Minerva Tantoco: Renowned Tech Innovator

On April 27, 2023, WIT hosted an event featuring Minerva Tantoco, Chief AI Officer at the NYU McSilver Institute, who was introduced by  Stacie Grossman Bloom, Vice Provost for Research and Chief Research Officer. Attendees had the opportunity to hear about Minerva’s career journey, sources of inspiration, and her perspectives on the role of technology in advancing inclusivity and diversity in our society. 

Minerva Tantoco is a renowned innovator and entrepreneur committed to using technology to improve the lives of others. She has a passion for advocating for diversity and inclusion in the industry, and she champions women in tech through her work as an entrepreneur, investor, and adviser. Minerva has helped countless startups and established companies navigate the complex world of technology, making her a role model for aspiring women in tech and a true inspiration to us all.

During her speech, Minerva shared insights about her work in AI and how it is being used to address some of society’s most pressing problems, including social and economic inequality. She also spoke about the importance of having more diversity in the AI community and tech in general, highlighting the need for diverse perspectives that will help reduce potential harm caused by technological advancements.

Minerva encouraged all women and underrepresented communities to take part in technology careers. She stressed that it is an incredibly exciting, creative, and impactful career to have, and part of the theme of the event was to shift people’s perception from being the only one to being the first. Minerva shared her career journey, from wanting to be a brain surgeon to finding her passion for computing in a psychology class. She started her first company, related to artificial intelligence, in Silicon Valley while still a senior in college in the 1980s. Minerva noted that almost every job she has had did not exist before she had it, and she invented them through her creativity, innovation, and willingness to take risks.


Smart and Equitable City Strategy

Tantoco’s experience in the technology industry spans close to 25 years, during which she has worked for big companies and held international assignments covering all of Asia. However, her time as the Chief Technology Officer of New York City was a key shift in her career. During this role, Minerva realized the potential of using technology to have a positive impact on people’s lives, which led her to think about how to design technology for inclusiveness and ethics. As a woman of color and an immigrant, she believed that she had a unique perspective on how to create solutions that worked for everyone. 

Her team at City Hall focused on using technology to promote equity by improving healthcare, preventing homelessness, and enhancing education and health support for children and the elderly in New York City. The explosion of data, compute power, interconnectivity, and other technology advancements presented new opportunities to use technology in the public interest, and Minerva and her team sought to harness these capabilities to make a positive impact on the lives of everyday New Yorkers.

One of her favorite examples  was a pioneering pilot between the NYC DOT and MTA, called “Transit Signal Priority”, which involved putting GPS on city buses. This was a new concept for cities, as they often launched projects without prototyping or testing. The prototype for the Bus GPS initiative aimed to make the traffic signals stay green if there was a bus near it, which ended up reducing commute times by 20% and emissions from buses when they were waiting at red lights. This successful initiative is now implemented throughout the city.

Another favorite project of Minerva’s was LinkNYC, which aimed to replace payphones with free Wi-Fi and phone calls. The city held a contest to find a provider, and eventually chose a consortium of five companies to provide the service. The team launched the world’s fastest and largest free Wi-Fi network in the world at the time. The project not only didn’t cost the city any money, but it generated revenue through digital advertising. However, the team realized that payphones were not evenly distributed throughout the city and that some areas had no payphones at all. A downside of using existing infrastructure.

Exploring AI at NYU

After serving as the CTO for NYC, Minerva Tantoco has now transitioned to her current role as the Chief AI Officer at the McSilver Institute. The AI Hub at McSilver, established with a $5 million gift from philanthropists Martin Silver and Dr. Constance McCatherin Silver, investigates how AI systems can be used to equitably address poverty and challenges relating to race and public health while providing thought leadership on the implications of these advancements.

At NYU, Minerva has been involved in various projects that utilize AI to address some of society’s most pressing issues, including poverty, inequality, and public health. Minerva’s role focuses on two main objectives: how to use AI to address some of society’s biggest challenges, particularly in public and mental health, and how to reduce the harm that AI can have on underrepresented communities. She emphasizes the importance of designing technology mindfully and intentionally for diversity, ethics, privacy, transparency, and auditability to avoid creating a technology that might have a disproportionate harm to specific groups of people. 

Honoring Computing Pioneer Frances Bauer

At the event, it was also announced that NYU’s Women in Technology (WIT) will be launching the Bauer Outreach Program to honor and remember Dr. Frances Bauer, a pioneer in science, mathematics, and research. Dr. Bauer made significant contributions to the fields of wing and missile technology.  She spent over six decades at NYU, working at Courant and NYU IT. Moreover, she was an advocate for increasing the representation of women in technology and provided valuable feedback to the WIT group.

In recognition of her legacy, the WIT group is launching the Bauer Outreach Program to raise awareness and stimulate interest in STEM among elementary school students, especially those in underserved communities in New York City.