“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
I deliberated for quite some time before writing this first blog post.
Where do you start on a topic as rich, interesting, and complex as Artificial Intelligence?
Should I begin by explaining basic concepts? Tell the story of how AI got from Turing to today? Or would it be better to simply begin in medias res; in the middle of the action?
I gave it a great deal of thought and finally decided that rather than beginning at any of those beginnings, I should spend a bit of time telling you a bit about my own beginnings.
No, I don’t think I’m all that interesting – but I’m hoping this is the start of a beautiful friendship between you and me – and understanding where I’m coming from might give you a bit of perspective on my (admittedly unusual) take on AI; a perspective that is grounded in pragmatism, tempered by optimism – and found at the intersection of Data Science, Mathematics, and Psychology.
My First PhD: The School of Hard Knocks
I had…. shall we say, an inauspicious beginning and a somewhat sub-optimal childhood.
My very first memory is of urinating blood. I was three-years-old and as certain as a toddler can be that I would be unlikely to reach my next birthday. My parents beat me nearly every day for as long as I can remember. They beat me into unconscious seven times (or was it eight?) and lit me on fire twice. My mother resented me for being born – and when I was nine, my father tried to trade me to a pedophile to have some work done on his house. That’s when I started running away and living on the streets.
I sold newspapers on a street corner, cleaned up and hauled beef in a Brooklyn butcher shop (Chic & Hi’s on Ditmas Avenue), and eventually lucked into a job running numbers for two bookies in midtown Manhattan: Primo and Tommy Two. When I was old enough, I started doing collections. When our little gang would head out to make our rounds, Louisville Sluggers firmly in hand, Tommy would always remind us, “Don’t forget your gloves!” No cop, he reasoned, would hassle a bunch of kids, presumptively on their way to the park. But our targets knew better. And if you don’t think you would pay a pack of nearly feral fourteen-year-olds the vig on that twenty large you owed Primo… Wanna bet? Batter up.
Living on the streets and sleeping in the alleys, parks, and subways of New York was when I first started to think about psychology. What if you could somehow understand, predict, and influence behaviors? Wouldn’t it be something if you had some insight as to why that guy was about to kick your ass? What if you could predict when that twitchy junkie was about to snap? And what if – and this was the big one – what if you could influence what people were going to do before they did it?
That was why I stayed in school (that, and I knew Primo would have Tommy beat my ass if I dropped out). Because it was in school – Ditmas Junior High School, to be precise – that I first learned about this guy named Sigmund Freud. The Id, the Ego, the Superego… Wow! Someone actually came up with a science for reading people’s minds… I can still remember that first lecture like it was yesterday.
I supplemented my education while keeping warm in the evenings in the New York Public Library, and that’s where I met the mentors who would shape my intellective life: Sherlock Holmes, Carl Sagan, Socrates, and Martin Gardner. My constant companies and dearest friends.
Becoming a Computer
On my sixteenth birthday, I decided it was time to make a change. Several of my running buddies had been sent to juvie and a few were doing serious stretches behind big-boy bars. My best friend had had his brains forever fried from an overdose. Two were dead. All things considered, New York didn’t seem to be the best long-term plan. So, with little to lose, I made my way to the on-ramp to the GWB and stuck out my thumb. I was headed for the Better Coast – and hopefully, a better life.
Four months later I had made it only as far as Las Vegas – and I was done. I settled in Sin City and enrolled myself in the Southern Nevada Vocational Technical Center, where I started training for my first real job. Working with the bookies had given me a knack for numbers, so I set my sights on becoming a computer (yes, it was a job – long before it was a machine; if you haven’t already, I greatly encourage you to read the book or watch the film Hidden Figures).
I learned how to program on an IBM 1620 (with Hollerith punch cards, no less) and taught myself Fortran in the evenings from A Fortran Coloring Book by Dr. Kaufman (with no illusion of ever becoming Dr. Kostman). My training gave me some marketable skills – but more importantly, it taught me how to think computationally.
A few weeks in an office was all it took to convince me I wasn’t an indoors kind of guy, and an extraordinary series of professional adventures ensued. EMT, Paramedic, Deep Sea Rescue Diver, Police Officer, and Special Forces Soldier; I spent most of my young life risking my own life and doing my best to serve and save whoever I could.
On leaving the military – barely able to walk and with few career prospects – I finally committed myself to the education that had eluded me, but that I had always wanted.
The Real Story Begins
Fast forward to today: I’m a Data Scientist, Mathematician, and Psychologist with a specialization in Applied AI and Cognitive Computing. I got over my infatuation with Freud in the early 80’s and turned my focus to the then-nascent fields of Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence. Who knew they would become the defining disciplines of our time?
I’m often asked how I could have been so professionally prescient. How I could have known to plan a career along such an unusual path. But now you know the truth; dumb luck occasionally trumps even the most considered strategy.
We’ll get to the extraordinary experiences I’ve had on the frontlines of Applied AI as they become relevant to subsequent blog posts – but let’s just say the last few decades since I left the Army have been the most interesting of my life. I’ve had the honor of having led some of the world’s leading teams doing real-world work in this arena while serving organizations ranging from Samsung to the CIA, and I have become friends with folks who are doing similarly wonderful and wondrous work.
This is an endlessly fascinating field; one that, I am convinced, will have the greatest impact on society and the economy since electricity – and in the process of changing the world, my colleagues and I are going to be generating billions of dollars, alleviating suffering – and saving millions of lives.
I can hardly wait to tell you all about it.
And that, my new found friend, is what the rest of this blog will be about.
Dr. JT Kostman