The following is a conversation with Charles Isbell,
Dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech,
a researcher and educator in the field of artificial intelligence,
and someone who deeply thinks about what exactly is the field of computing and how do we teach it.
He also has a fascinatingly varied set of interests including music,
books, movies, sports, and history that make him especially fun to talk with.
When I first saw him speak, his charisma immediately took over the room,
and I had a stupid excited smile on my face,
and I knew I had to eventually talk to him on this podcast.
Quick mention of each sponsor, followed by some thoughts related to the episode.
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and mints that I use to give my brain a quick caffeine boost.
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As a side note, let me say that I’m trying to make it so that the conversations with Charles,
Eric Weinstein, and Dan Carlin will be published before Americans vote for president on November 3rd.
There’s nothing explicitly political in these conversations,
but they do touch on something in human nature that I hope can bring context to our difficult time,
and maybe, for a moment, allow us to empathize with people we disagree with.
With Eric, we talk about the nature of evil.
With Charles, besides AI and music, we talk a bit about race in America,
and how we can bring more love and empathy to our online communication.
And with Dan Carlin, well, we talk about Alexander the Great,
Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, and all the complicated parts of human history in between,
with a hopeful eye toward a brighter future for our humble, little civilization here on Earth.
The conversation with Dan will hopefully be posted tomorrow, on Monday, November 2nd.
If you enjoy this thing, subscribe on YouTube, review it with 5 Stars and Apple Podcasts,
follow on Spotify, support on Patreon, or connect with me on Twitter at Lex Friedman.
And now, here’s my conversation with Charles Isbell.
You’ve mentioned that you love movies and TV shows.
Let’s ask an easy question, but you have to be definitively, objectively, conclusive.
What’s your top three movies of all time?
So, you’re asking me to be definitive and to be conclusive.
That’s a little hard. I’m going to tell you why.
It’s very simple. It’s because movies is too broad of a category.
I got to pick subgenres, but I will tell you that of those genres,
I’ll pick one or two from each of the genres, and I’ll get us to three, so I’m going to cheat.
So, my favorite comedy of all times, which is probably my favorite movie of all time,
is His Girl Friday, which is probably a movie that you’ve not ever heard of,
but it’s based on a play called The Front Page from, I don’t know, early 1900s.
And the movie is a fantastic film.
What’s the story? What’s the independent film?
No, no, no. What are we talking about?
This is one of the movies that would have been very popular. It’s a screwball comedy.
You ever see Moonlighting, the TV show? You know what I’m talking about?
So, you’ve seen these shows where there’s a man and a woman, and they clearly are in love with one another,
and they’re constantly fighting and always talking over each other.
Banter, banter, banter, banter, banter.
This was the movie that started all that, as far as I’m concerned.
It’s very much of its time. So, it’s, I don’t know, must have come out sometime between 1934 and 1939.
I’m not sure exactly when the movie itself came out. It’s black and white.
It’s just a fantastic film, and it’s hilarious.
So, it’s mostly conversation?
Not entirely, but mostly, mostly. Just a lot of back and forth.
There’s a story there. Someone’s on death row, and they’re newspaper men, including her.
They’re all newspaper men. They were divorced.
The editor, the publisher, I guess, and the reporter, they were divorced.
But, you know, they clearly, he’s thinking, trying to get back together,
and there’s this whole other thing that’s going on.
But none of that matters. The plot doesn’t matter.
Yeah, it’s just a little play in conversation.
It’s fantastic. And I just love everything about the conversation, because at the end of the day,
sort of narrative and conversation are the sort of things that drive me.
And so, I really like that movie for that reason.
Similarly, I’m now going to cheat, and I’m going to give you two movies as one.
And they’re Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and John Wick.
Both relatively modern. John Wick, of course.
One, two, or three?
One. It gets increasingly, I love them all for different reasons,
and increasingly more ridiculous. Kind of like Loving Alien and Aliens,
despite the fact they’re two completely different movies.
But the reason I put Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and John Wick together is because I
actually think they’re the same movie, or what I like about them, the same movie.
Which is both of them create a world that you’re coming in the middle of,
and they don’t explain it to you. But the story is done so well that you pick it up.
So, anyone who’s seen John Wick, you know, you have these little coins,
and they’re headed out, and there are these rules,
and apparently every single person in New York City is an assassin.
There’s like two people who come through who aren’t, but otherwise they are.
But there’s this complicated world, and everyone knows each other.
They don’t sit down and explain it to you, but you figure it out.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a lot like that.
You get the feeling that this is chapter nine of a 10 part story,
and you’ve missed the first eight chapters, and they’re not going to explain it to you,
but there’s this sort of rich world behind you.
You get pulled in anyway, like immediately.
You get pulled in anyway. So, it’s just excellent storytelling in both cases,
and very, very different.
And also you like the outfit, I assume? The John Wick outfit?
Oh yeah, of course. Well, of course. Yes. I think John Wick outfit is perfect.
And so that’s number two, and then…
But sorry to pause on that. Martial arts? You have a long list of hobbies.
Like it scrolls off the page, but I didn’t see martial arts as one of them.
I do not do martial arts, but I certainly watch martial arts.
Oh, I appreciate it very much. Oh, we could talk about every Jackie Chan movie ever made,
and I would be on board with that.
The Shower, too? Like that kind of comedy of a cop?
Yes, yes. By the way, my favorite Jackie Chan movie would be Drunken Master 2,
known in the States usually as Legend of the Drunken Master.
Actually, Drunken Master, the first one, is the first kung fu movie I ever saw,
but I did not know that.
First Jackie Chan movie?
No, first one ever that I saw and remember, but I had no idea that that’s what it was,
and I didn’t know that was Jackie Chan. That was like his first major movie.
Yeah. I was a kid. It was done in the 70s.
I only later rediscovered that that was actually.
And he creates his own martial art by drinking. Was he actually drinking or was he played drinking?
You mean as an actor or as a character?
No. I’m sure as an actor. He was in the 70s or whatever.
He was definitely drinking, and in the end, he drinks industrial grade alcohol.
Yeah, and has one of the most fantastic fights ever in that subgenre.
Anyway, that’s my favorite one of his movies, but I’ll tell you the last movie.
It’s actually a movie called Nothing But a Man, which is the 1960s,
starred Ivan Dixon, who you’ll know from Hogan’s Heroes, and Abby Lincoln.
It’s just a really small little drama. It’s a beautiful story.
But my favorite scenes, I’m cheating, one of my favorite movies just for the ending is The
Godfather. I think the last scene of that is just fantastic. It’s the whole movie all summarized in
just eight, nine seconds.
Godfather Part One?
How does it end? I don’t think you need to worry about spoilers if you haven’t seen The Godfather.
Spoiler alert. It ends with the wife coming to Michael, and he says,
just this once, I’ll let you ask me my business. And she asks him if he did this terrible thing,
and he looks her in the eye and he lies, and he says, no. And she says, thank you. And she
walks out the door, and you see her going out of the door, and all these people are coming in,
and they’re kissing Michael’s hands, and Godfather. And then the camera switches
perspective. So instead of looking at him, you’re looking at her, and the door
closes in her face, and that’s the end of the movie. And that’s the whole movie right there.
Do you see parallels between that and your position as Dean at Georgia Tech Chrome?
Just kidding. Trick question.
Sometimes, certainly. The door gets closed on me every once in a while.
Okay. That was a rhetorical question. You’ve also mentioned that you, I think, enjoy all kinds of
experiments, including on yourself. But I saw a video where you said you did an experiment where
you tracked all kinds of information about yourself and a few others sort of wiring up your
home. And this little idea that you mentioned in that video, which is kind of interesting, that
you thought that two days worth of data is enough to capture majority of the behavior of the human
being. First, can you describe what the heck you did to collect all the data? Because it’s
fascinating, just like little details of how you collect that data and also what your intuition
behind the two days is. So first off, it has to be the right two days. But I was thinking of a
very specific experiment. There’s actually a suite of them that I’ve been a part of, and other people
have done this, of course. I just sort of dabbled in that part of the world. But to be very clear,
the specific thing that I was talking about had to do with recording all the IR going on in my
infrared going on in my house. So this is a long time ago. So this is everything’s being curled
by pressing buttons on remote controls, as opposed to speaking to Alexa or Siri or someone like that.
And I was just trying to figure out if you could get enough data on people to figure out what they
were going to do with their TVs or their lights. My house was completely wired up at the time.
But you know, what I’m about to look at a movie, I’m about to turn on the TV or whatever and just
see what I could predict from it. It was kind of surprising. It shouldn’t have been. But that’s all
very easy to do, by the way, just capturing all the little stuff. I mean, it’s a bunch of computers
systems. It’s really easy to capture today if you know what you’re looking for. At Georgia Tech,
long before I got there, we had this thing called the Aware Home, where everything was wired up and
you captured everything that was going on. Nothing even difficult, not with video or anything like
that, just the way that the system was just capturing everything. So it turns out that,
and I did this with myself and then I had students and they worked with many other people. And it
turns out at the end of the day, people do the same things over and over and over again. So it
has to be the right two days, like a weekend. But it turns out not only can you predict what
someone’s going to do next at the level of what button they’re going to press next on a remote
control, but you can do it with something really, really simple. You don’t even need a hidden mark
off model. It’s like a mark, just simply, I press this, this is my prediction of the next thing.
It turns out you can get 93% accuracy just by doing something very simple and stupid and just
counting statistics. But what was actually more interesting is that you could use that information.
This comes up again and again in my work. If you try to represent people or objects by the things
they do, the things you can measure about them that have to do with action in the world. So
distribution over actions, and you try to represent them by the distribution of actions that are done
on them, then you do a pretty good job of sort of understanding how people are and they cluster
remarkably well, in fact, irritatingly so. And so by clustering people this way,
you can maybe, you know, I got the 93% accuracy of what’s the next button you’re going to press,
but I can get 99% accuracy or somewhere there’s about on the collections of things you might
press. And it turns out the things that you might press are all related to number to each other and
exactly what you would expect. So for example, all the key, all the numbers on a keypad, it turns out
all have the same behavior with respect to you as a human being. And so you would naturally cluster
them together and you discover that numbers are all related to one another in some way and all
these other things. And then, and here’s the part that I think is important. I mean, you can see
this in all kinds of things. Every individual is different, but any given individual is remarkably
predictable because you keep doing the same things over and over again. And the two things that I’ve
learned in the long time that I’ve been thinking about this is people are easily predictable and
people hate when you tell them that they’re easily predictable, but they are. And there you go.
Yeah. What about, let me play devil’s advocate and philosophically speaking, is it possible to
say that what defines humans is the outlier. So even though many, some large percentage of our
behaviors, whatever the signal we measure is the same and it would cluster nicely, but maybe it’s
the special moments of when we break out of the routine is the definitive thing that we’re
breaking out of the routine is the definitive things. And the way we break out of that routine
for each one of us might be different. It’s possible. I would say that I would say it a
little differently. I think I would make two things. One is a, I’m going to disagree with
the premise, I think, but that’s fine. I think the way I would put it is there are people who
are very different from lots of other people, but they’re not 0%, they’re closer to 10%, right? So
in fact, even if you do this kind of clustering of people, that’ll turn out to be the small number
they all behave like each other, even if they individually behave very differently from everyone
else. So I think that’s kind of important. But what you’re really asking, I think, and I think
this is really a question is, what do you do when you’re faced with the situation you’ve never seen
before? What do you do when you’re faced with an extraordinary situation maybe you’ve seen others
do and you’re actually forced to do something and you react to that very differently. And that is
the thing that makes you human. I would agree with that, at least at a philosophical level, that it’s
the times when you are faced with something difficult, a decision that you have to make
where the answer isn’t easy, even if you know what the right answer is, that’s sort of what defines
you as the individual. And I think what defines people broadly, it’s the hard problem. It’s not
the easy problem. It’s the thing that’s going to hurt you. It’s not even that it’s difficult. It’s
just that you know that the outcome is going to be highly suboptimal for you. And I do think that
that’s a reasonable place to start for the question of what makes us human. So before we talk about
sort of explore the different ideas underlying interactive artificial intelligence, which we
are working on, let me just go along this thread to skip to kind of our world of social media,
which is something that at least on the artificial intelligence side you think about.
There’s a popular narrative, I don’t know if it’s true, but that we have these silos in social
media and we have these clusterings, as you’re kind of mentioning. And the idea is that, you know,
along that narrative is that, you know, we want to, we want to break each other out of those silos
so we can be empathetic to other people, to if you’re a Democrat, you’d be empathetic to the
Republican. If you’re Republican, you’re empathetic Democrat. Those are just two silly bins that we
seem to be very excited about, but there’s other binnings that we can think about. Is there, from
an artificial intelligence perspective, because you’re just saying we cluster along the data,
but then interactive artificial intelligence is referring to throwing agents into that mix,
AI systems in that mix, helping us interacting with us humans and maybe getting us out of that
mix, maybe getting us out of those silos. Is that something that you think is possible? Do you see
a hopeful possibility for artificial intelligence systems in these large networks of people to get
us outside of our habits in at least the idea space to where we can sort of be empathetic to
other people’s lived experiences, other people’s points of view, you know, all that kind of stuff?
