Q: What is the most important thing that's happened in computing in the past 10 years?
A: In the last 12 years, Wikipedia. It is an amazing accomplishment in crowdsourcing, and has revolutionized how we get information. Like the web itself, it demonstrates that one of people's deepest goals is to communicate what they know, with little or no thought of recognition or reward. It is also an amazing resource for intelligent applications of all kinds.
In the last 10 years, the explosion of mobile computing devices of all kinds: smartphones, tablets, and so on. These have entirely altered how people interact with computers.
Q: By the end of your career, where do you
think computer science will have taken us? What are you
working on that might contribute toward that?
A: Certainly, it will continue to grow explosively in all kinds of directions. One important development that may well come in the next 10 or 20 years is the self-driving car. This will have an enormous impact on daily life, with potentially huge gains in terms of safety, driving time, and energy efficiency.
My own area of research, which is on automating commonsense reasoning, is a longer-term project; it may be several decades before we have a full handle on that.
Q: Who is your favorite historical figure? Why?
A: My two intellectual heroes are Bertrand Russell and George Orwell--two men of supremely penetrating insight, unfailing intellectual and moral courage, and spectacularly clear writing style.
Going back further in history, as someone who grew up in Providence, RI, I'm a great admirer of Roger Williams, who in 1636 founded Providence as a community with absolute religious toleration, and advocated the separation of church and state, the abolition of slavery, and the just treatment of the Native Americans.
Q: If you weren't working in the computer science field, what would you be doing instead?
A: I would probably be a mathematician or a linguist. I would also have enjoyed being a librarian. I've recently become very interested in cognitive psychology, and have started some collaborative research, but it would not have occurred to me when I was younger.
Q: What is your favorite type of music?
A: Oh, my tastes are very conventional--classical music, particularly piano, from Bach and Handel through Brahms, plus show music: Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and especially Sir Arthur Sullivan. If I had to pick one piece for a desert island, it would probably be either Mozart's “Clarinet Quintet” or Beethoven's “Kreutzer Sonata.”