Exeter Alumna Shares Her Passion for Math, Machine Learning

Christine Robson Weaver '99 is taking aim at some of mankind's greatest challenges while working at Google, and she owes much of that to doing her math homework at Exeter.

By
Patrick Garrity
May 3, 2017
Christine Robson Weaver '99 is the project lead for Google's Machine Learning division. She returned to Phillips Exeter Academy to talk about her work and emphasize the importance of math in our daily lives. 

Christine Robson Weaver '99 is the project lead for Google's Machine Learning division. She returned to Phillips Exeter Academy to talk about her work and emphasize the importance of math in our daily lives. 

The next time YouTube serves up the perfect cat video to brighten your day, you can thank Christine Robson Weaver ’99.

And, the next time you hear about a doctor detecting a malignant tumor before it’s too late, you might need to credit Robson Weaver, too. 

Both outcomes, silly and serious, have become possible because of the work the Exeter alumna does in her role as project leader with Google’s Machine Learning team in Silicon Valley. She and her husband Josh Weaver, a developer of virtual reality programs at Google, spent Tuesday on campus, sharing their excitement for their work and proselytizing the virtues of doing your math homework.

“When you look at YouTube, everything is machine-learned,” Robson Weaver told an assembly. “We predict what video you want to watch, whether we should play a video next, we predict what you’re in the mood for, and we boil this all into deep, personalized recommendations. And this is all just math. We just do a bunch of math, and then we find you the perfect cat video.”

Robson Weaver did her math and a lot more at the Academy and beyond. Aivant Goyal ’17, in introducing her to the assembly, said Robson Weaver helped install Exeter’s first wired internet network in Bancroft Hall for her fellow residents, and had become the de-facto ITS troubleshooter for campus internet problems by the time she graduated.

She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at MIT, then spent eight years working at IBM before completing a doctorate in philosophy at University of California, Berkeley. She joined Google in 2012. 

 

She called her assembly address “far and away the most exciting talk I’ve been asked to give,” and her visit also included a discussion about artificial intelligence in a religion class and time spent with Design Thinking senior study and computer science classes. 

Plus, she brought high-tech toys: Her husband’s virtual reality presentation. A gaggle of students crowded into a physics lab in Phelps Science Center to get a look at Josh Weaver’s work with VR. As invisible lasers swept the room, students took turns wearing the VR headset and “painting” with Google’s “Tilt Brush” 3-D art program. Olivia Ross ’19 made some additional touches to a 3-D rendering of van Gogh’s “Starry Night” as the line of students awaiting a turn grew longer.

Robson Weaver told the assembly that, her accomplishments notwithstanding, it is the work ahead that excites her most. Her team’s recent success in helping detect diabetic retinopathy, a disease that causes blindness, and identifying cancerous tumors is just the beginning of machine learning’s capabilities.

“I love recommending cat videos. It’s fun, it pays the bills. But I would love it more if we could do really revolutionary things with machine learning,” she said.

“This is the kind of stuff that we all get really excited about. This is awesome math. We started with cats on the internet and now we’re finding tumors.”