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Dr. Aya Soffer (M.S. '92, Ph.D. '95)

Dr. Aya Soffer (M.S. '92, Ph.D. '95)

Vice President, AI Technologies and Director IBM Research - Israel

pronouns: she/her

Dr. Aya Soffer was born in Israel and spent time in both Israel and the U.S. while growing up. She graduated from Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1986 and worked for a few years before deciding to come to the University of Maryland to pursue graduate studies in computer science (M.S. ‘92, Ph.D. ‘95). After graduate school, Soffer worked for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a research scientist working on similar projects to those from her graduate studies.

At the cutting edge of the emerging field of AI, Soffer’s expertise was in demand, and in 1999 she began as a research scientist at IBM. Her management skills poised her to lead many exploratory projects, including Watson, the computer that competed with Jeopardy contestants in 2011, and Project Debater, which went head-to-head with world champion debater Harish Natarajan in 2019. Watson is still one focus of IBM’s research under Soffer, the computer system that answers questions posed in natural language. Watson has been applied to healthcare, finance, customer services and even culinary arts.

In 2021, Soffer was promoted from her role as vice president of AI technologies for IBM research to the director of IBM research - Haifa. She is responsible for IBM’s worldwide strategies, as well as direct oversight of the research at IBM Research - Haifa. Soffer admits that through much of her career, she tried to avoid the spotlight around being a woman in technology, but as a senior manager, it has become an important role for her. She understands the value of diversity, not just of gender but of culture and thought, and she has embraced her opportunity to serve as a role model and supporter for women who still face challenges as an underrepresented group in the tech world.

Soffer is recognized in the computer science Alumni Hall of Fame for her contributions to research and advancement of the field of big data analytics, AI and machine learning. She has filed more than 15 patents and authored over 50 peer-reviewed papers. In 2021, the Hebrew-language publication Globes listed Soffer as one of the 50 influential women in Israel. Soffer is still inspired by and inspiring the future of AI to support humans in meaningful ways.