Council Profiles

There’s More to Innovation Than Asking ‘What’s Next?’

April 20, 2016
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There’s More to Innovation Than Asking ‘What’s Next?’
Omoju Miller talks with a student at The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), at University of California, Berkeley. Photo from Roadtrip Nation
In our ongoing series, meet Omoju Miller, a member of the NationSwell Council, a community of leaders who share a passion for service and engaging around solutions to national challenges.

Omoju Miller, a self-described futurist (someone who studies the future’s possibilities), enjoys picturing tomorrow. As a Nigerian woman who settled in the Bay Area, she’s already torn down historical barriers to work as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, a white man’s world. But in envisioning a new society, Miller isn’t thinking only of contemporary struggles; she’s pondering what humanity will need next. Take one of her projects: Hiphopathy, where she’s using machine learning to parse rappers’ metaphorical language, in the hopes of teaching a computer to think conceptually, developing, in the process, a form of artificial intelligence.

Recently, NationSwell spoke with Miller about true visionaries that inspire her and the lessons we can all take away from their avant-garde thinking.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
I would say it’s learning how to listen and learning how to not do things for people. A good leader is somebody that enables others to rise to their own challenges. In leadership, it’s so easy sometimes to just want to jump in and do the work yourself because you can do it a lot faster. But a good leader does not do that. A good leader is a teacher who supports you as you stumble and figure it out for yourself.

What’s on your nightstand?
The book I just read — well, it’s not on my proverbial nightstand, it’s on my computer — it’s a series of essays by Tim Urban on [the website] Wait But Why? unpacking Elon Musk and his companies. Why did he found Tesla, Solar City, SpaceX? Why does he do what he does? Why did he come from South Africa, move to Canada, then to the United States? How can one man actually think he can be that intelligent that he can create a technology that will move us to Mars so that he can given humanity a chance to exist? The hypothesis is that at some point in time, something is going to happen to Earth that is going to make it impossible for humans to survive. Just like how the dinosaurs went extinct. And the only way you can prevent that happening is if the human species became multi-planetary. And there’s this man on Earth right now who believes he can capitalize enough people and resources to take humanity to multi-planetary existence. That is crazy! That is futurism to the max.

What’s your favorite movie of all-time?
One of the reasons I actually came to Berkeley, Calif., and the Bay Area specifically was because of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola and the rest of them. I’m a big Star Wars fan and also a big Coppola fan, and I wanted to live in a place close to Skywalker Ranch. I wanted to breathe the same air as the people who gave Hollywood the finger and decided they could tell their own stories and were willing to mortgage their homes and everything to tell their fantastical stories. I can’t say that Star Wars is one of my favorite movies, because it’s not. I think it may be the Godfather series. It’s such a great story, and it’s also very beautiful. It’s a story of people who live life to the fullest. Micheal Corleone needn’t have to be the Godfather. He could have remained what he wanted to be, but the pull of family was so strong. I also love the movies of Spike Lee, and it’s been great watching those over the years because the stories he tells are so different. It’s just wonderful that he’s such a consummate artist.

What do you wish someone had told you when you first became a software engineer?
The first thing I want to tell myself is make sure that you own your own path. Don’t settle for just a job, no matter how fabulous it is. Don’t settle for it, because you have the capacity to invent the future. And [you] cannot invent the future when you’re wasting your time.

What inspires you?
My belief in self- transcendence. At first, I thought I was going to have a normal life: white picket fence and all that kind of stuff. And I want to have that, but the question is, what’s next? When you get to that point, you don’t care about things anymore because you literally don’t care about material things. You are beginning to push your mind and what you can invent and what you can do. And with every little bit I was able to attain, it was like, Can I dream bigger? Can I dream bigger? I think that for the last six or seven years, I’ve gotten to the point where I truly believe I can solve the problems I put my mind to. I’m convinced I can do that. That is enough to make you wake up every day and go do it.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I would say finishing my Ph.D., because I wasn’t sure I was going to do it. Not because it was difficult or it was hard, no, that’s not the issue at all. It was because there were so many other distractions, there were so many other jobs that I could have taken that would pay a lot more money than staying in school and prioritizing finishing a Ph.D. So sticking it out and finishing it required so much will, because I was giving up so much money every couple of months to keep on doing it. I’m very happy about that.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

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