Yes, and I actually don’t think it’s that hard. Well, it’s not hard in this sense. So imagine that
you can, let’s just, let’s make life simple for a minute. Let’s assume that you can do a kind of
partial ordering over ideas or clusterings of behavior. It doesn’t even matter what I mean here,
so long as there’s some way that this is a cluster, this is a cluster, there’s some edge
between them, right? And this is kind of, they don’t quite touch even, or maybe they come very
close. If you can imagine that conceptually, then the way you get from here to here is not by going
from here to here. The way you get from here to here is you find the edge and you move slowly
together, right? And I think that machines are actually very good at that sort of thing once we
can kind of define the problem, either in terms of behavior or ideas or words or whatever. So it’s
easy in the sense that if you already have the network and you know the relationships, you know,
the edges and sort of the strengths on them and you kind of have some semantic meaning for them,
the machine doesn’t have to, you do as the designer, then yeah, I think you can kind of move
people along and sort of expand them. But it’s harder than that. And the reason it’s harder than
that, or sort of coming up with the network structure itself is hard, is because I’m gonna
tell you a story that someone else told me and I don’t, I may get some of the details a little bit
wrong, but it’s roughly, it roughly goes like this. You take two sets of people from the same
backgrounds and you want them to solve a problem. So you separate them up, which we do all the time,
right? Oh, you know, we’re gonna break out in the, we’re gonna break out groups. You’re gonna go
over there and you’re gonna talk about this. You’re gonna go over there and you’re gonna talk
about this. And then you have them sort of in this big room, but far apart from one another,
and you have them sort of interact with one another. When they come back to talk about what
they learn, you want to merge what they’ve done together. It can be extremely hard because they
don’t, they basically don’t speak the same language anymore. Like when you create these problems and
you dive into them, you create your own language. So the example this one person gave me, which I
found kind of interesting because we were in the middle of that at the time, was
they’re sitting over there and they’re talking about these rooms that you can see, but you’re
seeing them from different vantage points, depending on what side of the room you’re on.
They can see a clock very easily. And so they start referring to the room as the one with the clock.
This group over here, looking at the same room, they can see the clock, but it’s, you know,
not in their line of sight or whatever. So they end up referring to it by some other way.
When they get back together and they’re talking about things, they’re referring to the same room
and they don’t even realize they’re referring to the same room. And in fact, this group doesn’t
even see that there’s a clock there and this group doesn’t see whatever’s the clock on the wall is
the thing that stuck with me. So if you create these different silos, the problem isn’t that
the ideologies disagree. It’s that you’re using the same words and they mean radically different
things. The hard part is just getting them to agree on the, well, maybe we’d say the axioms in
our world, right? But you know, just get them to agree on some basic definitions because right now
they talk, they’re talking past each other, just completely talking past each other. That’s the
hard part, getting them to meet, getting them to interact. That may not be that difficult. Getting
them to see where their language is leading them to lead past one another. That’s, that’s the hard
part. It’s a really interesting question to me. It could be on the layer of language, but it feels
like there’s multiple layers to this. Like it could be worldview. It could be, I mean, all boils
down to empathy, being able to put yourself in the shoes of the other person to learn the language, to
learn like visually how they see the world, to learn like the, I mean, I experienced this now
with, with trolls, the, the degree of humor in that world. For example, I talk about love a lot.
I’m very like, I’m really lucky to have this amazing community of loving people. But whenever I
encounter trolls, they always roll their eyes at the idea of love because it’s so quote unquote
cringe. So, so they, they show love by like derision, I would say. And I think about on the
human level, that’s a whole nother discussion. That’s psychology, that’s sociology, so on. But
I wonder if AI systems can help somehow and to bridge the gap of what is this person’s life like?
Encourage me to just ask that question, to put myself in their shoes, to experience the agitations,
the fears, the hopes they have, the, to experience, you know, the, to even just to think about what
was their upbringing like, like having a, a single parent home or a shitty education or all those
kinds of things, just to put myself in that mind space. It feels like that’s really important.
For us to, to, to bring those clusters together, to find that similar language. But it’s unclear
how AI can help that because it seems like AI systems need to understand both parties first.
So the, you know, the word understand, there’s doing a lot of work, right?
So do you have to understand it or do you just simply have to note that there is something
similar as a point to touch, right? So, you know, you use the word empathy and I like that word,
for a lot of reasons, I think you’re right in the way that you’re using in the ways you’re describing,
but let’s separate it from sympathy, right? So, you know, sympathy is feeling sort of for someone,
empathy is kind of understanding where they’re coming from and how they, how they feel, right?
And for most people, those things go hand in hand. For some people, some are very good at empathy
and very, very bad at sympathy. Some people cannot experience, well, my observation would be,
I’m not a psychologist, my observation would be that some people seem to be very, very,
very bad at sympathy. My observation would be that some people seem incapable of feeling sympathy
unless they feel empathy first. You can understand someone, understand where they’re coming from and
still think, no, I can’t support that, right? It doesn’t mean that the only way I, because if that,
if that isn’t the case, then what it requires is that you, you must, the only way that you can,
to understand someone means you must agree with everything that they do, which isn’t right, right?
I can feel for someone is to completely understand them and make them like me in some way. Well,
then we’re lost, right? Because we’re not all exactly like each other. I have to understand
everything that you’ve gone through. It helps clearly, but they’re separable ideas, right?
Even though they get clearly, clearly tangled up in one another. So what I think AI could help you
do actually is if, and you know, I’m, I’m being quite fanciful as it were, but if you, if you
think of these as kind of, I understand how you interact, the words that you use, the, you know,
the actions you take, I have some way of doing this. Let’s not worry about what that is.
But I can see you as a kind of distribution of experiences and actions taken upon you,
things you’ve done and so on. And I can do this with someone else and I can find the places where
there’s some kind of commonality, a mapping as it were, even if it’s not total, you know, the,
if I think of this as distribution, right, then, you know, I can take the cosine of the angle
between you and if it’s, you know, if it’s zero, you’ve got nothing in common. If it’s one,
you’re completely the same person. Well, you know, you’re probably not one. You’re almost certainly
not zero. I can find the place where there’s the overlap, then I might be able to introduce you on
that basis or connect you in that, connect you in that way and make it easier for you to take that
step of that step of empathy. It’s not, it’s not impossible to do. Although I wonder if it requires
that everyone involved is at least interested in asking the question. So maybe the hard part
is just getting them interested in asking the question. In fact, maybe if you can get them to
ask the question, how are we more alike than we are different, they’ll solve it themselves. Maybe
that’s the problem that AI should be working on, not telling you how you’re similar or different,
but just getting you to decide that it’s worthwhile asking the question. It feels like an economist’s
answer actually. Well, people, okay, first of all, people like would disagree. So let me disagree
slightly, which is, I think everything you said is brilliant, but I tend to believe philosophically
speaking that people are interested underneath it all. And I would say that AI, the, the possibility
that an AI system would show the commonality is incredible. That’s a really good starting point.
I would say if you, if on social media, I could discover the common things deep or shallow between
me and a person who there’s tension with, I think that my basic human nature would take over from
there. And I think enjoy that commonality. And like, there’s something sticky about that, that
my mind will linger on and that person in my mind will become like warmer and warmer. And like, I’ll
start to give a feel more and more compassion towards them. I think for majority of the
population, that’s true, but that might be, that’s a hypothesis. Yeah. I mean, it’s an empirical
question, right? You’d have to figure it out. I mean, I want to believe you’re right. And so I’m
going to say that I think you’re right. Of course, some people come to those things for the purpose
of trolling, right? And it doesn’t matter that they’re playing a different game. Yeah. But I
don’t know. I, you know, my experience is it requires two things. It requires, in fact, maybe
this is really at the end what you’re saying. And I, and I do agree with this for sure. So
you, it’s hard to hold onto that kind of anger or to hold onto just the desire to humiliate someone
for that long. It’s just difficult to do. It takes, it takes a toll on you. But more importantly,
we know this both from people having done studies on it, but also from our own experiences,
that it is much easier to be dismissive of a person if they’re not in front of you,
if they’re not real, right? So much of the history of the world is about making people other, right?
So if you’re social media, if you’re on the web, if you’re doing whatever in the internet,
but being forced to deal with someone as a person, some equivalent to being in the same room,
makes a huge difference. Cause then you’re one, you’re forced to deal with their humanity because
it’s in front of you. The other is of course that, you know, they might punch you in the face
if you go too far. So, you know, both of those things kind of work together, I think to the,
to the right end. So I think bringing people together is really a kind of substitute for
forcing them to see the humanity in another person and to not be able to treat them as bits,
it’s hard to troll someone when you’re looking them in the eye. This is very difficult to do.
Agreed. Your broad set of research interests fall under interactive AI, as I mentioned,
which is a fascinating set of ideas and you have some concrete things that you’re
particularly interested in, but maybe could you talk about how you think about the field of
interactive artificial intelligence? Sure. So let me say upfront that if you look at,
certainly my early work, but even if you look at most of it, I’m a machine learning guy,
right? I do machine learning. First paper ever published, it was in NIPS. Back then it was
NIPS. Now it’s NeurIPS. It’s a long story there. Anyway, that’s another thing. But so,
so I’m a machine learning guy, right? I believe in data, I believe in statistics and all those
kinds of things. And the reason I’m bringing that up is even though I’m a newfangled statistical
machine learning guy and have been for a very long time, the problem I really care about is AI,
right? I care about artificial intelligence. I care about building some kind of
intelligent artifact. However that gets expressed, that would be at least as intelligent as humans
and as interesting as humans, perhaps in their own way. So that’s the deep underlying love and
dream is the bigger AI. Whatever the heck that is. Yeah. The machine learning in some ways is
a means to the end. It is not the end. And I don’t understand how one could be intelligent
without learning. So therefore I got to figure out how to do that, right? So that’s important.
But machine learning, by the way, is also a tool. I said statistical, because that’s what most
people think of themselves as machine learning people. That’s how they think. I think Pat Langley
might disagree, or at least 1980s Pat Langley might disagree with what it takes to do machine
learning. But I care about the AI problem, which is why it’s interactive AI, not just interactive
ML. I think it’s important to understand that there’s a longterm goal here, which I will
probably never live to see, but I would love to have been a part of, which is building something
truly intelligent outside of ourselves. Can we take a tiny tangent? Or am I interrupting,
which is, is there something you can say concrete about the mysterious gap between
the subset ML and the bigger AI? What’s missing? What do you think? I mean, obviously it’s
totally unknown, not totally, but in part unknown at this time, but is it something like with Pat
Langley, is it knowledge, like expert system reasoning type of kind of thing?
So AI is bigger than ML, but ML is bigger than AI. This is kind of the real problem here,
is that they’re really overlapping things that are really interested in slightly different problems.
I tend to think of ML, and there are many people out there who are going to be very upset at me
about this, but I tend to think of ML being much more concerned with the engineering of solving a
problem, and AI about the sort of more philosophical goal of true intelligence. And that’s the thing
that motivates me, even if I end up finding myself living in this kind of engineering ish space,
I’ve now made Michael Jordan upset. But to me, they just feel very different. You’re just
measuring them differently, your goals of where you’re trying to be are somewhat different.
But to me, AI is about trying to build that intelligent thing. And typically, but not always,
for the purpose of understanding ourselves a little bit better. Machine learning is, I think,
trying to solve the problem, whatever that problem is. Now, that’s my take. Others, of course,
would disagree. So on that note, so with the interactive AI, do you tend to, in your mind,
visualize AI as a singular system, or is it as a collective huge amount of systems interacting
with each other? Like, is the social interaction of us humans and of AI systems the fundamental
to intelligence? I think, well, it’s certainly fundamental to our kind of intelligence, right?
And I actually think it matters quite a bit. So the reason the interactive AI part matters to me
is because I don’t, this is going to sound simple, but I don’t care whether a tree makes a sound
when it falls and there’s no one around, because I don’t think it matters, right? If there’s no
observer in some sense. And I think what’s interesting about the way that we’re intelligent
is we’re intelligent with other people, right? Or other things anyway. And we go out of our way to
make other things intelligent. We’re hardwired to find intention, even whether there is no intention,
why we anthropomorphize everything. I think the interactive AI part is being intelligent in and
of myself in isolation is a meaningless act in some sense. The correct answer is you have to
be intelligent in the way that you interact with others. It’s also efficient because it allows you
to learn faster because you can import from past history. It also allows you to be efficient in
the transmission of that. So we ask ourselves about me. Am I intelligent? Clearly, I think so.
But I’m also intelligent as a part of a larger species and group of people, and we’re trying to
move the species forward as well. And so I think that notion of being intelligent with others is
kind of the key thing because otherwise you come and you go, and then it doesn’t matter. And so
that’s why I care about that aspect of it. And it has lots of other implications. One is not just
building something intelligent with others, but understanding that you can’t always communicate
with those others. They have been in a room where there’s a clock on the wall that you haven’t seen,
which means you have to spend an enormous amount of time communicating with one another constantly
in order to figure out what each other wants. So this is why people project, right? You project your
own intentions and your own reasons for doing things on the others as a way of understanding
them so that you know how to behave. But by the way, you, completely predictable person,
I don’t know how you’re predictable. I don’t know you well enough, but you probably eat the same five
things over and over again or whatever it is that you do, right? I know I do. If I’m going to a new
Chinese restaurant, I will get general gals chicken because that’s the thing that’s easy.
I will get hot and sour soup. People do the things that they do, but other people get the chicken and
broccoli. I can push this analogy way too far. The chicken and broccoli. I don’t know what’s
wrong with those people. I don’t know what’s wrong with them either. We have all had our trauma.
So they get their chicken and broccoli and their egg drop soup or whatever. We got to communicate and
it’s going to change, right? So interactive AI is not just about learning to solve a problem or a
task. It’s about having to adapt that over time, over a very long period of time and interacting
with other people who will themselves change. This is what we mean about things like adaptable
models, right? That you have to have a model. That model is going to change. And by the way,
it’s not just the case that you’re different from that person, but you’re different from the person
you were 15 minutes ago or certainly 15 years ago. And I have to assume that you’re at least going
to drift, hopefully not too many discontinuities, but you’re going to drift over time. And I have
to have some mechanism for adapting to that as you and an individual over time and across individuals
over time. On the topic of adaptive modeling and you talk about lifelong learning, which is
a, I think a topic that’s understudied or maybe because nobody knows what to do with it. But like,
you know, if you look at Alexa or most of our artificial intelligence systems that are primarily
machine learning based systems or dialogue systems, all those kinds of things, they know very little
about you in the sense of the lifelong learning sense that we learn as humans, we learn a lot about
each other, not in the quantity effects, but like the temporally rich set of information that seems
to like pick up the crumbs along the way that somehow seems to capture a person pretty well.
