Personal history, improving lives on display during SUNY State of the University Address

Jinjun Xiong stands at a podium speaking. to his left sit two pitchers of water and several empty glasses face down. A screen behind him features the SUNY logo and text reading: 2024 State of the University Address.

Jinjun Xiong addresses the crowd during the SUNY State of the University Address. Photo: SUNY Systems | Valerie Caviness

By Peter Murphy

Published July 2, 2024

In May, Jinjun Xiong, SUNY Empire Innovation Professor and director of UB’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Data Science (IAD), spoke during SUNY Chancellor John B. King Jr.’s 2024 State of the University address. He shared stories about his childhood and interactions that spurred his interest in using AI for social good. 

“Technology should be developed to better the lives of the underprivileged and underserved, to help in great need to save the environment and to better the lives for all. ”
Jinjun Xiong, SUNY Empire Innovation Professor
Department of Computer Science and Engineering

Xiong, also scientific director for UB’s National AI Institute for Exceptional Education, joined UB in 2021 after 15 years with IBM. During his time at IBM, Xiong played integral roles on multiple teams developing cutting-edge technologies, including enhancements to semiconductor manufacturing and artificial intelligence.

“Eighteen years ago, the things I had at that time seemed to comprise the perfect concept of the American Dream,” Xiong said, during his speech. “I was a young scientist conducting cutting-edge research, designing high-performance chips, and readying IBM’s most advanced artificial intelligence system for its debut on ‘Jeopardy!’ And I was making big bucks, too. I thought I was on top of the world.”

About four years into his tenure at IBM, Xiong had an experience that reminded him of his childhood struggles and forced him to rethink the role technology plays in society.

“I did a one-month volunteer trip to India to work for a local nonprofit organization in Hyderabad. While helping people there, what I saw disturbed me,” Xiong said. “In the 21st century, in a modern society, filled with advanced technologies, how were so many people still so poor, so hungry, so deprived of clean water, health care and education? Those things soured the joy I had working in the private sector. They transported me back to the hardships of my childhood.”

Xiong left home to the United States after completing his master’s degree. He was the youngest of three children, and grew up in a small village in China when food, clothing and other essentials were still rationed. Heavy chores were part of his daily routine. Xiong says that everything he has today is nothing short of a miracle, built on two generations of hard work, belief and a desire to pursue a better life. Seeing the struggles of people he helped in Hyderabad reminded Xiong of his past, but the adversity he saw there was more profound. 

Jinjun Xiong.

“The situations seemed to have only gotten worse, even after 35 years of advances that these poor people could not enjoy. My heart was broken, my soul unsettled. Monetary success meant little to me at that moment. That’s when I began to think hard about what technologists really should do,” Xiong said. “Technology should not be developed only for the privileged. Technology should not only be developed to generate wealth or celebrate fame or entertainment. Instead, technology should be developed to better the lives of the underprivileged and underserved, to help in great need to save the environment and to better the lives for all.”

After this realization, Xiong decided to dedicate his life to advancing AI technology to address climate change and serve the people who need the most help. Several years after this experience, Xiong joined UB, and has since taken steps to use AI to tackle these critical issues. As director of IAD, Xiong oversees an organization that brings together researchers, labs, institutes and centers of excellence at UB to focus on advancements in AI, data science, computational science and related areas, and to address complex problems. His role with the National AI Institute for Exceptional Education is hands-on, and he works directly with speech and language pathologists and AI to improve educational outcomes for children experiencing these challenges.

Throughout his speech, Xiong referenced experiences in his childhood and past that had an impact on his professional and academic career and the decisions he made, and, ultimately, the purpose he chose to pursue. Xiong opened his speech discussing his father and his journey to where he is now.

“Standing here, I can’t stop thinking about my dear father, who I hope is now watching this from heaven. The young boy who left him at the age of 24 to come to the U.S. alone to pursue the American dream is now a grown man,” Xiong said. “A grown man with his own responsibilities.”

You can watch Xiong's speech (10:00-15:33) on SUNY's website.