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Tech Q&A: Melanie Mitchell

Describe your latest project.

My latest book is Complexity: A Guided Tour. It is my attempt to explain some of the most interesting topics in the sciences of complexity in a non-technical way, focusing on the current state of research, the intellectual history of the field, and the biggest open questions.

What inspires you to sit down and write?

I have always felt torn between two intellectual passions — literature and science — so combining these two interests seems natural. Even though I am a scientist by profession, I find that literature and writing come much more easily to me than math and science. Understanding scientific concepts at a deep level is always a struggle for me. But when I do finally grasp such concepts, I want to explain them to other people in the same terms in which I understand them, to show that these ideas are not so forbidding after all. Writing about science gives me the opportunity to do this, and in turn, it actually helps me understand the science better.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?

It says I am 24.4% geek. And that's with the extra points it gave me for being female.

What do you do for relaxation?

I play with my kids, who are currently seven and nine, and I read novels. I guess those are not very geeky leisure activities. I don't like video games and I don't find programming computers very relaxing. (Those would have gotten me a higher score on the geek test.)

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?

Actually, Ansel is my favorite Adams. Another ding for me on the Geek Test.

What was your favorite book as a kid?

It's so hard to choose only one. I remember, at the age of 10 or 11, reading The Prince and the Pauper over and over again. I loved the fantasy of finding someone who looked identical to me and switching places with her for a while, to try on a different life.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?

One really exciting area is brain-machine interfaces. Electrical activity from the brain can be measured and then interpreted by a computer program as signaling a particular intention, such as moving a cursor, typing a word, or raising an arm. It's still at a fairly early stage, but this technology has incredible prospects for helping, say, paralyzed people — in short, the technology allows them to use brainwaves alone to operate computers or control prosthetic limbs.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?

Definitely Albert Einstein. Not a very original pick, I know, but I think he was perhaps the most creative and insightful scientist in history. I am really curious what it would feel like to be so smart, what the world would look like to someone with that kind of intelligence and creativity. I'd especially like the day to be sometime in 1905, during his so-called annus mirabilis ("miracle year"), when he wrote four papers that together fundamentally changed our view of space, time, and matter. Being reincarnated as Einstein would also give me the opportunity to find out what it feels like to be a man. (I was tempted to pick Isaac Newton, but I'd prefer to be reincarnated in a century with indoor plumbing.)

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?

I'd like it to be able to make analogies. For example, recently I was searching through my badly labeled digital photo collection for a particular birthday party photo. It would have been great if I could have simply shown the computer one sample picture of a birthday party and asked it to show me more photos "like this." Or to play it some music and ask it for "more songs in this style." Or for it to figure out that an email message is spam because it has the "same general style" as other messages it knows are spam. It turns out that recognizing abstract similarity and creating analogies, tasks at which people excel and which are at the heart of human intelligence, are the hardest things to get computers to do well. One of the chapters in Complexity: A Guided Tour is all about ideas on how to get computers to make sophisticated analogies. This is actually what I work on every day.

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Melanie Mitchell is Professor of Computer Science at Portland State University and External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Complexity: A Guided Tour
    New Hardcover $42.50

Melanie Mitchell is the author of Complexity: A Guided Tour

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