Do you have any ideas how to do lifelong learning? Because it seems like most of the machine learning
community does not. No, well, by the way, not only does the machine learning community not spend a
lot of time on lifelong learning, I don’t think they spend a lot of time on learning period in
the sense that they tend to be very task focused. Everybody is overfitting to whatever problem is
they happen to have. They’re overengineering their solutions to the task. Even the people,
and I think these people too, are trying to solve a hard problem of transfer learning, right? I’m
going to learn on one task and learn another task. You still end up creating the task. It’s like
looking for your keys where the light is because that’s where the light is, right? It’s not because
the keys have to be there. I mean, one could argue that we tend to do this in general. As a group,
we tend to hill climb and get stuck in local optima. I think we do this in the small as well.
I think it’s very hard to do. Here’s the hard thing about AI. The hard thing about AI is it
keeps changing on us, right? What is AI? AI is the art and science of making computers act the way
they do in the movies, right? That’s what it is, right? But beyond that. They keep coming up with
new movies. Yes. Right, exactly. We are driven by this kind of need to the ineffable quality of who
we are, which means that the moment you understand something is no longer AI, right? Well, we
understand this. That’s just you take the derivative and you divide by two and then you average it out
over time in the window. Therefore, that’s no longer AI. The problem is unsolvable because
it keeps kind of going away. This creates a kind of illusion, which I don’t think is an entire
illusion, of either there’s very simple task based things you can do very well and over engineer,
there’s all of AI, and there’s nothing in the middle. It’s very hard to get from here to here,
and it’s very hard to see how to get from here to here. I don’t think that we’ve done
a very good job of it because we get stuck trying to solve the small problems in front of it,
myself included. I’m not going to pretend that I’m better at this than anyone else. Of course,
all the incentives in academia and in industry are set to make that very hard because you have
to get the next paper out, you have to get the next product out, you have to solve this problem,
and it’s very sort of naturally incremental. None of the incentives are set up to allow you to take
a huge risk unless you’re already so well established you can take that big risk.
If you’re that well established that you can take that big risk, then you’ve probably spent
much of your career taking these little risks, relatively speaking, and so you have got a
lifetime of experience telling you not to take that particular big risk. So the whole system’s
set up to make progress very slow. That’s fine. It’s just the way it is, but it does make this
gap seem really big, which is my long way of saying I don’t have a great answer to it except
that stop doing n equals one. At least try to get n equal two and maybe n equal seven so that you
can say I’m going to, or maybe t is a better variable here. I’m going to not just solve this
problem and solve this problem and another problem. I’m not going to learn just on you.
I’m going to keep living out there in the world and just seeing what happens and that we’ll learn
something as designers and our machine learning algorithms and our AI algorithms can learn as
well. But unless you’re willing to build a system which you’re going to have live for months at a
time in an environment that is messy and chaotic, you cannot control, then you’re never going to
make progress in that direction. So I guess my answer to you is yes. My idea is that you should,
it’s not no, it’s yes. You should be deploying these things and making them live for a month
at a time and be okay with the fact that it’s going to take you five years to do this. Not
rerunning the same experiment over and over again and refining the machine so it’s slightly better
at whatever, but actually having it out there and living in the chaos of the world and seeing what
its learning algorithm say can learn, what data structure it can build and how it can go from
there. Without that, you’re going to be stuck all the time. What do you think about the possibility
of N equals one growing, it’s probably crude approximation, but growing like if you look at
language models like GPT3, if you just make it big enough, it’ll swallow the world. Meaning like
it’ll solve all your T to infinity by just growing in size of this, taking the small overengineered
solution and just pumping it full of steroids in terms of compute, in terms of size of training
data and the Yann LeCun style self supervised or open AI self supervised. Just throw all of YouTube
at it and it will learn how to reason, how to paint, how to create music, how to love all that
by watching YouTube videos. I mean, I can’t think of a more terrifying world to live in than a world
that is based on YouTube videos, but yeah, I think the answer that I just kind of don’t think that’ll
quite well, it won’t work that easily. You will get somewhere and you will learn something, which
means it’s probably worth it, but you won’t get there. You won’t solve the problem. Here’s the
thing, we build these things and we say we want them to learn, but what actually happens, and
let’s say they do learn, I mean, certainly every paper I’ve gotten published, the things learn,
I don’t know about anyone else, but they actually change us, right? We react to it differently,
right? So we keep redefining what it means to be successful, both in the negative in the case,
but also in the positive in that, oh, well, this is an accomplishment. I’ll give you an example,
which is like the one you just described with YouTube. Let’s get completely out of machine
learning. Well, not completely, but mostly out of machine learning. Think about Google.
People were trying to solve information retrieval, the ad hoc information retrieval
problem forever. I mean, first major book I ever read about it was what, 71, I think it was when
it came out. Anyway, we’ll treat everything as a vector and we’ll do these vector space models
and whatever. And that was all great. And we made very little progress. I mean, we made some progress
and then Google comes and makes the ad hoc problem seem pretty easy. I mean, it’s not,
there’s lots of computers and databases involved, and there’s some brilliant algorithmic stuff
behind it too, and some systems building. But the problem changed, right?
If you’ve got a world that’s that connected so that you have, you know, there are 10 million
answers quite literally to the question that you’re asking, then the problem wasn’t give me
the things that are relevant. The problem is don’t give me anything that’s irrelevant, at least in
the first page, because nothing else matters. So Google is not solving the information retrieval
problem, at least not on this webpage. Google is minimizing false positives, which is not the same
thing as getting an answer. It turns out it’s good enough for what it is we want to use Google for,
but it also changes what the problem was we thought we were trying to solve in the first place.
You thought you were trying to find an answer, but you’re not, or you’re trying to find the answer,
but it turns out you’re just trying to find an answer. Now, yes, it is true. It’s also very good
at finding you exactly that webpage. Of course, you trained yourself to figure out what the keywords
were to get you that webpage. But in the end, by having that much data, you’ve just changed the
problem into something else. You haven’t actually learned what you set out to learn. Now, the
counter to that would be maybe we’re not doing that either. We just think we are because, you know,
we’re in our own heads. Maybe we’re learning the wrong problem in the first place, but I don’t
think that matters. I think the point is that Google has not solved information retrieval.
Google has done amazing service. I have nothing bad to say about what they’ve done. Lord knows
my entire life is better because Google exists. For Google Maps, I don’t think I’ve ever found
this place. Where is this? I see 110 and I see where did 95 go? So I’m very grateful for Google,
but they just have to make certain the first five things are right.
And everything after that is wrong. Look, we’re going off on a totally different topic here, but
think about the way we hire faculty. It’s exactly the same thing.
I get in controversial, getting controversial. It’s exactly the same problem, right? It’s
minimizing false positives. We say things like we want to find the best person to be an assistant
professor at MIT in the new college of computing, which I will point out was founded 30 years after
the college of computing. I’m a part of both of my alma mater. I’m just saying I appreciate all
that they did and all that they’re doing. Anyway, so we’re going to try to hire the best professor.
That’s what we say, the best person for this job, but that’s not what we do at all, right?
Do you know which percentage of faculty in the top four earn their PhDs from the top four,
say in 2017, which is the most recent year for which I have data?
Maybe a large percentage.
60% of the faculty in the top four earn their PhDs in the top four. This is computer science,
for which there is no top five. There’s only a top four, right? Because they’re all tied for one.
For people who don’t know, by the way, that would be MIT Stanford, Berkeley, CMU.
Georgia Tech is number eight.
Number eight. You’re keeping track.
Oh yes. It’s a large part of my job. Number five is Illinois. Number six is a tie with
UW and Cornell and Princeton and Georgia Tech are tied for eight and UT Austin is number 10.
Michigan is number 11, by the way. So if you look at the top 10, you know what percentage of
faculty in the top 10 earn their PhDs from the top 10? 65, roughly. 65%.
If you look at the top 55 ranked departments, 50% of the faculty earn their PhDs from the top 10.
There is no universe in which all the best faculty, even just for R1 universities,
the majority of them come from 10 places. There’s no way that’s true, especially when you consider
how small some of those universities are in terms of the number of PhDs they produce.
Now that’s not a negative. I mean, it is a negative. It also has a habit of entrenching
certain historical inequities and accidents. But what it tells you is, well, ask yourself the
question, why is it like that? Well, because it’s easier. If we go all the way back to the 1980s,
you know, there was a saying that nobody ever lost his job buying a computer from IBM,
and it was true. And nobody ever lost their job hiring a PhD from MIT, right? If the person turned
out to be terrible, well, you know, they came from MIT, what did you expect me to know?
However, that same person coming from pick whichever is your least favorite place that
produces PhDs in, say, computer science, well, you took a risk, right? So all the incentives,
particularly because you’re only going to hire one this year, well, now we’re hiring 10,
but you know, you’re only going to have one or two or three this year. And by the way,
when they come in, you’re stuck with them for at least seven years at most places,
because that’s before you know whether they’re getting tenure or not. And if they get tenure,
stuck with them for a good 30 years, unless they decide to leave. That means the pressure to get
this right is very high. So what are you going to do? You’re going to minimize false positives.
You don’t care about saying no inappropriately. You only care about saying yes inappropriately.
So all the pressure drives you into that particular direction. Google,
not to put too fine a point on it, was in exactly the same situation with their search. It turns out
you just don’t want to give people the wrong page in the first three or four pages. And if there’s
10 million right answers and 100 bazillion wrong answers, just make certain the wrong answers
don’t get up there. And who cares if you, the right answer was actually the 13th page. A right
answer, a satisficing answer is number one, two, three, or four. So who cares?
Or an answer that will make you discover something beautiful, profound to your question.
Well, that’s a different problem, right?
But isn’t that the problem? Can we linger on this topic without sort of walking with grace?
How do we get for hiring faculty, how do we get that 13th page with a truly special person? Like
there’s, I mean, it depends on the department. Computer science probably has those department,
those kinds of people. Like you have the Russian guy, Grigory Perlman, like just these awkward,
strange minds that don’t know how to play the little game of etiquette that faculty have all
agreed somehow like converged over the decades, how to play with each other. And also is not,
you know, on top of that is not from the top four, top whatever numbers, the schools. And maybe
actually just says a few every once in a while to the traditions of old within the computer science
community. Maybe talks trash about machine learning is a total waste of time. And that’s
there on their resume. So like how do you allow the system to give those folks a chance?
Well, you have to be willing to take a certain kind of, without taking a particular position
on any particular person, you’d have to take, you have to be willing to take risk, right? A small
amount of it. I mean, if we were treating this as a, well, as a machine learning problem, right?
There’s a search problem, which is what it is. It’s a search problem. If we were treating it that
way, you would say, oh, well, the main thing is you want, you know, you’ve got a prior,
you want some data because I’m Bayesian. If you don’t want to do it that way,
we’ll just inject some randomness in and it’ll be okay. The problem is that feels very,
very hard to do with people. All the incentives are wrong there. But it turns out, and let’s say,
let’s say that’s the right answer. Let’s just give for the sake of argument that, you know,
injecting randomness in the system at that level for who you hire is just not worth doing because
the price is too high or the cost is too high. If we had infinite resources, sure, but we don’t.
And also you’ve got to teach people. So, you know, you’re ruining other people’s lives if you get it
too wrong. But we’ve taken that principle, even if I grant it and pushed it all the way back, right?
So, we could have a better pool than we have of people we look at and give an opportunity to.
If we do that, then we have a better chance of finding that. Of course, that just pushes the
problem back another level. But let me tell you something else. You know, I did a sort of study,
I call it a study. I called up eight of my friends and asked them for all of their data for
graduate admissions. But then someone else followed up and did an actual study. And it
turns out that I can tell you how everybody gets into grad school more or less, more or less.
You basically admit everyone from places higher ranked than you. You admit most people from
places ranked around you. And you meant almost no one from places ranked below you, with the
exception of the small liberal arts colleges that aren’t ranked at all, like Harvey Mudd,
because they don’t have a PhD, so they aren’t ranked. This is all CS. Which means the decision
of whether you become a professor at Cornell was determined when you were 17, by what you knew to
go to undergrad to do whatever. So if we can push these things back a little bit and just make the
pool a little bit bigger, at least you raise the probability that you will be able to see someone
interesting and take the risk. The other answer to that question, by the way, which you could argue
is the same as you either adjust the pool so the probabilities go up, that’s a way of injecting a
little bit of uniform noise in the system, as it were, is you change your loss function.
You just let yourself be measured by something other than whatever it is that we’re measuring
ourselves by now. I mean, US News and World Report, every time they change their formula
for determining rankings, move entire universities to behave differently, because rankings matter.
TITO Can you talk trash about those rankings for a second? No, I’m joking about talking trash.
I actually, it’s so funny how from my perspective, from a very shallow perspective,
how dogmatic, like how much I trust those rankings. They’re almost ingrained in my head.
I mean, at MIT, everybody kind of, it’s a propagated, mutually agreed upon
TITO idea that those rankings matter. And I don’t think anyone knows what they’re,
like, most people don’t know what they’re based on. And what are they exactly based on? And what
are the flaws in that? TITO Well, so it depends on which rankings you’re talking about. Do you
want to talk about computer science or talk about universities? TITO Computer science, US News,
isn’t that the main one? TITO Yeah, the only one that matters is US News. Nothing else matters.
Sorry, CSRankings.org, but nothing else matters but US News. So US News has formula that it uses
for many things, but not for computer science because computer science is considered a science,
which is absurd. So the rankings for computer science is 100% reputation. So two people
at each department, it’s not really department, whatever, at each department,
basically rank everybody. Slightly more complicated than that, but whatever, they rank everyone. And
then those things are put together and somehow. TITO So that means how do you improve reputation?
How do you move up and down the space of reputation? TITO Yes, that’s exactly the
question. TITO Twitter? TITO It can help. I can tell you how Georgia Tech did it,
or at least how I think Georgia Tech did it, because Georgia Tech is actually the case to
look at. Not just because I’m at Georgia Tech, but because Georgia Tech is the only computing unit
that was not in the top 20 that has made it into the top 10. It’s also the only one in the last
two decades, I think, that moved up in the top 10, as opposed to having someone else moved down.
