Interview with the multi-faceted, multi-talented Latoya Peterson.
Latoya Peterson. She’s many things. So we’re going to make a list of words that could describe her. Brace yourself because, yes, all these words are describing ONE person!
Futurist, AI Authority, Polymath, Gamer, Geek, Feminist, Autodidact, Alien, Technologist, Friend, Advocate, Pop culture enthusiast, Journalist, Storyteller, Mother, Documentarian, Wife.
Readers, now that you’ve processed that, please realize that this interview might be a bit unorthodox!
Latoya, tell us the truth. You can’t be human. So please describe your home planet?
Haha. I am all too human most days, so I’m sticking with Earth, but I wouldn’t mind a quick portal to Spira.
When you arrived on earth, when did you realize that you were passionate about technology?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love games or science and tech. When I was younger, my interests were more broad. I loved the idea of space travel and space flight (lol, maybe for obvious reasons) so I had galaxy photos and a pic of Mae Jemison on my walls at one point. Technology stepped in to provide the “how” part of getting there. I always loved the Back to the Future series and relate strongly to Marty McFly. I also really liked the Tom Swift series – I always wanted a hoverboard. I was introduced to computers fairly early. I remember sitting on my teacher’s lap with one of the old Macs with the rainbow logo and trying to spell “Mountain” on a computer program. Later, I’d be messing with some new thing called the Internet with a public library system called SAILOR. After that, I bought a computer presumably to use for school but really to download anime on Limewire and arguing with racists on the Bolt boards. And that level of screwing around on the Internet led to my current career from blogger to media exec.
It’s interesting to try to answer this question! For me, I generally want to do something and technology provides a path.
You’ve accomplished SO much. You’ve been one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 Rising Stars, wrote an award-winning blog, Racialicious.com, was Deputy Editor over Digital Innovation at ESPN’s The Undefeated, Editor-at-Large at Fusion just to name a few. How do you do it?
Everything for me is kind of a mix of friendship and potential. All these things came about because my friend put my name into a project or asked me to help them launch something and all of the pitfalls and perils that come with trying to eke out a living in today’s media landscape. If this looks like some kind of intentional career path, it is not. I have a habit of pursuing things that don’t make sense but I find interesting. This is not always the smartest strategy! However, that’s all I know how to do. So when I was younger I did a lot of random jobs. I didn’t go to college properly, so I had more time to work, and I did all sorts of things: I cut subs at Blimpies, I swirled yogurt at TCBY, I did customer service, I worked in market research, I was a junior recruiter, I was a litigation assistant, I worked in federal procurement. I have held a A LOT of jobs. Over time, you get better at figuring out things that take you places you want to go. But my career always is a bit too random for my taste. I’m glad it ended up looking impressive on paper, because that was NOT the case when I was 25.
Do you have any advice for people who want to improve their career work ethic? Are there any common pitfalls, misconceptions?
Yeah, a few things I see.
1) Everything has a cost. I am your garden variety obsessive and if I like something, I want to dive very deeply. The opportunity cost of obtaining mastery is that you are going to lose a lot of free time. For a big chunk of my life, most of my time was spent working. I don’t have a lot of vacation memories or things like that – I spent my 20s getting out of poverty. So I enjoy my life now, but there was quite a bit sacrificed to get here. I talk to a lot of people that want big job benefits (C-suite title, 100K plus salary) but don’t want to actually work on mastery. It doesn’t matter what you choose, if it’s worth something you are going to trade a significant chunk of your life and time to get there. Might as well start now.
2) Networking is not equal to forming relationships. I generally get everywhere in life because of my awesome friends. I still remember a recruiter boss and his thick golden rolodex, filled with business cards all representing people he needed to call. Fans and followers are great and the currency of this age, but when you are down and out, who can you call? Who will find you work when you are hungry? Who will make a place for you where they are? Those are relationships, not networking contacts.
3) There’s always a new level. You should try to find satisfaction in your daily work, because any material thing you set out to achieve will eventually just be boring. I was listening to a gratitude practice the other day about the new normal: the idea that we need to acknowledge how hard we hustled for this “normal” life we are now taking for granted. I have achieved things that look really impressive – what that lead to is opportunities to do even more impressive things, surrounded by people who are on another level. So, yeah, I have a good life. But I also can count four people I’m close to who are millionaires. I see friends remaking entire industries. I have friends winning Emmys like they are participation trophies. Next goals are set. But it’s a continuing process, it isn’t something that ends. And millionaires have the same problems as the rest of us, just at a different scale.
Okay, AI in the Trap? Why? You were doing a lot of journalism in video games. What made you pivot some of your time to AI?
I am perpetually doing the most. (I’m also a gamer and a journalist, but I only mix those two skills occasionally.) So the AI journey started when I was at ESPN. One of my mentors put me in the Senior Executive Women in Tech group at Disney (which owns ESPN), which led to me joining the AR/VR group. While I was in the AR/VR group, the organizers asked if I wanted to join a new group on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. (AI/ML). So I said yes and spent some major time working with those amazing people on stuff I can’t really talk about. But they taught me the basics of AI and I started realizing my background in racial justice and feminism was actually really important in the world. So I started working on a side project called AI in the Trap about race, predictive policing, and the future of work.
