Yoky Matsuoka, SM ‘95, PhD ‘98

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Yoky Matsuoka, SM '95, PhD '98, Pursuing a serial curiosity while improving people's lives
Pursuing a serial curiosity while improving people’s lives

Yoky Matsuoka has always liked math and physics, but, she says, “…those interests were dwarfed by my pursuit to be a professional tennis player.” Since her earlier years in her native Japan and then in California by age 16, she loved tennis. Spending about 30 hours per week training, she realized two things: “I didn’t know much else besides tennis and my career as a high-earning top tennis player was not going to be a reality [due in part to injuries].”

That’s when she thought she could study robotics since she loves math and physics. She would build herself a tennis buddy. “It needed to have two legs, a torso, two arms and a head.” And, that was not all, “It needed to run around on the other side of the tennis court and play physical and mental games against me,” she says.

Admitting that she was never interested in computer science—though she liked problem solving—she realized computer science might be another tool to help in her quest to build a robotic tennis partner. So she went to UC Berkeley where she worked with robotics professors Ron Fearing and John Canny. Working in both of their labs she got a feel for robotics and even worked with a graduate student to build a robotic leg.

On graduating from UC Berkeley in 1993, with a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Matsuoka had decided that pursuing her dream to build a sophisticated robot to play tennis with would require much more education. She applied to four schools considered tops in robotics at the time — MIT, CMU, Stanford and UC Berkeley — getting accepted by them all. She fell in love with the ambitious humanoid project at MIT led by Professor Rodney Brooks. “It was a good combination of physical embodiment with mechanical systems and neural/cognitive coding with electrical/ computer engineering,” she explains. She got her SM working with Brooks on the development of a humanoid hand.

“What kept me at MIT?” she asks. “One of the best things about MIT was that I was able to pursue my ‘serial’ curiosity.”

As she worked with Rod Brooks on robotics and neural networks, she realized that artificial intelligence would not allow her to achieve human-level intelligence – still part of her quest to create a robotic tennis player. “I realized we don’t even understand how our brain controls movements to play tennis,” she says. So she looked around for the best research groups in the world to study how the human brain controls movements. She found it just two blocks away (in building E25) – where Professor Emilio Bizzi, then chair of the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences was conducting research in this area. She settled in and completed her PhD – but not without getting very curious as well about entrepreneurship and business in general. Although she recognized then that the best place to study technical entrepreneurship was another block away from E25, she was dissuaded by Boston’s (winter) weather.

Matsuoka has recognized since she was a young girl that she’s pretty intense. “My lab had a motto that was ‘work hard, play hard.’ And, that’s what I did.” She let her curiosity and intensity drive her — but at the same time she felt the need to hide her intensity towards academic endeavors — to avoid being perceived as a nerd, or worse.

At MIT, Matsuoka found that she could be herself. “This is the place where I met people who are all trying to learn beyond any boundaries.” she says. And, the MIT culture allowed her to come out of her shell.

Over the years Matsuoka’s drive and curiosity has carried her through many careers. Developing the microcode for the Barrett Hand as chief engineer at Barrett Technology in 1996, she moved on to academia, first as an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon. By 2006, as an associate professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, she directed the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering — an effort that brought hundreds of people and large financial support to achieve interdisciplinary research that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. In 2007 Matsuoka was named a MacArthur Fellow with the citation [top right]: “Her work transforms our understanding of how the central nervous system coordinates musculoskeletal action and of how robotic technology can enhance the mobility of people with manipulation disabilities.”

By 2009, recognizing the need to see her energy and learning put to practical use in people’s lives, Matsuoka turned to industry, first to become one of the three founding members of Google X, where she worked with the early Google Glass team and developed Google X’s portfolio in medical space. In late 2010, Matsuoka then moved on to become VP of Technology at Palo-Alto-based, and Google-owned Nest Labs, where she led the development of the company’s first product, the Nest Learning Thermostat.

She says about this phase of her work: “This trust of technology is a risky thing. Nest asked for people to trust us and let us into their homes, to make their lives better. And, it is working.” The work saved over 2 billion kWh with these devices while letting people carry on with their lives. She discusses this work in a Technology Review video, in which she describes the ying-yang relationship between human learning and machine learning. “I absolutely believe that the combination of them makes humans whole,” she said. See her discussion at: http://www.technologyreview.com/ emtech/14/video/watch/yoky-matsuoka-internet-of-things/

Recognizing her evolutionary career path, Matsuoka notes: “I have never left a position because I was unhappy — I always had to make a choice between something exciting and another thing that’s exciting. Life is short and there are a lot of people’s lives I want to improve because of things I can contribute in a way that’s different from others. And there is a lot to do.”

Matsuoka is also raising four children – with her husband who is a computer vision specialist. She notes, “Raising four children makes me realize how lucky I am and what’s really important every single day.” She says it makes her use her time productively so she can be with them and, as she notes, “…learning from them how to live and who I am (expressed through genetics that I could never articulate for myself).”