So we used to be number 10, and then we became number nine because UT Austin went down slightly,
and now we were tied for ninth because that’s how rankings work. And we moved from nine to eight
because our raw score moved up a point. So something about Georgia Tech, computer science,
or computing anyway. I think it’s because we have shown leadership at every crisis level, right? So
we created a college, first public university to do it, second college, second university to do it
after CMU is number one. I also think it’s no accident that CMU is the largest and we’re,
depending upon how you count and depending on exactly where MIT ends up with its final college
of computing, second or third largest. I don’t think that’s an accident. We’ve been doing this
for a long time. But in the 2000s when there was a crisis about undergraduate education,
Georgia Tech took a big risk and succeeded at rethinking undergrad education and computing.
I think we created these schools at a time when most public universities anyway were afraid to
do it. We did the online masters and that mattered because people were trying to figure out what to
do with MOOCs and so on. I think it’s about being observed by your peers and having an impact. So,
I mean, that is what reputation is, right? So the way you move up in the reputation rankings is by
doing something that makes people turn and look at you and say, that’s good. They’re better than I
thought. Beyond that, it’s just inertia and there’s huge hysteresis in the system, right? I mean,
there was these, I can’t remember this, this may be apocryphal, but there’s a major or department
that MIT was ranked number one in and they didn’t have it. It’s just about what you… I don’t know
if that’s true, but someone said that to me anyway. But it’s a thing, right? It’s all about
reputation. Of course, MIT is great because MIT is great. It’s always been great. By the way,
because MIT is great, the best students come, which keeps it being great. I mean,
it’s just a positive feedback loop. It’s not surprising. I don’t think it’s wrong.
Yeah. But it’s almost like a narrative. It doesn’t actually have to be backed by reality. Not to
say anything about MIT, but it does feel like we’re playing in the space of narratives, not the
space of something grounded. One of the surprising things when I showed up at MIT and just all the
students I’ve worked with and all the research I’ve done is they’re the same people as I’ve met
at other places. I mean, what MIT has going for it… Well, MIT has many things going for it. One
of the things MIT has going for it is… Nice logo?
Is nice logo. It’s a lot better than it was when I was here. Nice colors too. Terrible,
terrible name for a mascot. But the thing that MIT has going for it is it really does get the
best students. It just doesn’t get all of the best students. There are many more best students out
there. And the best students want to be here because it’s the best place to be or one of the
best places to be. And it’s a sort of positive feedback. But you said something earlier,
which I think is worth examining for a moment. I forget the word you used. You said,
we’re living in the space of narrative as opposed to something objective.
Narrative is objective. I mean, one could argue that the only thing that we do as humans is
narrative. We just build stories to explain why we do what we do. Someone once asked me,
but wait, there’s nothing objective. No, it’s completely an objective measure.
It’s an objective measure of the opinions of everybody else. Now, is that physics? I don’t
know. Tell me something you think is actually objective and measurable in a way that makes
sense. Cameras, they don’t… You’re getting me off on something here, but do you know that
cameras, which are just reflecting light and putting them on film, did not work for dark
skin people until the 1970s? You know why? Because you were building cameras for the people who were
going to buy cameras, who all, at least in the United States and Western Europe, were relatively
light skin. Turns out it took terrible pictures of people who look like me. That got fixed with
better film and whole processes. Do you know why? Because furniture manufacturers wanted to be able
to take pictures of mahogany furniture, right? Because candy manufacturers wanted to be able
to take pictures of chocolate. Now, the reason I bring that up is because you might think that
cameras are objective. They’re just capturing light. No, they’re doing the things that they’re
doing based upon decisions by real human beings to privilege, if I may use that word, some physics
over others, because it’s an engineering problem. There are tradeoffs, right? So I can either worry
about this part of the spectrum or this part of the spectrum. This costs more. That costs less.
This costs the same, but I have more people paying money over here, right? And it turns out that
if a giant conglomerate demands that you do something different and it’s going to involve
all kinds of money for you, suddenly the tradeoffs change, right? And so there you go. I actually
don’t know how I ended up there. Oh, it’s because of this notion of objectiveness, right? So even
the objective isn’t objective because at the end you’ve got to tell a story. You’ve got to make
decisions. You’ve got to make tradeoff. What else is engineering other than that? So I think that
the rankings capture something. They just don’t necessarily capture what people assume they
capture. You know, just to linger on this idea, why is there not more people who just like play
with whatever that narrative is, have fun with it, have like excite the world, whether it’s in
the Carl Sagan style of like that calm, sexy voice of explaining the stars and all the romantic stuff
or the Elon Musk, dare I even say Donald Trump, where you’re like trolling and shaking up the
system and just saying controversial things. I talked to Lisa Feldman Barrett, who’s a
neuroscientist who just enjoys playing the controversy. Things like finds the counter
intuitive ideas in the particular science and throws them out there and sees how they play in
the public discourse. Like why don’t we see more of that? And why doesn’t academia attract an Elon
Musk type? Well, tenure is a powerful thing that allows you to do whatever you want, but getting
tenure typically requires you to be relatively narrow, right? Because people are judging you.
Well, I think the answer is we have told ourselves a story, a narrative that is vulgar,
what you just described is vulgar. It’s certainly unscientific, right? And it is easy to convince
yourself that in some ways you’re the mathematician, right? The fewer there are in your major,
the more that proves your purity, right? So once you tell yourself that story, then it is
beneath you to do that kind of thing, right? I think that’s wrong. I think that, and by the way,
everyone doesn’t have to do this. Everyone’s not good at it. And everyone, even if they would be
good at it, would enjoy it. So it’s fine. But I do think you need some diversity in the way that
people choose to relate to the world as academics, because I think the great universities are ones
that engage with the rest of the world. It is a home for public intellectuals. And in 2020,
being a public intellectual probably means being on Twitter. Whereas of course that wasn’t true
20 years ago, because Twitter wasn’t around 20 years ago. And if it was, it wasn’t around in a
meaningful way. I don’t actually know how long Twitter has been around. As I get older, I find
that my notion of time has gotten worse and worse. Like Google really has been around that long?
Anyway, the point is that I think that we sometimes forget that a part of our job is to
impact the people who aren’t in the world that we’re in, and that that’s the point of being at
a great place and being a great person, frankly. There’s an interesting force in terms of public
intellectuals. Forget Twitter, we could look at just online courses that are public facing in
some part. There is a kind of force that pulls you back. Let me just call it out because I don’t
give a damn at this point. There’s a little bit of, all of us have this, but certainly faculty
have this, which is jealousy. Whoever’s popular at being a good communicator, exciting the world
with their science. And of course, when you excite the world with the science, it’s not
peer reviewed, clean. It all sounds like bullshit. It’s like a Ted talk and people roll their eyes
and they hate that a Ted talk gets millions of views or something like that. And then everybody
pulls each other back. There’s this force that just kind of, it’s hard to stand out unless you
win a Nobel prize or whatever. It’s only when you get senior enough where you just stop giving a
damn. But just like you said, even when you get tenure, that was always the surprising thing to
me. I have many colleagues and friends who have gotten tenure, but there’s not a switch.
There’s not an F you money switch where you’re like, you know what? Now I’m going to be more
bold. It doesn’t, I don’t see it. Well, there’s a reason for that. Tenure isn’t a test. It’s a
training process. It teaches you to behave in a certain way, to think in a certain way, to accept
certain values and to react accordingly. And the better you are at that, the more likely you are to
earn tenure. And by the way, this is not a bad thing. Most things are like that. And I think most
of my colleagues are interested in doing great work and they’re just having impact in the way that
they want to have impact. I do think that as a field, not just as a field, as a profession,
we have a habit of belittling those who are popular as it were, as if the word itself is a
kind of Scarlet A, right? I think it’s easy to convince yourself, and no one is immune to this,
no one is immune to this, that the people who are better known are better known for bad reasons.
The people who are out there dumbing it down are not being pure to whatever the values and ethos
is for your field. And it’s just very easy to do. Now, having said that, I think that ultimately,
people who are able to be popular and out there and are touching the world and making a difference,
you know, our colleagues do, in fact, appreciate that in the long run. It’s just, you know,
you have to be very good at it or you have to be very interested in pursuing it. And once you get
past a certain level, I think people accept that for who it is. I mean, I don’t know. I’d be really
interested in how Rod Brooks felt about how people were interacting with him when he did Fast,
Cheap, and Out of Control way, way, way back when.
What’s Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control?
It was a documentary that involved four people. I remember nothing about it other than Rod Brooks
was in it and something about naked mole rats. I can’t remember what the other two things were.
It was robots, naked mole rats, and then two others.
By the way, Rod Brooks used to be the head of the artificial intelligence laboratory at MIT
and then launched, I think, iRobot and then Think Robotics, Rethink Robotics.
Think is in the word. And also is a little bit of a rock star personality in the AI world,
a very opinionated, very intelligent. Anyway, sorry, mole rats and naked.
Naked mole rats. Also, he was one of my two advisors for my PhD.
This explains a lot.
I don’t know how to explain it. I love Rod. But I also love my other advisor, Paul. Paul,
if you’re listening, I love you too. Both very, very different people.
Paul Viola. Both very interesting people, very different in many ways. But I don’t know what
Rod would say to you about what the reaction was. I know that for the students at the time,
because I was a student at the time, it was amazing. This guy was in a movie, being very
much himself. Actually, the movie version of him is a little bit more Rod than Rod. I think they
edited it appropriately for him. But it was very much Rod. And he did all this while doing great
work. Was he running the iLab at that point or not? I don’t know. But anyway, he was running
the iLab, or would be soon. He was a giant in the field. He did amazing things, made a lot of his
bones by doing the kind of counterintuitive science. And saying, no, you’re doing this all
wrong. Representation is crazy. The world is your own representation. You just react to it. I mean,
these are amazing things. And continues to do those sorts of things as he’s moved on.
I think he might tell you, I don’t know if he would tell you it was good or bad, but I know that
for everyone else out there in the world, it was a good thing. And certainly,
he continued to be respected. So it’s not as if it destroyed his career by being popular.
P stands for probabilistic. And what does
FUNC stand for? So a lot of my life is about making acronyms. So if I have one quirk,
it’s that people will say words and I see if they make acronyms. And if they do, then I’m happy. And
then if they don’t, I try to change it so that they make acronyms. It’s just a thing that I do.
So PFUNC is an acronym. It has three or four different meanings. But finally, I decided that
the P stands for probabilistic because at the end of the day, it’s machine learning and it’s randomness and
So there’s a sense to it, which is not an acronym, like literally FUNC. You have a dark, mysterious past.
So there’s a sense to it, which is not an acronym, like literally FUNC.
There’s a sense to it, which is not an acronym, like literally FUNC.
It’s a whole set of things of which rap is a part. So tagging is a part of hip hop. I don’t know why
that’s true, but people tell me it’s true and I’m willing to go along with it because they get very
angry about it. But hip hop is like graffiti. Tagging is like graffiti. And there’s all these,
including the popping and the locking and all the dancing and all those things. That’s all a part of
hip hop. It’s a way of life, which I think is true. And then there’s rap, which is this particular.
It’s the music part.
Yes. A music part. I mean, you wouldn’t call the stuff that DJs do the scratching. That’s not rap,
right? But it’s a part of hip hop, right? So given that we understand that hip hop is this whole
thing, what are the rap albums that best touch that for me? Well, if I were going to educate you,
I would try to figure out what you liked and then I would work you there.
Oh my God. I would probably start with, there’s a fascinating exercise one can do by watching old
episodes of I love the seventies. I love the eighties. I love the nineties with a bunch of
friends and just see where people come in and out of pop culture. So if you’re talking about
those people, then I would actually start you with where I would hope to start you with anyway,
which is public enemy. Particularly it takes a nation of millions to hold us back, which is
clearly the best album ever produced. And certainly the best hip hop album ever produced
in part because it was so much of what was great about the time. Fantastic lyrics is me. It’s all
about the lyrics. Amazing music that was coming from Rick Rubin was the producer of that. And he
did a lot, very kind of heavy mental ish, at least in the eighties sense at the time. And it was
focused on politics in the 1980s, which was what made hip hop so great. Then I would start you
there. Then I would move you up through things that are been happening more recently. I’d probably
get you to someone like a most deaf. I would give you a history lesson, basically. Most of them.
That’s amazing. He hosted a poetry jam thing on HBO or something like that. Probably. I don’t
think I’ve seen it, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Yeah. Spoken poetry. That’s amazing. He’s amazing.
And then I would, I, after I got you there, I’d work you back to EPMD.
And eventually I would take you back to the last poets and particularly the first album,
the last poets, which was 1970 to give you a sense of history and that it actually has been building
up over a very, very long time. So we would start there because that’s where your music aligns. And
then we would cycle out and I’d move you to the present. And then I’d take you back to the past.
Because I think a large part of people who are kind of confused about any kind of music,
you know, the truth is this is the same thing we’ve always been talking about, right? It’s
about narrative and being a part of something and being immersed in something. So you understand it,
right? Jazz, which I also like is one of the things that’s cool about jazz is that you come
and you meet someone who’s talking to you about jazz and you have no idea what they’re talking
about. And then one day it all clicks and you’ve been so immersed in it. You go, oh yeah, that’s a
Charlie Parker. You start using words that nobody else understands, right? And it becomes part of
hip hop’s the same way. Everything’s the same way. They’re all cultural artifacts, but I would help
you to see that there’s a history of it and how it connects to other genres of music that you might
like to bring you in. So that you could kind of see how it connects to what you already like,
including some of the good work that’s been done with fusions of hip hop and bluegrass.
Yes. Some of it’s even good. Not all of it, but some of it is good,
but I’d start you with, it takes a nation of millions to hold this back.
There’s an interesting tradition in like more modern hip hop of integrating almost like classic
crock songs or whatever, like integrating into their music, into the beat, into the whatever.
It’s kind of interesting. It gives a whole new, not just classic crock, but what is it?
Kanye with Gold Digger.
It’s taking and pulling old R&B, right?
