Christian Burke

Lead Data Scientist at Refik Anadol Studio

Christian Burke is the Lead Data Scientist at Refik Anadol Studio. Located in Los Angeles, CA, the studio is known worldwide for its unique immersive art installations which combine visual, auditory, and scientific data to create AI-generated digital art. Christian is responsible for leading a team of experts to gather the data and create the algorithms which bring Refik’s artistic vision to life.

In Christian’s first big project for RAS in 2018, he amassed the then-largest data set in existence for artistic purposes. To date, Christian and his team have collected over three billion images from public sources to use in AI-generated art.

In 2022, the studio’s large-scale installation, Unsupervised, went on display at the MoMA in New York City. For this exhibit, Christian’s team collected data from the MoMA’s 200-year-old collection, and using a machine learning model, incorporated real-time data from the museum’s environment to create the ever-evolving AI-generated display.

In addition to his data science work at RAS, Christian has spearheaded several philanthropic projects for the studio, raising funds for The Alzheimer’s Association, UNICEF, and St. Judes.

Burke holds a B.S. in Computer Science, and when he’s not training algorithms, or installing art around the world, he enjoys playing poker and chess, and hiking the hills around LA.

What is your typical day, and how do you make it productive?

Most of my workdays start early and end late. I’m up by 7, and try to make it to the studio by 8am (depending on LA traffic). From 8-noon I attend client meetings, and after lunch until 5, I block out focused work time for programming or server work, project planning, and discussions with the internal team. From 5-7, I meet with the team to talk about projects and creative vision for the studio. Time blocking like this really helps me be more productive.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I mostly bring Refik’s ideas to life by training machine-learning algorithms. But lately, I’ve enjoyed bringing my own ideas to life through blogging, mostly about the intersection of technology, art, and business. I also have several startup ideas I enjoy bouncing off colleagues, and I hope to bring some of those ideas to life someday.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I’m really excited about AI-assisted art and architecture. I know there is some debate about whether AI art can be considered real art, but I believe the artistic vision still comes from the artist who prompts the machine. I’m fascinated by the art that is coming out of these human-machine collaborations, and I can’t wait to see buildings in every city designed by AI-assisted architects.

What is one habit that helps you be productive?

Drinking lots of coffee! (and time blocking, as I mentioned earlier)

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell myself that failure is actually a positive thing. Everyone needs to fail in order to learn. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying new things.

Tell us something you believe almost nobody agrees with you.

I believe that AI will positively shift the work landscape. While AI will replace many jobs, I am optimistic that it will also allow for greater productivity and creativity. And there will still be plenty of jobs for those who learn how to adapt and learn to use this new technology.

What is the one thing you repeatedly do and recommend everyone else do?

I seek out mentors who can help me grow in specific areas of life and work. Whether in person at conferences, or online through forums, I am intentional about reaching out to lots of different people who I respect, and who are a few steps ahead of me either personally or professionally.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

I get out in nature. LA has great hiking trails just outside the city, and if I need to clear my head, I head for the hills. I like the beach too, and people-watching in Venice can be a great distraction from work.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business or advance in your career?

I believe in the power of mentorship. I started at RAS when I was still in college, and have greatly benefited from Refik’s mentorship. He is an exceptionally inspiring person to work for. He has a fantastic work ethic, positive energy, desire to innovate, and is a kind and genuine person. From him, I’ve learned how to work hard, be open-minded (with respect to innovation), and create meaningful business relationships.

What is one failure in your career, how did you overcome it, and what lessons did you take away from it?

A few years ago, I worked on an installation where we didn’t have a backup server. Of course, something went wrong, and I had to do a complete gut of the server live on-site. We had to buy new components at weird hours and had to drive a long distance to get them within a very tight timeline. The stress of this situation taught me always to have a backup plan!

What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Oof, this is a tough one. I bet ChatGPT could give you better thought-starters. Since I run on caffeine, I’d love it if someone came up with a way to have caffeine without the crash and negative effects. Is there something out there that already exists?

What is one piece of software that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

I use PyTorch every day to build deep learning models. Particularly because my work involves a ton of image recognition and language processing, PyTorch’s framework makes my job so much easier. It’s also written in Python (which I prefer) and can produce multiple prototypes in a short amount of time.

What is the best $100 you recently spent?

I recently bought an MX Master 3 mouse for exactly $100. It fits my hand perfectly and performs really well. If there is something you use all day, every day, whether personally or professionally, it is a good idea to spend a little extra to make your life easier.

Do you have a favorite book or podcast from which you’ve received much value?

One of my favorite books is Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.” It challenged so many of my views about money and investing. Plus, my favorite quote comes from this book: “Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is an option, fear is not.”

What’s a movie or series you recently enjoyed and why?

I’m more of a gamer than a movie buff. With work, I have been too busy to play much these days, but I used to play Apex Legends competitively. I still watch clips/tournaments on YouTube or Twitch. There’s also a pretty interesting cross-over between crypto and gaming, so I’d consider it *partly* market research.

Key learnings:

– Search out work and personal mentors and don’t be afraid to ask them for advice on career and life decisions.
– Don’t be afraid of failure. In fact, embrace it. Fail often and early. See your mistakes as opportunities for growth.
– Work from the heart. If you’re in a job that doesn’t inspire you, either find ways to create your own inspiration or find another job.