Chris and Julia Vonwiller sitting on stage at their honorary doctorate conferral. University chancellor Belinda Hutchinson sits at the left of the image.

Artificial intelligence pioneers awarded honorary doctorates

28 May 2021
Couple behind Australian IT success story honoured
The University of Sydney has awarded honorary doctorates to Mr Chris Vonwiller and Dr Julia Vonwiller in recognition of pioneering work that revolutionised technological frameworks worldwide.
Julia Vonwiller at a lecturn delivering her address in graduation regalia after receiving her honorary doctorate.

Dr Julia Vonwiller

“Together they created Appen, arguably one of the greatest IT success stories in Australia,” said University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Stephen Garton AM. “Their company was founded long before artificial intelligence became fashionable and is a testament to the foresight of the Vonwillers.”

Honorary degrees are awarded to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the wider community or who have achieved exceptional academic or creative excellence. Husband and wife team Chris and Julia Vonwiller have been admitted to the degree of Doctor of Engineering (honoris causa).

Dr Vonwiller is a respected linguist who studied at Macquarie University and graduated in 1980 with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours). She completed her PhD in linguistics at Macquarie University in 1989 before working as a researcher at the University of Sydney.

Mr Vonwiller graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Science in 1963 and a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) in 1965, later completing a Master of Business Administration at Macquarie University. He has held senior executive positions at Telstra and was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 2007.

The Vonwillers co-founded Appen in 1996, launched by Dr Vonwiller from their spare room in Sydney’s north shore with her husband’s help. Appen uses data in the form of text, speech, audio and video to build and improve the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence systems.

Dr Vonwiller’s linguistics skills revolutionised the way data is collected across multiple language settings, enabling greater quality in voice recognition technologies. Unlike many competitors, Dr Vonwiller was able to find a way to work with Asian languages.

In 1999 Mr Vonwiller left his job at Telstra to join the rapidly expanding Appen as CEO. With passions for both engineering and business, he turned his innate curiosity and problem-solving abilities toward creating the success story that Appen is today. Under the joint leadership of the Vonwillers, Appen transformed from a small start-up into a global company at the centre of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Chris Vonwiller at a lecturn, speaking after receiving his honorary doctorate, gesticulating with one arm.

Chris Vonwiller

Appen’s innovative approach to business operations has made it a client of many of the world’s largest tech entities. Customers use machine learning for a variety of uses such as automatic speech recognition and improving customer service capabilities with tools like chatbots and virtual assistants.

The company’s reach is significant, using a global team of over one million skilled contractors who speak more than 235 languages and dialects across 170 countries.

“The Vonwillers have demonstrated a commitment to ethical business practices and have applied this ethic through their leadership,” Professor Garton said. “They have grown the company while adhering to environmental, social and governance priorities that encourage diversity, fair corporate administration and communal wellness in the workplace.

“Julia and Chris have demonstrated a commitment to positive societal change and progress. The welfare of people is at Appen’s forefront and is testament to the core values, which motivate the Vonwillers’ energies and enterprise.”

The Vonwillers’ dedication to society’s betterment is not confined to their business. In 2009, they established the Vonwiller Foundation, a charity that has made generous donations in the areas of healthcare, education, science and technology.

Through a series of gifts to the University, the Vonwiller Foundation funded a post-doctoral research fellow to join its STEM Teacher Enrichment Academy. The Vonwillers have also improved the lives of many students through scholarships and education initiatives.

Outside of the business, Mr Vonwiller served on the Board of the University’s Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering for 13 years and continues this close association with the University. He has been frequently listed among "Top 100 Australia's Most Influential Engineers”.  

Dr Vonwiller’s contribution to promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics extends beyond her financial commitment. She currently sits on the advisory boards of the STEM Academy, the Humanitarian Innovation Awards (The Warren Centre) and the Advisory Board of the Macquarie University Centre for Reading.

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