On Dreams

When I was a child, I wanted, at various times, to be a jet fighter pilot, the next Sherlock Holmes (unaware he was fictional), or a great scientist like Albert Einstein. As I grew older, I found myself drawn to creative hobbies, like writing stories (or at least coming up with ideas for them) and making computer games in my spare time. In grade 8 I won an English award, mostly because I’d shown such fervour in reading my teacher’s copy of The Lord Of The Rings, and written some interesting things while inspired to be like J.R.R. Tolkien, or Isaac Asimov.

In high school my highest grades were reserved for computer science initially, where I managed to turn a hobby of making silly computer games into a top final project a couple years in a row. Even though, at the end of high school, I won another award, this time the Social Science Book award, after doing quite well in a modern history class, I decided to go into computer science in undergrad.

For various reasons, I got depressed at the end of high school, and the depression dragged through the beginning of undergrad where at Queen’s, I was no longer a top student. I struggled with the freedom I had, and I wasn’t particularly focused or diligent. Programming became work to me, and my game design hobby fell by the wayside. Writing essays for school made me lose interest in my novel ideas as well.

At some point, one of the few morning lectures I was able to drag myself to was presented by a professor who mentioned he wanted to research assistant for a project. Later that summer, I somehow convinced him to take me on and spent time in a lab trying to get projectors to work with mirrors and fresnel lenses to make a kind of flight simulator for birds. It didn’t go far, but it gave me a taste for this research thing.

I spent the rest of my undergrad trying to shore up my GPA so I could get into a masters program and attempt to learn to be a scientist. In a way, I’d gone full circle to an early dream I had as a child. I’d also become increasingly interested in neural networks as a path towards AI, having switched from software design to cognitive science as my computing specialization early on.

The masters at Concordia was also a struggle. Around this time emotional and mental health issues made me ineffective at times, and although I did find an understanding professor to be my thesis supervisor, I was often distracted from my work.

Eventually though, I finished my thesis. I technically also published two papers with it, although I don’t consider these my best work. While in Montreal, I was also able to attend a machine learning course at McGill, and got swept up in the deep learning wave that was happening around then.

Around then I devoted myself to some ambitious projects, like the original iteration of the Earthquake Predictor and Music-RNN. Riding the wave, I joined Maluuba as a data scientist, briefly, and then Huawei as a research scientist. I poured my heart and soul into some ideas that I thought had potential, unaware that most of them were either flukes of experimental randomness, or doomed to be swept away by the continuing tide of new innovations that would quickly replace them.

Still at Huawei, I found myself struggling to keep working on the ideas I thought were meaningful, and became disillusioned when it became apparent that they wouldn’t see support and I was sidelined into a lesser role than before, with little freedom to pursue my research.

In some sense, I left because I wanted to prove my ideas on my own. And then I tried to do so, and realized that I didn’t have the resources or the competency. Further experiments were inconclusive. The thing I thought was my most important work, this activation function that I thought could replace the default, turned out to be less clearly optimal than I’d theorized. My most recent experiments suggest it still is something that is better calibrated and leads to less overconfident models, but I don’t think I have the capabilities to turn this into a paper and publish it anywhere worthwhile. And I’m not sure if I’m just still holding onto a silly hope that all the experiments and effort that went into this project weren’t a grand waste of time.

I’d hoped that I could find my way into a position somewhere that would appreciate the ideas that I’d developed, perhaps help me to finally publish them. I interviewed with places like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Deloitte, Thompson Reuters, and so on. But eventually I started to wonder if what I was doing even made sense.

This dream of AI research. It depended on the assumption that this technology would benefit humanity in the grandest way possible. It depended on the belief that by being somewhere in the machinary of research and engineering, I’d be able to help steer things in the right direction.

But then I read in a book about how AI capability was dramatically outpacing AI safety. I was vaguely aware of this fact before. The fact is that these corporations and governments want AI for the power that it offers them, and questions about friendliness and superintelligence seem silly and absurd when looking at the average model that simply perceives and reports probabilities that such and such a thing is such.

And I watched as the surveillance economy grew on the backs of these models. I realized that the people in charge weren’t necessarily considering the moral implications of things. I realized that by pursuing my dream, I was allowing myself to be a part of a machine that was starting to more closely resemble a kind of dystopian nightmare.

So I made a decision. That this dream didn’t serve the greatest good. That my dream was selfish. I took the opportunity that presented itself to go back to another dream from another life, the old one about designing games and telling stories. Because at least, I could see no way for those dreams to turn out wrong.

In theory, I could work on AI safety directly. In theory I could try a different version of the dream. But in practice, I don’t know where to begin that line of research. And I don’t want to be responsible for a mistake that ends the world.

So, for now at least, I’m choosing a dream I can live with. Something less grand, but also less dangerous. I don’t know if this is the right way to go. But it’s the path that seems open to me now. What else happens, I cannot predict. But I can try to take the path that seems best. Because my true dream is to do something that brings about the best world, with the most authentic happiness. How I go about it, that can change with the winds.