Well, that’s been true since the beginning. I mean, in fact, that’s in some ways,
that’s why the DJ used to get top billing because it was the DJ that brought all the records together
and made it worth so that people could dance. You go back to those days, mostly in New York,
though not exclusively, but mostly in New York where it sort of came out of,
the DJ that brought all the music together and the beats and showed that basically music is
itself an instrument, very meta, and you can bring it together and then you sort of wrap over it and
so on. And it moved that way. So that’s going way, way back. Now, in the period of time where I grew
up, when I became really into it, which was mostly the 80s, it was more funk was the back for a lot
of the stuff, Public Enemy at that time, notwithstanding. And so, which is very nice
because it tied into what my parents listened to and what I vaguely remember listening to when I
was very small. And by the way, complete revival of George Clinton and Parliament and Funkadelic
and all of those things to bring it sort of back into the 80s and into the 90s. And as we go on,
you’re going to see the last decade and the decade before that being brought in.
And when you don’t think that you’re hearing something you’ve heard, it’s probably because
it’s being sampled by someone who, referring to something they remembered when they were young,
perhaps from somewhere else altogether. And you just didn’t realize what it was because it wasn’t
a popular song where you happened to grow up. So this stuff has been going on for a long time.
It’s one of the things that I think is beautiful. Run DMC, Jam Master Jay used to play, he played
piano. He would record himself playing piano and then sample that to make it a part of what was
going on rather than play the piano. That’s how his mind can think. Well, it’s pieces. You’re
putting pieces together, you’re putting pieces of music together to create new music, right?
Now that doesn’t mean that the root, I mean, the roots are doing their own thing.
Yeah. Right. Those, those are, that’s a whole. Yeah. But still it’s the right attitude that,
you know, and what else is jazz, right? Jazz is about putting pieces together and then putting
your own spin on it. It’s all the same. It’s all the same thing. It’s all the same thing.
Yeah. Cause you mentioned lyrics. It does make me sad. Again, this is me talking trash about
modern hip hop. I haven’t, you know, investigated. I’m sure people correct me that there’s a lot of
great artists. That’s part of the reason I’m saying it is they’ll leave it in the comments that you
should listen to this person is the lyrics went away from talking about maybe not just politics,
but life and so on. Like, you know, the kind of like protest songs, even if you look at like a
Bob Marley or you said Public Enemy or Rage Against the Machine, More on the Rockside,
there’s, that’s the place where we go to those lyrics. Like classic rock is all about like,
my woman left me or, or I’m really happy that she’s still with me or the flip side. It’s like
love songs of different kinds. It’s all love, but it’s less political, like less interesting. I
would say in terms of like deep, profound knowledge. And it seems like rap is the place where you
would find that. And it’s sad that for the most part, what I see, like you look like mumble rap
or whatever, they’re moving away from lyrics and more towards the beat and the, and the musicality
of it. I’ve always been a fan of the lyrics. In fact, if you go back and you read my reviews,
which I recently was rereading, man, I wrote my last review the month I graduated. I got my PhD,
which says something about something. I’m not sure what though. I always would always,
but I often would start with, it’s all about the lyrics. For me, it’s all, it’s about the lyrics.
Someone has already written in the comments before I’ve even finished having this conversation
that, you know, neither of us knows what we’re talking about and it’s all in the underground
hip hop and here’s who you should go listen to. And that is true. Every time I despair for popular
rap, I get someone points me to, or I discover some underground hip hop song and I’m, I am made
happy and whole again. So I know it’s out there. I don’t listen to as much as I used to because
I’m listening to podcasts and old music from the 1980s. It’s a kind of no beat at all, but you know,
there’s a little bit of sampling here and there. I’m sure. By the way, James Brown is funk or no?
Yes. And so is junior Wells, by the way. Who’s that? Oh, junior Wells, Chicago blues. He was
James Brown before James Brown was. It’s hard to imagine somebody being James Brown. Go look up
hoodoo man blues, junior Wells, and just listen to, snatch it back and hold it and you’ll see it.
And they were contemporaries. Where do you put like little Richard or all that kind of stuff?
Like Ray Charles, like when they get like, hit the road Jack and don’t you come back. Isn’t that
like, there’s a funkiness in it. Oh, that’s definitely a funkiness in it. I mean, it’s all,
I mean, it’s all, it’s all a line. I mean, it’s all, there’s all a line that carries it all
together. You know, it’s, I guess I would answer your question, depending on whether I’m thinking
about it in 2020 or I’m thinking about it in 1960. Um, I’d probably give a different answer.
I’m just thinking in terms of, you know, that was rock, but when you look back on it, it’s,
it was funky, but we didn’t use those words or maybe we did. I wasn’t around. Uh, but you know,
I don’t think we used the word 1960 funk, certainly not the way we used it in the seventies
and the eighties. Do you reject disco? I do not reject disco. I appreciate all the mistakes that
we have made. Actually, some of the disco is actually really, really good. John Travolta.
Oh boy. He regrets it probably. Maybe not. Well, like it’s the mistakes thing.
Yeah. And it got him to where he’s going, where he is.
Oh, well, thank you for taking that detour. You’ve, you’ve talked about computing. We’ve
already talked about computing a little bit, but can you try to describe how you think about the
world of computing or it fits into the sets of different disciplines? We mentioned College of
Computing. What, what should people, how should they think about computing, especially from an
educational perspective of like, what is the perfect curriculum that defines for a young mind,
uh, what computing is? So I don’t know about a perfect curriculum, although that’s an important
question because at the end of the day, without the curriculum, you don’t get anywhere. Curriculum
to me is the fundamental data structure. It’s not even the classroom. I mean, the world is,
right? I, I, I, so I think the curriculum is where I like to play. Uh, so I spend a lot of time
thinking about this, but I will tell you, I’ll answer your question by answering a slightly
different question first and then getting back to this, which is, you know, you talked about
disciplines and what does it mean to be a discipline? The truth is what we really educate
people in from the beginning, but certainly through college, you sort of failed. If you
don’t think about it this way, I think is the world. People often think about tools and tool
sets, and when you’re really trying to be good, you think about skills and skill sets,
but disciplines are about mindsets, right? They’re about fundamental ways of thinking, not just the,
the, the hammer that you pick up, whatever that is to hit the nail, um, not just the,
the skill of learning how to hammer well or whatever. It’s the mindset of like,
what’s the fundamental way to think about, to think about the world, right? And disciplines,
different disciplines give you different mindsets to give you different ways of sort of thinking
through. So with that in mind, I think that computing, even ask the question, whether
it’s a discipline that you have to decide, does it have a mindset? Does it have a way of thinking
about the world that is different from, you know, the scientist who is doing a discovery and using
the scientific method as a way of doing it, or the mathematician who builds abstractions and tries
to find sort of steady state truth about the abstractions that may be artificial, but whatever,
or is it the engineer who’s all about, you know, building demonstrably superior technology with
respect to some notion of trade offs, whatever that means, right? That’s sort of the world that
you, the world that you live in. What is computing? You know, how is computing different? So I’ve
thought about this for a long time and I’ve come to a view about what computing actually is, what
the mindset is. And, and it’s, you know, it’s a little abstract, but that would be appropriate
for computing. I think that what distinguishes the computationalist from others is that he or
she understands that models, languages and machines are equivalent. They’re the same thing. And
because it’s not just a model, but it’s a machine that is an executable thing that can be described
as a language. That means that it’s dynamic. So it’s not the, it is mathematical in some sense,
in the kind of sense of abstraction, but it is fundamentally dynamic and executable. The
mathematician is not necessarily worried about either the dynamic part. In fact, whenever I tried
to write something for mathematicians, they invariably demand that I make it static. And
that’s not a bad thing. It’s just, it’s a way of viewing the world that truth is a thing, right?
It’s not a process that continually runs, right? So that dynamic thing matters. That self reflection
of the system itself matters. And that is what computing, that is what computing brought us.
So it is a science because it, the models fundamentally represent truths in the world.
Information is a scientific thing to discover, right? Not just a mathematical conceit that
that gets created. But of course it’s engineering because you’re actually dealing with constraints
in the world and trying to execute machines that actually run. But it’s also a math because
you’re actually worrying about these languages that describe what’s happening. But the fact that
regular expressions and finite state automata, one of which feels like a machine or at least
an abstraction machine and the other is a language that they’re actually the equivalent thing. I mean,
that is not a small thing and it permeates everything that we do, even when we’re just
trying to figure out how to, how to do debugging. So that idea I think is fundamental and we would
do better if we made that more explicit. How my life has changed and my thinking about this
in the 10 or 15 years it’s been since I tried to put that to paper with some colleagues is
the realization, which comes to a question you actually asked me earlier, which has to do with
trees falling down and whether it matters, is this sort of triangle of equality.
It only matters because there’s a person inside the triangle, right? That what’s changed about
computing, computer science or whatever you want to call it, is we now have so much data
and so much computational power. We’re able to do really, really interesting, promising things.
But the interesting and the promising kind of only matters with respect to human beings and
their relationship to it. So the triangle exists, that is fundamentally computing.
What makes it worthwhile and interesting and potentially world species changing is that there
are human beings inside of it and intelligence that has to interact with it to change the data,
the information that makes sense and gives meaning to the models, the languages and the machines.
So if the curriculum can convey that while conveying the tools and the skills that you need
in order to succeed, then it is a big win. That’s what I think you have to do.
Do you pull psychology, like these human things into that, into the idea,
into this framework of computing? Do you pull in psychology and neuroscience,
like parts of psychology, parts of neuroscience, parts of sociology?
What about philosophy, like studies of human nature from different perspectives?
Absolutely. And by the way, it works both ways. So let’s take biology for a moment.
It turns out a cell is basically a bunch of if, then statements, if you look at it the right way,
which is nice because I understand if, then statements. I never really enjoyed biology,
but I do understand if, then statements. And if you tell the biologists that and they begin to
understand that, it actually helps them to think about a bunch of really cool things.
There’ll still be biology involved, but whatever. On the other hand, the fact of biology is,
in fact, the cell is a bunch of if, then statements or whatever, allows the computationalist to think
differently about the language and the way that we, well, certainly the way we would do AI machine
learning, but there’s just even the way that we think about computation. So the important thing
to me is as my engineering colleagues who are not in computer science worry about computer science
eating up engineering to colleges where computer science is trapped. It’s not a worry. You shouldn’t
worry about that at all. Computer science computing, it’s central, but it’s not the
most important thing in the world. It’s not more important. It is just key to helping others do
other cool things they’re going to do. You’re not going to be a historian in 2030. You’re not going
to get your PhD in history without understanding some data science and computing, because the way
you’re going to get history done in part, and I say done, the way you’re going to get it done
is you’re going to look at data and you’re going to let, you’re going to have the system that’s
going to help you to analyze things to help you to think about a better way to describe history
and to understand what’s going on and what it tells us about where we might be going. The same
is true for psychology. Same is true for all of these things. The reason I brought that up is
because the philosopher has a lot to say about computing. The psychologist has a lot to say
about the way humans interact with computing, right? And certainly a lot about intelligence, which
at least for me, ultimately is kind of the goal of building these computational devices is to build
something intelligent. Did you think computing will eat everything in some certain sense or almost
like disappear because it’s part of everything? It’s so funny you say this. I want to say it’s
going to metastasize, but there’s kind of two ways that fields destroy themselves. One is they become
super narrow. And I think we can think of fields that might be that way. They become pure. And we
have that instinct. We have that impulse. I’m sure you can think of several people who want computer
science to be this pure thing. The other way is you become everywhere and you become everything
and nothing. And so everyone says, you know, I’m going to teach Fortran for engineers or whatever.
I’m going to do this. And then you lose the thing that makes it worth studying in and of itself.
The thing about computing, and this is not unique to computing, though at this point in time,
it is distinctive about computing where we happen to be in 2020 is we are both a thriving major.
In fact, the thriving major, almost every place. And we’re a service unit because people need to
know the things we need to know. And our job, much as the mathematician’s job is to help,
you know, this person over here to think like a mathematician, much the way the point isn’t the
point of view taking chemistry as a freshman is not to learn chemistry. It’s to learn to think
like a scientist, right? Our job is to help them to think, think like a computationalist. And we
have to take both of those things very seriously. And I’m not sure that as a field, we have
historically certainly taken the second thing that our job is to help them to think a certain way.
People who aren’t going to be our major, I don’t think we’ve taken that that very seriously at all.
I don’t know if you know who Dan Carlin is. He has this podcast called Hardcore History.
I’ve just did an amazing four hour conversation with him, mostly about Hitler. But I bring him
up because he talks about this idea that it’s possible that history as a field will become,
like currently, most people study history a little bit, kind of are aware of it. We have a
conversation about it, different parts of it. I mean, there’s a lot of criticism to say that some
parts of history are being ignored, blah, blah, blah, so on. But most people are able to have a
curiosity and able to learn it. His thought is it’s possible given the way social media works,
the current way we communicate, that history becomes a niche field where literally most people
just ignore because everything is happening so fast that the history starts losing its meaning.
And then it starts being a thing that only, you know, like the theoretical computer science,
part of computer science, it becomes a niche thing that only like the rare holders of the
world wars and the, you know, all the history, the founding of the United States, all those kinds of
things, the Civil Wars. And it’s a kind of profound thing to think about how these,
how we can lose track, how we can lose these fields when they’re best, like in the case of
history, is best for that to be a pervasive thing that everybody learns and thinks about and so on.
And I would say computing is quite obviously similar to history in the sense that it seems
like it should be a part of everybody’s life to some degree, especially like as we move into the
later parts of the 21st century. And it’s not obvious that that’s the way it’ll go. It might
be in the hands of the few still. Like depending if it’s machine learning, you know, it’s unclear
that computing will win out. It’s currently very successful, but it’s not, I would say that’s
something, I mean, you’re at the leadership level of this. You’re defining the future. So it’s in
your hands. No pressure. But like, it feels like there’s multiple ways this can go. And there’s
this kind of conversation of everybody should learn to code, right? The changing nature of jobs
and so on. Do you have a sense of what your role in education of computing is here? Like what’s
the hopeful path forward? There’s a lot there. I will say that, well, first off, it would be an
absolute shame if no one studied history. On the other hand, as t approaches infinity, the amount
of history is presumably also growing at least linearly. And so you have to forget more and more
of history, but history needs to always be there. I mean, I can imagine a world where,
you know, if you think of your brains as being outside of your head, that you can kind of learn
the history you need to know when you need to know it. That seems fanciful, but it’s a kind of way of,
you know, is there a sufficient statistic of history? No. And there certainly, but there may
be for the particular thing you have to care about, but you know, those who do not remember.
