to share the story on stage with some of my biggest female superheroes, Judy Illes, Catherine Roome, Sheri Sheppard, Nadine Caron, Maria Klawe, and Carol Herbert. The experience of sharing my story itself has had a powerful effect on me. I was asked to present at the United Nations again the second and the third time, and I showed up, every time.

How do you feel a graduate degree in engineering has benefitted you compared to a different field of study?

Having a graduate degree in engineering is a huge asset for my current job as CEO of an AI ethics company, Generation R Consulting, and Director of a think tank on roboethics. When I enter into discussions about social issues relating to some of the hottest technologies of today, it is often important for my audience to know that I come from a technical domain and that what I have to say is grounded in my technical expertise. It helps to build empathy when I bring up the often uncomfortable topic of ethics of technology to an audience of engineers.

What advice would you give a student considering a graduate degree in engineering?

Going through a graduate program is a journey that not only allows you to be highly autonomous in what you do everyday, but also demands you to own the process from the start to finish. A lot of first year graduate students I’ve mentored complain that their advisors do not provide them with enough feedback, or that they have not been told which project to focus on yet. That’s not what “owning your own journey” looks like — it means taking the responsibility of deciding which research question to focus on, how you are going to go about investigating them and making sure that you get it done on time. It doesn’t mean you need to have your research questions determined before applying to graduate school, nor ignoring your advisor’s feedback. But it does mean that you take charge of making the final decisions related to your research with the resources and mentorship your advisor provides you, rather than relying on others to guide you through the whole process of how it is done.

Where do you find your inspiration?

I am inspired by reading and launching into conversations with people outside of my domain of expertise. Some of the most interesting studies ORI has conducted came from conversations I had with new interns from abroad at the CARIS lab and experts I met from conferences. These studies have been mentioned on WIRED and PC Mag, among many other outlets.

What are your plans for the future?

My goal is to create an industry of roboethicists and AI ethicists in Canada and across the world. There is a huge demand for people who can help roboticists, data scientists, computer scientists and business leaders using or developing robotics and AI to make thoughtful decisions for the society. There only a very few roboethicists and AI ethicists in the world, and Generation R Consulting happens to be the only company that creates AI ethics roadmaps for organizations and companies. There needs to be a lot more of us if we are to continue to innovate in AI and robotics at an accelerated pace but in a direction that maximizes its benefits for everyone.

How will you go on to make a difference in our world?

I want to grow to be someone who empowers every technologist in the world and make it easier for them to make thoughtful decisions about the technologies they create.