“Hey, Dad” Interview with Pascal Kaufmann

May we introduce?
Pascal Kaufmann is a neuroscientist and a well-known Swiss tech entrepreneur. He founded the non-profit Mindfire Foundation in 2017 with the aim of developing artificial intelligence to help people.

Before that, he founded Starmind and worked, among other things, for the well-known artificial intelligence research lab at the University of Zurich and conducted research in the US at the interface between machine and brain to uncover the secrets of neuronal networks and brain activity.

Pascal, you became a dad last year and are a very committed entrepreneur. How do you organise yourself to juggle everything?
Compared to my parents, I became a dad almost twenty years later. When I was twenty or thirty, I was organised very differently and it was important for me to be flexible and to be able to pitch in at any time. At forty, I work very differently, the use of technology is much more systematic, I have learned to ask the right questions, to delegate and to focus on my strengths. I can rely on different teams that act independently and are guided by a clear vision. Finally, the home office gives me plenty of time to fulfil my role as a family man and partner. My partner is the Family Home Secretary and I can absolutely rely on her while I devote myself to issues and undertakings outside the family.

You decided to have a child and a career – why?
I don’t see any contradiction in that, on the contrary. It’s like saying you chose a career and being a human being. A child shows me completely new perspectives, my partner and I discover the world anew every day through the eyes of our little son. The human factor is still at the centre of all my undertakings; understanding it better often helps me with difficult decisions in my career. Starting my own family has always been clear to me, but it would have been too early at the beginning of my professional career.

What are the biggest challenges for you as a “working dad” in everyday life?
Tech gadgets like iPhones, computers, headsets, etc. are very successful at taking up all of our time and attention. Social media is such that it is difficult to get away from it. A child also demands attention, sometimes a little less resolutely, sometimes more. The separation of work and family time is becoming increasingly blurred, a child rightly has little understanding of sharing attention. On the other hand, I like to be close to my family, this sometimes leads to difficult compromises and I wish I had a robot that could do all my work for me.

What moments in your child’s life do you definitely not want to miss?
Our son is only a few months old, there were already countless moments that I obviously missed. Plannable events like the first day of kindergarten, first day of school, first solo flight, first XYZ I will of course attend. I hope to be able to spend much more time with our son one day.

What did no one tell you before you became a father? What surprised you the most in your role as a father? 
I was well documented and prepared for the birth of our son and asked various colleagues all sorts of questions beforehand. What surprised me was the sound of a baby even when it is asleep, which I didn’t get from any textbook. The feeling of knowing such a delicate being in one’s midst is also completely new. As if its own heart were beating naked and vulnerable next to it outside its own body.

To what extent is compatibility an issue for you at work – especially in your role as leader and initiator of various AI projects?
I believe in teamwork and in the symbiosis of working time and everything else. According to surveys in Germany, 60% would choose the family and 40% the job if they had to choose. I never saw this as either or, just as I don’t have to choose between my heart and my brain, they belong and work together. My family is as much a part of me as my work – fortunately I get by on little sleep and fortunately technology is also advancing in the field of AI, so tedious work will take up less and less time.

You are at the forefront of the AI landscape. How does AI support parenting today? What else needs to come in the future to support fathers like you?
I can’t wait for the breakthrough in human-like AI. I expect that one day a “guarding angel” will be able to represent my interests and also take over the most important conversations, so that I can fully focus on things I don’t want to delegate – like spending time with the family.
Already today, network technologies support me, allowing questions to be solved automatically and only relevant content to come onto my radar. Novel technologies save me the time of reading books, as interesting content is automatically prepared for me. AI will support parenting by taking over other activities, leaving more time for parenting.

According to various reports there are still few women working in AI. Does this reflect your experience? If so, what career advice would you give to a female career starter in this field?
I can only confirm this. We often have trouble finding female speakers for panels with a focus on robotics or AI, especially in Switzerland. In my view, an ideal entry into the field of AI is via biology and behavioural research, as well as via new professions such as “VR-engineer” or “VR-architect”, where VR stands for virtual reality: in order to design interesting games, principles similar to those used to build simulated robots are often applied. AI is a very broad field that is still too much associated with computers and IT. A breakthrough in AI probably requires breaking away from the computer analogy that the brain is a computer and breaking completely new ground. New perspectives, new views and a breath of fresh air in the field of AI can only help. I see great potential both for the field of AI and for women in this field.

What career advice will you give your child one day?
I am already giving our son important career tips, starting with the fact that failure, making mistakes, trying things out and sometimes pushing the limits is a good thing. I will especially point out to our son, as soon as he can speak, that his environment is very important for happiness and success. His network, his teachers, his friends, that the environment has a greater influence on our thinking and our success than we are aware of. Finally, I will support our son to tackle things that he can do with passion and fun. What is to be ignited in others must burn in oneself. Career has a lot to do with passion, courage and intelligence, I will support him to develop and use this trio of values from the beginning.

Awina is committed to improving the compatibility of work and family life by providing earmarked loans for daycare financing. But what does reconciliation actually look like in everyday life? In the series “Hey, Mom”, “Hey, Dad”, working parents talk openly about their experiences and challenges as working parents and give insight into how they personally reconcile children and career.