Preparing Boys for Life.

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Fords in Four: Meet Tyler Bell '89, Roku Inc.
The Haverford School

What are some of your favorite Haverford memories?

I remember places best: Centennial Hall, the soccer field, the wrestling room, and the classroom at the top of Wilson Hall with the defunct telescope mount outside the window. I started chorus in Michael Stairs’ first year, wrestled heavyweight under Neil Buckley, and played goalie in four EA matches with Coach Joe Tata. I remember being told at the time that Haverford events will “stay with you forever.” Good guidance, but it’s not the events that were special; it was the joyful mélange of ingredients – a brain and body in overdrive, inspiring teachers, odd and fantastic peers, and the potential of an unwritten future ­– joined to etch indelibly a shared remembrance of Haverford. That, and countless trips to Don McBride’s office for dress code violations.

How did your study at the University of Oxford influence your career path?

I went to Oxford after Carleton to do a two-year master’s program in the archaeology of western Europe. I stayed on to do my Ph.D. on the transition from late Roman to early medieval culture, formerly called the “Dark Ages.” I’ve always been interested in liminal periods, and things falling apart, so I looked specifically at how Roman ruins were reused by the Anglo-Saxons. I took an interest in digital survey and mapping, and the emerging technologies of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Computer Assisted Design (CAD), and taught myself to program. I developed a practical skill set that got me invited to excavations in Syria, Peru, Italy, and elsewhere, though most of my fieldwork was in the U.K. I was very fortunate – I could lose myself in the library for eight hours a day, and spend three months a year in the field traveling to unusual places. The entire experience was a hugely challenging indulgence.

I’ve always been interested in liminal periods, and things falling apart, so I looked specifically at how Roman ruins were reused by the Anglo-Saxons. I took an interest in digital survey and mapping, and the emerging technologies of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Computer Assisted Design (CAD), and taught myself to program. I developed a practical skill set that got me invited to excavations in Syria, Peru, Italy, and elsewhere, though most of my fieldwork was in the U.K.

Tell us about your role at Roku.

I’m the product lead for voice services at Roku, looking specifically at how voice can be used to augment the delivery of entertainment – movies, music, TV, video, and sports. In 2006, my family and I moved from the U.K. to Silicon Valley, where I spent about 10 years working on digital maps and geolocation tech, so it was time for something new. A number of emergent technologies have evolved from the combination of tools for large-scale data analysis, cheap storage, and distributed processing; Machine Learning (ML) is probably one of the most interesting. ML is used by voice technologies to translate the spoken word into text and then to translate text into meaning. Roku is my first hardware company – there’s tons of new experiences for me here, so I can be the teacher in one area, and the student in another.

What do you see as the future of your industry?

I expect social networks in their current form will atrophy, and the most exciting advances in consumer tech will bridge the real and virtual worlds. Devices will continue to become easier to use, and voice will augment, rather than replace, visual interfaces. Graphics processing units (GPUs) will supplant central processing units (CPUs) as the emergent hardware frontier, and the Class of ’89 will use autonomous cars almost exclusively in our retirement communities. Along the way we’ll be reminded, at times painfully, that technology is itself neither good nor evil, but simply an accelerant poured on the human condition.

Tyler Bell ’89 is product lead for voice services at Roku Inc. and has been involved in several Silicon Valley startups. He earned a B.A. in English from Carleton College and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Oxford. At Haverford, he was a founding member of the Notables, wrestled, and played soccer and lacrosse.