It’s for our objective camera discussion, right?
Yeah. Right. And, you know, we’ve already lost lots of history. And of course you have your
own history that some of which will be, it’s even lost to you, right? You don’t even remember
whatever it was you were doing 17 years ago.
All the ex girlfriends.
Exactly. So, you know, history is being lost anyway, but the big lessons of history shouldn’t
be. And I think, you know, to take it to the question of computing and sort of education,
the point is you have to get across those lessons. You have to get across the way of thinking.
And you have to be able to go back and, you know, you don’t want to lose the data,
even if, you know, you don’t necessarily have the information at your fingertips.
With computing, I think it’s somewhat different. Everyone doesn’t have to learn how to code,
but everyone needs to learn how to think in the way that you can be precise. And I mean,
precise in the sense of repeatable, not just, you know, in the sense of not resolution in the sense
of get the right number of bits, um, in saying what it is you want the machine to do and being
able to describe a problem in such a way that it is executable, which we are not human beings are
not very good at that. In fact, I think we spend much of our time talking back and forth just to
kind of vaguely understand what the other person means and hope we get it good enough that we can,
we can act accordingly. Um, you can’t do that with machines, at least not yet. And so,
you know, having to think that precisely about things is quite important. And that’s somewhat
different from coding. Coding is a crude means to an end. On the other hand, the idea of coding,
what that means that it’s a programming language and it has these sort of things that you fiddle
with in these ways that you express. That is an incredibly important point. In fact, I would argue
that one of the big holes in machine learning right now in an AI is that we forget that we are
basically doing software engineering. We forget that we are doing, um, we’re using programming,
like we’re using languages to express what we’re doing. We get just so all caught up in the deep
network or we get all caught up in whatever that we forget that, you know, we’re making decisions
based upon a set of parameters that we made up. And if we did slightly different parameters,
we’d have completely different, different outcomes. And so the lesson of computing,
computer science education is to be able to think like that and to be aware of it when you’re doing
it. Basically, it’s, you know, at the end of the day, it’s a way of, um, surfacing your assumptions.
I mean, we call them parameters or, you know, we, we, we call them if then statements or whatever,
but you’re forced to surface those, those assumptions. That’s the key, the key thing that
you should get out of a computing education that, and that the models and languages and
machines are equivalent, but it actually follows from that, that you have to be explicit about,
about what it is you’re trying to do because the model you’re building is something you will one
day run. So you better get it right, or at least understand it and be able to express roughly what,
what you want to express. So I think it is key that we figure out how to educate everyone to
think that way, because at the end, it would not only make them better at whatever it is that they
are doing. And I emphasize doing it’ll also make them better citizens. It’ll help them to understand
what others are doing to them so that they can react accordingly. Cause you’re not going to
solve the problem of social media in so far as you think of social media as a problem
by just making slightly better code, right? It only works if people react to it
appropriately and know what’s happening and therefore take control over what they’re doing.
I mean, that’s, that’s my take on it.
Okay. Let me try to proceed awkwardly into the topic of race.
One is because it’s a fascinating part of your story and you’re just eloquent and fun about it.
And then the second is because we’re living through a pretty tense time in terms of race,
tensions and discussions and ideas in this time in America. You grew up in Atlanta,
not born in Atlanta. Is some Southern state, somewhere in Tennessee, something like that?
Nice. Okay. But early on you moved, you’re basically, you identify as an Atlanta native.
Mm hmm. Yeah. And you’ve mentioned that you grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood,
by the way, black African American person of color.
I prefer black.
With a capital B.
With a capital B. The other letters are…
The rest of them, no matter.
Okay. So the predominantly black neighborhood. And so you didn’t almost see race. Maybe you
can correct me on that. And then just in the video you talked about when you showed up to
Georgia Tech for your undergrad, you’re one of the only black folks there. And that was like,
oh, that was a new experience. So can you take me from just a human perspective,
but also from a race perspective, your journey growing up in Atlanta
and then showing up at Georgia Tech?
Okay. That’s easy. And by the way, that story continues through MIT as well.
Yeah. In fact, it was quite a bit more stark at MIT and Boston.
So maybe just a quick pause, Georgia Tech was undergrad, MIT was graduate school.
Mm hmm. And I went directly to grad school from undergrad. So I had no
distractions in between my bachelor’s and my master’s and PhD.
You didn’t go on a backpacking trip in Europe?
Didn’t do any of that. In fact, I literally went to IBM for three months, got in a car,
and drove straight to Boston with my mother, or Cambridge.
I moved into an apartment I’d never seen over the Royal East. Anyway, that’s another story.
So let me tell you a little bit about it.
You miss MIT?
Oh, I loved MIT. I don’t miss Boston at all, but I loved MIT.
That was fighting words.
So let’s back up to this. So as you said, I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
My earliest memory is arriving in Atlanta in a moving truck at the age of three and a half.
So I think of myself as being from Atlanta, very distinct memory of that. So I grew up in Atlanta.
It’s the only place I ever knew as a kid. I loved it. Like much of the country, and certainly
much of Atlanta in the 70s and 80s, it was deeply highly segregated, though not in a way that I
think was obvious to you unless you were looking at it or were old enough to have noticed it.
But you could divide up Atlanta, and Atlanta is hardly unique in this way, by highway,
and you could get racing class that way. So I grew up not only in a predominantly
black area, to say the very least, I grew up on the poor side of that. But I was very much aware
of race for a bunch of reasons, one that people made certain that I was, my family did, but also
that it would come up. So in first grade, I had a girlfriend. I say I had a girlfriend. I didn’t
have a girlfriend. I wasn’t even entirely sure what girls were in the first grade. But I do remember
she decided I was her girlfriend’s little white girl named Heather. And we had a long discussion
about how it was okay for us to be boyfriend and girlfriend, despite the fact that she was white
and I was black. Between the two of you? Did your parents know about this?
Yes. But being a girlfriend and boyfriend in first grade just basically meant that you spent
slightly more time together during recess. I think we Eskimo kissed once. It didn’t mean anything.
It was. At the time, it felt very scandalous because everyone was watching. I was like,
ah, my life is now my life has changed in first grade. No one told me elementary school would be
like this. Did you write poetry or not in first grade? That would come later. That would come
during puberty when I wrote lots and lots of poetry. Anyway, so I was aware of it. I didn’t
think too much about it, but I was aware of it. But I was surrounded. It wasn’t that I wasn’t
aware of race. It’s that I wasn’t aware that I was a minority. It’s different. And it’s because I
wasn’t as far as my world was concerned. I mean, I’m six years old, five years old in first grade.
The world is the seven people I see every day. So it didn’t feel that way at all.
And by the way, this being Atlanta, home of the civil rights movement and all the rest,
it meant that when I looked at TV, which back then one did because there were only three,
four or five channels. And I saw the news, which my mother might make me watch. Monica Kaufman was
on TV telling me the news and they were all black and the mayor was black and always been
black. And so it just never occurred to me. When I went to Georgia Tech, I remember the first day
walking across campus from West campus to East campus and realizing along the way that of the
hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of students that I was seeing, I was the only black
one. That was enlightening and very off putting because it occurred to me. And then of course,
it continued that way for, well, for the rest of my, for much of the rest of my career at Georgia
Tech. Of course, I found lots of other students and I met people cause in Atlanta, you’re either
black or you’re white. There was nothing else. So I began to meet students of Asian descent and I
met students who we would call Hispanic and so on and so forth. And you know, so my world,
this is what college is supposed to do, right? It’s supposed to open you up to people. And it
did, but it was a very strange thing to be in the minority. When I came to Boston, I will tell you
a story. I applied to one place as an undergrad, Georgia Tech, because I was stupid. I didn’t know
any better. I just didn’t know any better, right? No one told me. When I went to grad school,
I applied to three places, Georgia Tech, because that’s where I was, MIT and CMU.
When I got in to MIT, I got into CMU, but I had a friend who went to CMU. And so I asked him what
he thought about it. He spent his time explaining to me about Pittsburgh, much less about CMU,
but more about Pittsburgh, which I developed a strong opinion based upon his strong opinion,
something about the sun coming out two days out of the year. And I didn’t get a chance to go there
because the timing was wrong. I think it was because the timing was wrong. At MIT, I asked
20 people I knew, either when I visited or I had already known for a variety of reasons,
whether they liked Boston. And 10 of them loved it, and 10 of them hated it. The 10 who loved it
were all white. The 10 who hated it were all black. And they explained to me very much why
that was the case. Both stats told me why. And the stories were remarkably the same for the
two clusters. And I came up here, and I could see it immediately, why people would love it
and why people would not. And why people tell you about the nice coffee shops.
Well, it wasn’t coffee shops. It was used CD places. But yeah, it was that kind of a thing.
Nice shops. Oh, there’s all these students here. Harvard Square is beautiful. You can do all these
things, and you can walk. And something about the outdoors, which I wasn’t the slightest bit
interested in. The outdoors is for the bugs. It’s not for humans.
That should be a t shirt.
Yeah, that’s the way I feel about it. And the black folk told me completely different stories
about which part of town you did not want to be caught in after dark. But that was nothing new.
So I decided that MIT was a great place to be as a university. And I believed it then,
I believe it now. And that whatever it is I wanted to do, I thought I knew what I wanted to do,
but what if I was wrong? Someone there would know how to do it. Of course, then I would pick the
one topic that nobody was working on at the time, but that’s okay. It was great. And so I thought
that I would be fine. And I’d only be there for like four or five years. I told myself,
which turned out not to be true at all. But I enjoyed my time. I enjoyed my time there.
But I did see a lot of… I ran across a lot of things that were driven by what I look like
while I was here. I got asked a lot of questions. I ran into a lot of cops. I saw a lot about the
city. But at the time, I mean, I haven’t been here a long time. These are the things that I
remember. So this is 1990. There was not a single black radio station. Now this is 1990. I don’t
know if there are any radio stations anymore. I’m sure there are, but I don’t listen to the radio
anymore and almost no one does, at least if you’re under a certain age. But the idea is you could be
in a major metropolitan area and there wasn’t a single black radio station, by which I mean,
a radio station to play what we would call black music then, was absurd, but somehow captured kind
of everything about the city. I grew up in Atlanta and you’ve heard me tell you about Atlanta.
Boston had no economically viable or socially cohesive black middle class.
Insofar as it existed, it was uniformly distributed throughout large parts, not all parts,
but large parts of the city. And where you had concentrations of black Bostonians,
they tended to be poor. It was very different from where I grew up. I grew up on the poor side of
town, sure. But then in high school, well, in ninth grade, we didn’t have middle school. I went
to an eighth grade school where there was a lot of, let’s just say, we had a riot the year that
I was there. There was at least one major fight every week. It was an amazing experience. But
when I went to ninth grade, I went to Academy. Math and Science Academy, Mays High. It was a
public school. It was a magnet school. That’s why I was able to go there. It was the first high school,
I think, in the state of Georgia to sweep the state math and science fairs. It was great. It had
385 students, all but four of whom were black. I went to school with the daughter of the
former mayor of Atlanta, Michael Jackson’s cousin. I mean, it was an upper middle class.
Dr. Justin Marchegiani Dropping names.
Dr. Justin Marchegiani You know, I just drop names occasionally.
You know, drop the mic, drop some names. Just to let you know, I used to hang out with Michael
Jackson’s cousin, 12th cousin, nine times removed. I don’t know. The point is, they had money. We
had a parking problem because the kids had cars. I did not come from a place where you had cars.
I had my first car when I came to MIT, actually. So, it was just a very different experience for
me. But I’d been to places where whether you were rich or whether you were poor, you know,
you could be black and rich or black and poor. And it was there and there were places and they
were segregated by class as well as by race. But that existed. Here, at least when I was here,
didn’t feel that way at all. And it felt like a bunch of a really interesting contradiction.
It felt like it was the interracial dating capital of the country. It really felt that way.
But it also felt like the most racist place I ever spent any time. You know, you couldn’t go
up the Orange Line at that time. I mean, again, that was 30 years ago. I don’t know what it’s
like now. But there were places you couldn’t go. And you knew it. Everybody knew it. And there were
places you couldn’t live. And everybody knew that. And that was just the greater Boston area in 1992.
Subtle racism or explicit racism?
In terms of within the institutions, did you feel…
Was there levels in which you were empowered to be first or one of the first black people in a
particular discipline in some of these great institutions that you were a part of? You know,
Georgia Tech or MIT? And was there a part where it felt limiting?
I always felt empowered. Some of that was my own delusion, I think. But it worked out. So I never
felt… In fact, quite the opposite. Not only did I not feel as if no one was trying to stop me,
I had the distinct impression that people wanted me to succeed. By people, I meant the people in
power. Not my fellow students. Not that they didn’t want me to succeed. But I felt supported,
or at least that people were happy to see me succeed at least as much as anyone else. But,
you know, 1990, you’re dealing with a different set of problems. You’re very early, at least in
computer science, you’re very early in the Jackie Robinson period. There’s this thing called the
Jackie Robinson syndrome, which is that the first one has to be perfect or has to be sure to
succeed because if that person fails, no one else comes after for a long time. So it was kind of in
everyone’s best interest. But I think it came from a sincere place. I’m completely sure that people
went out of their way to try to make certain that the environment would be good. Not just for me,
but for the other people who, of course, were around. And I was the only person in the iLab,
but I wasn’t the only person at MIT by a long shot. On the other hand, we’re what?
At that point, we would have been, what, less than 20 years away from the first black PhD to
graduate from MIT, right? Shirley Jackson, right? 1971, something like that? Somewhere around then.
So we weren’t that far away from the first first, and we were still another eight years away from
the first black PhD in computer science, right? So it was a sort of interesting time. But I did
not feel as if the institutions of the university were against any of that. And furthermore, I felt
as if there was enough of a critical mass across the institute from students and probably faculty
that I didn’t know them, who wanted to make certain that the right thing happened. It was very
different from the institutions of the rest of the city, which I think were designed in such a way
that they felt no need to be supportive.