Studying AI is not an easy undertaking, so I ended up leaving the company to go a little deeper into the space – I ended up joining the Black in AI group, presenting a poster at their workshop at a big AI conference called NeurIPS and taking the time to study more deeply. Now I just finished NVIDIA’s Women in AI program where you get direct training and I now have a mentor. My focus, so far, is deep applications of AI for entertainment outside of graphics, but again, it’s really me using tech as a way to solve problems.
What are some common misconceptions about AI?
Well, for one, it’s not really intelligence in the way that we understand human intelligence, in the way that computer vision isn’t like vision from our eyes. It’s a totally different thing. Another is that sci-fi has primed us for a future that isn’t even close to reality – most people dramatically overestimate the capabilities of AI systems. But people underestimate how much our structural inequalities (in things like healthcare, housing, incarceration, etc) will be amplified by AI because we are applying hyper efficiency to flawed systems using flawed or biased data. It’s an enormous problem. People have been putting in the work on this – I love reading @mathrachel on Twitter, there’s Black in AI and LatinX in AI, my homegirls Safiya Noble (Algorithms of Oppression) and Meredith Brossard (Artificial Unintelligence) and Amy Webb (The Big Nine) have their books, and there is so much more. But there is also an amazing amount of work to be done at all levels in this field, so everyone needs to grab a shovel.
Glow Up Games: What was your contribution in the creation of this new company?
How did we start Glow Up? I guess it started with friends drinking cocktails and talking about how we would run things much better and then we decided to just do it. I wasn’t consciously out to start a company, but an opportunity presented itself and we decided to go for it. I am very interested in the future of interactive entertainment, as are my cofounders Mitu and Tara, and this ended up being the best way to blend our experiences in games, mobile, AR/VR, and AI into something new and creative and original. We got some clients quickly (and you’ll get more news on that later) but my major interests are storytelling, R&D, and looking at healing technologies. So that is all to come!
With everything you’ve done, we know you can now see the Matrix! With that being said, where do you see the world of gaming in the next 3-5 years. What’s the good, the bad, and the ugly?
So the longer you are around, you realize everything just comes around in circles. So we will see some significant advances in storytelling, in genre bending, and more and more people pouring into the industry having finally woken up to the potential. We are also seeing the ghosts of gaming past coming back around as well, where all the problems we haven’t dealt with (inclusion being the through line) comes back to impact the business. If many things feel like the Wild West, it’s because it is.
Dare we ask about the other projects you are working on? What should we look for next?
I have about 30 books I need to read, a bunch of games I need to play, a pile of academic papers to read, an office full of projects to complete so I am well and busy for a while. I have a small Afrofuturist side project I’m working on but everything I’m doing is a couple years out. When I get a reasonable handle on my studies and the studio, I’m going to start building my craft in screenwriting. I have some shows in me that I need to commit to paper. But that looks like it’s in the 40s chapter of my life, since the next few years are pretty busy.
Is there a such thing as work-life balance? Tell us your truth!
Perhaps. In this stage of my life, I’m trying to be a student, a founder, a wife, a mom, and a bunch of other things at the same time. It’s less about balance and more about trying to make things work and be as intentional as possible about where my time is going. That said, it generally feels like an exercise in failure or futility: inevitably dinner is going to burn or email threads are going to fall or you show up unprepared for a portfolio review. But my friends who have been through this period just say it all tends to work out and to just try to stay present. So that’s all I try to do.
Do you actually still play video games or watch anime? What are you playing and watching? Recommend us some things.
The last few years, I was worried my gamer status was in question because I was playing so little. Big jobs don’t leave time for much else. I’m also a reader by nature. I do about 50 – 80 books a year, which is dramatically reduced if I am gaming. But this year I’m able to be more intentional about my time so I am structuring in more time for play and more time for culture over all.
A new project required me to play Persona 5, which I had never tried but really love. I’m 60 hours in and my son also really loves it which creates some problems considering he’s 5 and really should not be watching a mature game. What my son and I were playing before that was Kingdom Hearts III, which he also loves. At home, I play a lot of the Mario franchise because it’s kid friendly. Gavin also like games like Splatoon and Flower so I can experiment with a lot of those. If Gavin is asleep, I advance the plot of Persona. When I “finish” that game, I’ve been deeply inspired by my friend Pat and his meditations on fighting games, where I want to really work at regaining my lost skills in Tekken and Super Smash Bros.
TV, I sacrificed to advance my goals. The only thing I watch is Queer Eye, though I should rewatch Shinichiro Watanabe’s work for artistic purposes. I’ve been meaning to watch Psycho-Pass but that’s really it.
Where can people support your work and see you speak?
Yeah…I predate the Patreon era and I only occasionally write these days. You can check for @glowupgames to see what we are working on or find me marginally still on Twitter at @latoyapeterson. But I’m launching, so it’s going to be a while… I’m normally at conferences, large and small, that focus on tech and gaming. Catch me there.
A thousand ‘thank yous’ to Latoya for taking the time to talk to us!