Lili Cheng: She’s a Robot Boss

June 22 - On The Dot
FIRST THOUGHT: Women Engineering the Future

Every time I eat at a restaurant and see a purse hook under the table, I know a woman was involved in designing the place. I recently discovered a woman was the first-ever computer programmer. And did you know ancient Mesopotamian women were the first to develop beer? Yep, women have been innovating for centuries, so why is it so rare to see women creators and engineers front and center? My theory is that we’re used to putting up with our second-class status, so we feel obligated to accept inequitable treatment and acknowledgement. Today, I say enough! Let’s demand that women have a more candid and forceful voice when it comes to creating the innovations, products and gadgets we employ every day.


Last year, major history was made at Dartmouth College in the realm of female engineering. For the first time ever, in 2016, women made up more than half of the graduating class of engineering undergrads from a national research university. Considering that in the past decade, less than 20 percent of U.S. engineering bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women, I think we can call that progress. Way to go, Dartmouth female engineers!

WOMAN TO WATCH: Lili Cheng, Distinguished Engineer at Microsoft and General Manager of Microsoft’s FUSE Labs

I think we’ve all had an experience like this: You’re on a phone call with the bank or the department store or whatever, and the voice-operated computer system mistakes the words “customer service,” somehow translating them to “mustard sandwich.” Technology changes every day, but it doesn’t change on its own. We rely on engineers and tech gurus to improve the things we use every day. Today’s Woman to Watch, Lili Cheng, is one of the brilliant, passionate and talented women doing just that.

As a distinguished engineer at Microsoft (For real, that’s her actual title!), Lili manages Microsoft’s FUSE Labs, short for “future social experiences.” As the general manager of FUSE Labs, which is housed in Microsoft’s artificial-intelligence and research division, Lili collaborates with other smarties in the startup world and academia, as well as folks in the art-and-design community to develop and deliver new social, real-time and media-rich experiences.

While it may sound like Lili’s creating real-life sci-fi stuff like in Westworld, she’s doing something a lot more practical. For instance, Lili and her team are working to develop a voice interface in the form of a smart, conversational robot.

You may have heard of Microsoft’s chatbot, called Tay—which Lili and her team had been working on for months—causing quite the stir when he spouted out a racist comment. While that was a discouraging moment for Lili, it was almost necessary in order to highlight a not-so-obvious aspect of creating this kind of technology: understanding social norms. Lili notes that implementing these social norms might be harder than creating the actual tech, and says security and privacy are big obstacles too when it comes to developing an appropriately working robotic man. Recently, Lili helped organize an event in New York called Botness, where those in the field congregated to brainstorm the challenges and successes of this new wave of tech.

As an experienced super techie, this isn’t Lili’s first digital rodeo. In fact, about seven years ago, she helped create the Kodu Game Lab, through which kids can learn how to program. Not only has Lili’s engineering prowess helped kids learn, she’s also taught at NYU-Interactive Telecommunications and a little place called Harvard University.

We’re grateful for women like Lili who are pushing the boundaries in technology and engineering, and making these industries more accessible to the next generations of female innovators.


Today’s quote comes from author James A. Michener. He said:

“Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them.”

This is Melinda Garvey signing off until next time. Remember, ladies, empowered women empower other women. Share On the Dot so more women can have a voice. Thanks for getting ready with us.

To learn more about our conversation, check us out at and talk to us @OnTheDotWoman on Twitter and Instagram. We’d love to hear your voice.

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