Let me ask a touchy question on that. So you kind of said that you didn’t feel,
you felt empowered. Is there some lesson, advice, in the sense that no matter what,
you should feel empowered? You said, you used the word, I think, illusion or delusion.
Is there a sense from the individual perspective where you should always kind of ignore, you know,
the, ignore your own eyes, ignore the little forces that you are able to observe around you,
that are like trying to mess with you of whether it’s jealousy, whether it’s hatred in its pure
form, whether it’s just hatred in its like deluded form, all that kind of stuff?
And just kind of see yourself as empowered and confident and all those kinds of things.
I mean, it certainly helps, but it’s, there’s a trade off, right? You have to be deluded enough
to think that you can succeed. I mean, you can’t get a PhD unless you’re crazy enough to think you
can invent something that no one else has come up with. I mean, that kind of massive delusion is that
you have to be deluded enough to believe that you can succeed despite whatever odds you see
in front of you, but you can’t be so deluded that you don’t think that you need to step out of
the way of the oncoming train, right? So it’s all a trade off, right? You have to kind of believe in
yourself. It helps to have a support group around you in some way or another. I was able to find
that, I’ve been able to find that wherever I’ve gone, even if it wasn’t necessarily on the floor
that I was in, I had lots of friends when I was here. Many of them still live here. And I’ve kept
up with many of them. So I felt supported. And certainly I had my mother and my family and those
people back home that I could always lean back on, even if it were a long distance call that cost
money, which is not something that any of the kids today even know what I’m talking about. But
back then it mattered, calling my mom was an expensive proposition. But you have that and
it’s fine. I think it helps. But you cannot be so deluded that you miss the obvious because it makes
things slower and it makes you think you’re doing better than you are and it will hurt you in the
long run. You mentioned cops. You tell a story of being pulled over. Perhaps it happened more than
once. More than once, for sure. One, could you tell that story? And in general, can you give me
a sense of what the world looks like when the law doesn’t always look at you with a blank slate?
With a blank slate with objective eyes? I don’t know how to say it more poetically.
Well, I guess the, I don’t either. I guess the answer is it looks exactly the way it looks now
because this is the world that we happen to live in, right? It’s people clustering and doing the
things that they do and making decisions based on one or two bits of information they find
relevant, which, by the way, are all positive feedback loops, which makes it easier for you
to believe what you believed before because you behave in a certain way that makes it true and
it goes on and circles and then cycles and cycles and then cycles. So it’s just about being on edge.
I do not, despite having made it over 50 now.
God, I have a few gray hairs here and there.
You did pretty good.
I think, I don’t imagine I will ever see a police officer and not get very, very tense.
Now, everyone gets a little tense because it probably means you’re being pulled over for
speeding or something, or you’re going to get a ticket or whatever, right? I mean,
the interesting thing about the law in general is that most human beings experience of it is
fundamentally negative, right? You’re only dealing with a lawyer if you’re in trouble,
except in a few very small circumstances, right? So that’s an underlying reality.
Now, imagine that that’s also at the hands of the police officer. I remember the time when I got
pulled over that time, halfway between Boston and Wellesley, actually. I remember thinking
when he pulled his gun on me that if he shot me right now, he’d get away with it. That was the
that was the worst thing that I felt about that particular moment, is that if he shoots me now,
he will get away with it. It would be years later when I realized actually much worse than that
is that he’d get away with it. And if it became a thing that other people knew about,
odds would be, of course, that it wouldn’t. But if it became a thing that other people knew about,
if I was living in today’s world as opposed to the world 30 years ago, that not only would
get away with it, but that I would be painted a villain. I was probably big and scary, and I
probably moved too fast, and if only I’d done what he said, and da, da, da, da, da, da, da,
which is somehow worse, right? You know, that hurts not just you, you’re dead, but your family,
and the way people look at you, and look at your legacy or your history, that’s terrible.
And it would work. I absolutely believe it would have worked had he done it. Now, he didn’t. I
don’t think he wanted to shoot me. I don’t think he felt like killing anybody. He did not go out
that night expecting to do that or planning on doing it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he never,
ever did that or ever even pulled his gun again. I don’t know the man’s name. I don’t remember
anything about him. I do remember the gun. Guns are very big when they’re in your face. I can tell
you this much. They’re much larger than they seem. But… And you’re basically like speeding or
something like that? He said I ran a light, I think. You ran a light. I don’t think I ran a
light, but you know, in fact, I may not have even gotten a ticket. I may have just gotten a warning.
I think he was a little… But he pulled a gun. Yeah. Apparently I moved too fast or something.
Rolled my window down before I should have. It’s unclear. I think he thought I was going to do
something, or at least that’s how he behaved. So how, if we can take a little walk around your
brain, how do you feel about that guy and how do you feel about cops after that experience?
Well, I don’t remember that guy, but my view on police officers is the same view I have about
lots of things. Fire is an important and necessary thing in the world, but you must respect fire
because it will burn you. Fire is a necessary evil in the sense that it can burn you. Necessary
in the sense that, you know, heat and all the other things that we use fire for. So when I see
a cop, I see a giant ball of flame and I just try to avoid it. And then some people might see
a nice place, a nice thing to roast marshmallows with a family over.
Which is fine, but I don’t roast marshmallows.
Okay. So let me go a little dark and I apologize. Just talked to Dan Carlin about
Hitler for four hours. So sorry if I go dark here a little bit, but
is it easy for this experience of just being careful with the fire and avoiding it to turn
to hatred? Yeah, of course. And one might even argue that it is a logical conclusion, right?
On the other hand, you’ve got to live in the world and I don’t think it’s helpful. Hate is something
one should, I mean, hate is something that takes a lot of energy. So one should reserve it for
when it is useful and not carried around with you all the time. Again, there’s a big difference
between the happy delusion that convinces you that you can actually get out of bed and
make it to work today without getting hit by a car and the sad delusion that means you can
not worry about this car that is barreling towards you, right? So we all have to be a
little deluded because otherwise we’re paralyzed, right? But one should not be ridiculous.
If we go all the way back to something you said earlier about empathy,
I think what I would ask other people to get out of this one of many, many, many stories
is to recognize that it is real. People would ask me to empathize with the police officer.
I would quote back statistics saying that being a police officer isn’t even in the top 10 most
dangerous jobs in the United States, you’re much more likely to get killed in a taxicab.
Half of police officers are actually killed by suicide, but that means their lives are something,
something’s going on there with them and I would more than happy to be empathetic about what it is
they go through and how they see the world. I think though that if we step back from what I feel,
if we step back from what an individual police officer feels, you step up a level and all this,
because all things tie back into interactive AI. The real problem here is that we’ve built a
narrative. We built a big structure that has made it easy for people to put themselves into different
pots in the different clusters and to basically forget that the people in the other clusters are
ultimately like them. It is useful exercise to ask yourself sometimes, I think, that if I had grown
up in a completely different house and a completely different household as a completely different
person, if I had been a woman, would I see the world differently? Would I believe what that crazy
person over there believes? And the answer is probably yes, because after all, they believe it.
And fundamentally, they’re the same as you. So then what can you possibly do to fix it? How do
you fix Twitter? If you think Twitter needs to be broken or Facebook, if you think Facebook is
broken, how do you fix racism? How do you fix any of these things? That’s all structural.
I mean, individual conversations matter a lot, but you have to create structures that allow people
to have those individual conversations all the time in a way that is relatively safe and that
allows them to understand that other people have had different experiences, but that ultimately
we’re the same, which sounds very, I don’t even know what the right word is. I’m trying to avoid
a word like saccharine, but it feels very optimistic.
But I think that’s okay. I think that’s a part of the delusion, is you want to be a little
optimistic and then recognize that the hard problem is actually setting up the structures
in the first place, because it’s in almost no one’s interest to change the infrastructure.
Right. I tend to believe that leaders have a big role to that, of selling that optimistic
delusion to everybody, and that eventually leads to the building of the structures. But that
requires a leader that unites, sort of unites everybody on a vision as opposed to divides
on a vision, which is, this particular moment in history feels like there’s a nonzero probability,
if we go to the P, of something akin to a violent or a nonviolent civil war. This is one of the
most divisive periods of American history in recent, you can speak to this from a perhaps
a more knowledgeable and deeper perspective than me, but from my naive perspective, this seems like
a very strange time. There’s a lot of anger, and it has to do with people, I mean, for many reasons.
One, the thing that’s not spoken about, I think, much is the conflict of opinion,
much is the quiet economic pain of millions that’s like growing because of COVID, because of closed
businesses, because of like lost dreams. So that’s building, whatever that tension is building.
The other is, there seems to be an elevated level of emotion. I’m not sure if you can psychoanalyze
where that’s coming from, but this sort of, from which the protests and so on percolated. It’s like,
why now? Why this particular moment in history? Oh, because time, enough time has passed, right?
I mean, you know, the very first race riots were in Boston, not to draw anything from that.
Really? When? Oh, this is before like… Going way, I mean, like the 1700s or whatever,
right? I mean, there was a massive one in New York. I mean, I’m talking way, way, way back when.
So Boston used to be the hotbed of riots. It’s just what Boston was all about,
or so I’m told from history class. There’s an interesting one in New York. I remember when
that was. Anyway, the point is, you know, basically you got to get another generation,
old enough to be angry, but not so old to remember what happened the last time, right?
And that’s sort of what happens. But, you know, you said like two completely, you said two things
there that I think are worth unpacking. One has to do with this sort of moment in time.
And, you know, why? Why is this sort of up built? And the other has to do with a kind of, you know,
sort of the economic reality of COVID. So I’m actually, I want to separate those things because,
for example, you know, this happened before COVID happened, right? So let’s separate these two
things for a moment. Now, let me preface all this by saying that although I am interested in history,
one of my three minors as an undergrad was history, specifically history, the 1960s. Interesting. The
other was Spanish. And, okay, that’s a mistake. Oh, I loved that. And history of Spanish and Spanish
history, actually, but Spanish and the other was what we would now call cognitive science. But at
the time, that’s fascinating. Interesting. I minored in Cogsci here for grad school. That was
really, that was really fascinating. It was a very different experience. I mean, it was a very
it was really fascinating. It was a very different experience from all the computer science classes
I’ve been taking, even the Cogsci classes I was taking at an undergrad. Anyway, I’m interested
in history, but I’m hardly a historian, right? So, you know, forgive my, I will ask the audience to
forgive my simplification. But I think the question that’s always worth asking, as opposed, it’s the
same question, but a little different. Not why now, but why not before? Right? So why the 1950s,
60s civil rights movement as opposed to the 1930s, 1940s? Well, first off, there was a civil
rights movement in the 30s and 40s. It just wasn’t of the same character or quite as well known. Post
World War II, lots of interesting things were happening. It’s not as if a switch was turned on
and Brown versus the Board of Education or the Montgomery bus boycott. And that’s when it
happened. These things been building up forever and go all the way back and all the way back and
all the way back. And, you know, Harriet Tubman was not born in 1950, right? So, you know, we can
take these things. It could have easily happened right after World War II. Yes. I think,
and again, I’m not a scholar. I think that the big difference was TV. These things are visible.
People can see them. It’s hard to avoid, right? Why not James Farmer? Why Martin Luther King? Because
one was born 20 years after the other, whatever. I think it turns out that, you know what King’s
biggest failure was in the early days? It was in Georgia. They were doing the usual thing,
trying to integrate. And I forget the guy’s name, but you can look this up. But he, a cop,
he was a sheriff made a deal with the whole state of Georgia. We’re going to take people and we are
going to nonviolently put them in trucks. And then we’re going to take them and put them in jails
very far away from here. And we’re going to do that. And we’re not going to, there’ll be no
reason for the press to hang around. And they did that and it worked. And the press left and
nothing changed. So next they went to Birmingham, Alabama and Bull O Connor. And you got to see on
TV, little boys and girls being hit with fire hoses and being knocked down. And there was
outrage and things changed, right? Part of the delusion is pretending that nothing bad is
happening that might force you to do something big you don’t want to do. But sometimes it gets
put in your face and then you kind of can’t ignore it. And a large part in my view of what happened
right was that it was too public to ignore. Now we created other ways of ignoring it.
Lots of change happened in the South, but part of that delusion was that it wasn’t going to affect
the West or the Northeast. And of course it did. And that caused its own set of problems, which
went into the late sixties into the seventies. And, you know, in some ways we’re living with
that legacy now and so on. So why not what’s happening now? Why didn’t happen 10 years ago?
I think it’s people have more voices. There’s not just more TV, there’s social media. It’s very easy
for these things to kind of build on themselves and things are just quite visible. And there’s
demographic change. I mean, the world is changing rapidly, right? And so it’s very difficult.
You’re now seeing people you could have avoided seeing most of your life growing up in a particular
time. And it’s happening, it’s dispersing at a speed that is fast enough to cause
concern for some people, but not so fast to cause massive negative reaction. So that’s that.
On the other hand, and again, that’s a massive oversimplification, but I think there’s something
there anyway, at least something worth exploring. I’m happy to be yelled at by a real historian.
Oh yeah. I mean, there’s just the obvious thing. I mean, I guess you’re implying, but not
saying this. I mean, it seemed to have percolated the most with just a single video, for example,
the George Floyd video. It’s fascinating to think that whatever the mechanisms that put injustice
in front of our face, not like directly in front of our face, those mechanisms are the mechanisms
of change. Yeah. On the other hand, Rodney King. So no one remembers this. I seem to be the only
person who remembers this, but sometime before the Rodney King incident, there was a guy who
was a police officer who was saying that things were really bad in Southern California. And he
was going to prove it by having some news, some camera people follow him around. And he says,
I’m going to go into these towns and just follow me for a week. And you will see that I’ll get
harassed. And like the first night he goes out there and he crosses into the city, some cops
pull him over and he’s a police officer. Remember, they don’t know that. Of course they like shove
his face through a glass window. This was on the new, like I distinctly remember watching this as
a kid. Actually, I guess I wasn’t a kid. I was in college, I was in grad school at the time.
So that’s not enough. Well, it disappeared like a day late. It didn’t go viral.
Yeah. Whatever that is, whatever that magic thing is.
And whatever it was in 92, it was harder to go viral in 92, right? Or 91,
actually it must’ve been 90 or 91, but that happened. And like two days later,
it’s like it never happened. Again, nobody remembers this, but I’m like the only person.
Sometimes I think I must’ve dreamed it. Anyway, Rodney King happens. It goes viral
or the moral equivalent thereof at the time. And eventually we get April 29th. And I don’t know
what the difference was between the two things, other than one thing caught on and one thing
didn’t. Maybe what’s happening now is two things are feeding onto one another. One is more people
are willing to believe. And the other is there’s easier and easier ways to give evidence. Cameras,
body cams or whatever, but we’re still finding ourselves telling the same story. It’s the same
thing over and over again. I would invite you to go back and read the op eds from what people were
saying about the violence is not the right answer after Rodney King. And then go back to 1980 and
the big riots that were happening around then and read the same op ed. It’s the same words over and
over and over again. I mean, there’s your remembering history right there. I mean,
it’s like literally the same words. Like it could have just caught, but I’m surprised no one got
flagged for plagiarism. It’s interesting if you have an opinion on the question of violence
and the popular perhaps caricature of Malcolm X versus Martin Luther King.
You know, Malcolm X was older than Martin Luther King. People kind of have it in their head that
he’s younger. Well, he died sooner, but only by a few years. People think of MLK as the older
statesman and they think of Malcolm X as the young, angry, whatever, but that’s more of a
narrative device. It’s not true at all. I don’t, I just, I reject the choice as I think it’s a
false choice. I think they’re just things that happen. You just do, as I said, hatred is not,
it takes a lot of energy, but you know, every once in a while you have to fight.
One thing I will say without taking a moral position, which I will not take on this matter,
violence has worked.
Yeah, that’s the annoying thing.
That’s the annoying thing.
It seems like over the top anger works. Outrage works. So you can say like being calm and rational
and just talking it out is going to lead to progress. But it seems like if you just look
through history being irrationally upset is the way you make progress.
Well, it’s certainly the way that you get someone to notice you.
And if they don’t notice you, I mean, what’s the difference between that and what did you,
again, without taking a moral position on this, I’m just trying to observe history here.
If you, maybe if television didn’t exist, the civil rights movement doesn’t happen
or it takes longer or it takes a very different form. Maybe if social media doesn’t exist,
a whole host of things, positive and negative don’t happen. And what do any of those things
do other than expose things to people? Violence is a way of shouting. I mean,
many people far more talented and thoughtful than I have have said this in one form or another,
right? That violence is the voice of the unheard. It’s a thing that people do when they feel as if
they have no other option. And sometimes we agree and sometimes we disagree. Sometimes we think
they’re justified. Sometimes we think they are not, but regardless, it is a way of shouting.
And when you shout, people tend to hear you, even if they don’t necessarily hear the words
that you’re saying, they hear that you were shouting. I see no way. So another way of putting
it, which I think is less, let us just say provocative, but I think is true is that all
change, particularly change that impacts power requires struggle. The struggle doesn’t have to
be violent, you know, but it’s a struggle nonetheless. The powerful don’t give up power
easily. I mean, why should they? But even so, it still has to be a struggle. And by the way,
this isn’t just about, you know, violent political, whatever, nonviolent political
change, right? This is true for understanding calculus, right? I mean, everything requires
a struggle. We’re back to talking about faculty hiring. At the end of the day,
in the end of the day, it all comes down to faculty hiring. All a metaphor. Faculty
hiring is a metaphor for all of life. Let me ask a strange question. Do you think everything is
going to be okay in the next year? Do you have a hope that we’re going to be okay?
I tend to think that everything’s going to be okay because I just tend to think that everything’s
going to be okay. My mother says something to me a lot and always has, and I find it quite
comforting, which is this too shall pass and this too shall pass. Now, this too shall pass is not
just this bad thing is going away. Everything passes. I mean, I have a 16 year old daughter
who’s going to go to college probably at about 15 minutes, given how fast she seems to be growing
up. And you know, I get to hang out with her now, but one day I won’t. She’ll ignore me just as much
as I ignored my parents when I was in college and went to grad school. This too shall pass.
But I think that one day, if we’re all lucky, you live long enough to look back on something that
happened a while ago, even if it was painful and mostly it’s a memory. So yes, I think it’ll be okay.
What about humans? Do you think we’ll live into the 21st century?
I certainly hope so.
Are you worried that we might destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons, with AGI, with engineering?
I’m not worried about AGI doing it, but I am worried. I mean, at any given moment, right? Also,
but you know, at any given moment, a comet could, I mean, you know, whatever. I tend to think that
outside of things completely beyond our control, we have a better chance than not of making it.
You know, I talked to Alex Filipenko from Berkeley. He was talking about comets and
that they can come out of nowhere. And that was a realization to me. Wow. We’re just watching
this darkness and they can just enter. And then we have less than a month.
And yet you make it from day to day.
That one shall not pass. Well, maybe for Earth they’ll pass, but not for humans.
But I’m just choosing to believe that it’s going to be okay. And we’re not going to get hit by
an asteroid, at least not while I’m around. And if we are, well, there’s very little I can do about
it. So I might as well assume it’s not going to happen. It makes food taste better.
It makes food taste better.
So you, out of the millions of things you’ve done in your life,
you’ve also began the This Week in Black History calendar of facts.
There’s like a million questions that can ask here. You said you’re not a historian,
but is there, let’s start at the big history question of, is there somebody in history,
in black history that you draw a lot of philosophical or personal inspiration from,
or you just find interesting or a moment in history you find interesting?
Well, I find the entirety of the 40s to the 60s and the civil rights movement that didn’t happen
and did happen at the same time during then quite inspirational. I mean, I’ve read quite a bit of the
time period, at least I did in my younger days when I had more time to read as many things as I
wanted to. What was quirky about This Week in Black History when I started in the 80s was how
focused it was. It was because of the sources I was stealing from. And I was very much stealing
from sort of like, I’d take calendars, anything I could find, Google didn’t exist, right? And I
just pulled as much as I could and just put it together in one place for other people.
What ended up being quirky about it, and I started getting people sending me information on it,
was the inventors. People who, you know, Gerard Morgan to Benjamin Banneker, right? People who
were inventing things. At a time when, how in the world did they manage to invent anything?
Like, all these other things were happening, mother necessity, right? All these other things
were happening. And, you know, there were so many terrible things happening around them. And, you
know, they went to the wrong state at the wrong time. They may never, never come back, but they
were inventing things we use, right? And it was always inspiring to me that people would still
create even under those circumstances. I got a lot out of that. I also learned a few lessons. I
think, you know, the Charles Richard Drews of the world, you know, you create things that impact
people. You don’t necessarily get credit for them. And that’s not right, but it’s also okay.
TK You okay with that?
CK Up to a point, yeah. I mean, look, in our world,
all we really have is credit.
TK I was always bothered by how much value credit is given.
CK That’s the only thing you got. I mean, if you’re an academic in some sense,
well, it isn’t the only thing you’ve got, but it feels that way sometimes.
TK But you got the actual, we’re all going to be dead soon. You got the joy of having created
the, you know, the credit with Jan. I’ve talked to Jorgen Schmidhuber, right? The Turing Award
given to three people for deep learning. And you could say that a lot of other people should be on
that list. It’s the Nobel Prize question. Yeah, it’s sad. It’s sad. And people like talking about
it. But I feel like in the long arc of history, the only person who will be remembered is Einstein,
Hitler, maybe Elon Musk. And the rest of us are just like…
CK Well, you know, someone asked me about immortality once and I said,
and I stole this from somebody else. I don’t remember who, but it was,
you know, I asked them, what’s your great grandfather’s name? Any of them? Of course,
they don’t know. Most of us do not know. I mean, I’m not entirely sure. I know my grandparents,
all my grandparents names. I know what I called them, right? I don’t know their middle names,
for example. It’s within living memory, so I could find out. Actually, my grandfather
didn’t know when he was born. I had no idea how old he was, right? But I definitely don’t know
any of my great grandparents are. So in some sense, immortality is doing something preferably
positive so that your great grandchildren know who you are, right? And that’s kind of what you
can hope for, which is very depressing in some ways. I could turn it into something uplifting
if you need me to, but it’s simple, right? It doesn’t matter. I don’t have to know my great
grandfather was to know that I wouldn’t be here without him. And I don’t know who my great
grandchildren are. Certainly my great, great grandchildren are, and I’ll probably never meet
them. Although I would very much like to, but hopefully I’ll set the world in motion in such
a way that their lives will be better than they would have been if I hadn’t done that. Well,
certainly they wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t done the things that I did.
So I think that’s a good positive thing you live on through other people.
Are you afraid of death?
I don’t know if I’m afraid of death, but I don’t like it.
That’s another t shirt. I mean, do you ponder it? Do you think about the
inevitability of oblivion? I do occasionally. This feels like a very rushing conversation.
I will tell you a story, something that happened to me recently. If you look very carefully,
you will see I have a scar, which by the way, is an interesting story of its own about why people
have half of their thyroid taken out. Some people get scars and some don’t. But anyway, I had half
my thyroid taken out. The way I got there, by the way, is its own interesting story, but I won’t go
into it. Just suffice it to say, I did what I keep telling people you should never do, which is never
go to the doctor unless you have to, because there’s nothing good that’s ever going to come
out of a doctor’s visit. So I went to the doctor to look at one thing. It’s a little bump I had on
the side that I thought might be something bad because my mother made me. And I went there and
he’s like, oh, it’s nothing. But by the way, your thyroid is huge. Can you breathe? Yes,
I can breathe. Are you sure? Because it’s pushing on your windpipe. You should be dead.
So I ended up going there. And to look at my thyroid, it was growing. I had what’s called a
goiter. And he said, we’re going to have to take it out at some point. When? Sometime before you’re
85, probably. But if you wait till you’re 85, that’ll be really bad because you don’t want to
have surgery when you’re 85 years old, if you can help it. Certainly not the kind of surgery it
takes to take out your thyroid. So I went there and I would decide I would put it off until
December 19th because my birthday is December 18th. And I wouldn’t be able to say I made it to
49 or whatever. So I said, I’ll wait till after my birthday. In the first six months of that,
nothing changed. Apparently in the next three months, it had grown. I hadn’t noticed this at
all. I went and had surgery. They took out half of it. The other half is still there and working
fine, by the way. I don’t have to take a pill or anything like that. It’s great. I’m in the
hospital room and the doctor comes in. I’ve got these things in my arm. They’re going to do
whatever. They’re talking to me. And the anesthesiologist says, huh, your blood
pressure is through the roof. Do you have high blood pressure? I said, no, but I’m terrified if
that helps you at all. And the anesthesist, who’s the nurse who supports the anesthesiologist,
if I got that right, said, oh, don’t worry about it. I’ve just put some stuff in your IV. You’re
going to be feeling pretty good in a couple of minutes. And I remember turning and saying,
well, I’m going to feel pretty good in a couple of minutes. Next thing I know, there’s this guy
and he’s moving my bed. And he’s talking to me and I have this distinct impression that I’ve met
this guy and I should know what he’s talking about, but I kind of just don’t remember what
just happened. And I look up and I see the tiles going by and I’m like, oh, it’s just like in the
movies where you see the tiles go by. And then I have this brief thought that I’m in an infinitely
long warehouse and there’s someone sitting next to me. And I remember thinking, oh, she’s not
talking to me. And then I’m back in the hospital bed. And in between the time where the tiles were
going by and I got in the hospital bed, something like five hours had passed. Apparently it had
grown so much that it was a four and a half hour procedure instead of an hour long procedure. I
lost a neck size and a half. It was pretty big. Apparently it was as big as my heart.
Why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this because…
It’s a hell of a story already. Between tiles going by and me waking up in
my hospital bed, no time passed. There was no sensation of time passing.
When I go to sleep and I wake up in the morning, I have this feeling that time has passed. This
feeling that something has physically changed about me. Nothing happened between the time they
put the magic juice in me and the time that I woke up. Nothing. By the way, my wife was there
with me talking. Apparently I was also talking. I don’t remember any of this, but luckily I didn’t
say anything I wouldn’t normally say. My memory of it is I would talk to her and she would teleport
around the room. And then I accused her of witchcraft and that was the end of that.
Her point of view is I would start talking and then I would fall asleep and then I would wake
up and leave off where I was before. I had no notion of any time passing.
I kind of imagine that that’s death, is the lack of sensation of time passing. And on the one hand,
I am, I don’t know, soothed by the idea that I won’t notice. On the other hand, I’m very unhappy
at the idea that I won’t notice. So I don’t know if I’m afraid of death, but I’m completely sure
that I don’t like it and that I particularly would prefer to discover on my own whether immortality
sucks and be able to make a decision about it. That’s what I would prefer. You like to have a
choice in the matter. I would like to have a choice in the matter. Well, again, on the Russian thing,
I think the finiteness of it is the thing that gives it a little flavor, a little spice. Well,
in reinforcement learning, we believe that. That’s why we have discount factors. Otherwise,
it doesn’t matter what you do. Amen. Well, let me, one last question sticking on the Russian theme.
You talked about your great grandparents not remembering their name. What do you think is the,
in this kind of Markov chain that is life, what do you think is the meaning of it all?
What’s the meaning of life? Well, in a world where eventually you won’t know who your great
grandchildren are, I’m reminded of something I heard once or I read once that I really like,
which is, it is well worth remembering that the entire universe, save for one trifling exception,
is composed entirely of others. And I think that’s the meaning of life.
Charles, this is one of the best conversations I’ve ever had. And I get to see you tomorrow
again to hang out with who looks to be one of the most, how should I say, interesting personalities
that I’ll ever get to meet with Michael Lippmann. So I can’t wait. I’m excited to have had this
opportunity. Thank you for traveling all the way here. It was amazing. I’m excited. I always love
Georgia Tech. I’m excited to see with you being involved there what the future holds. So thank you
for talking to me. Thank you for having me. I enjoyed every minute of it. Thanks for listening
to this conversation with Charles Isbell and thank you to our sponsors, Neuro, the maker of
functional sugar free gum and mints that I used to give my brain a quick caffeine boost, Decoding
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King Jr. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight
of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November.
Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.