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Q&A: Peter Norvig ’78 P’16 P’18 reflects on experience in tech world

Google research director discusses Brown education, developments in artificial intelligence

When Peter Norvig ’78 P’16 P'18, director of research at Google, enrolled at Brown, he knew almost nothing about computer science — a nascent field in which classes had just begun to be offered and for which there was no concentration. “I thought it was an obscure and strange branch of mathematics that not many people understood,” Norvig said. “It seemed as odd as doing 17th century Italian literature.”

But during his time as an undergraduate, Norvig stumbled into the field and discovered his specific field of study — artificial intelligence — when he took a course in the psychology department.

Norvig said he remembers the class, professor and book, but when he looked back at his transcript last year, he found that he had received no credit for the course.

“The class was very influential to me, and it turns out I didn’t complete it,” Norvig said.

After graduating with a bachelor of science in applied mathematics, Norvig received a PhD in computer science from the University of California at Berkeley. Since then, he has served as a faculty member at two universities and held leadership positions at Junglee, Harlequin, Sun Microsystems and NASA Ames Research Center before joining Google in 2001.

Now, as a director of research at Google, Norvig oversees groundbreaking research in a variety of areas, including human-computer interaction, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Norvig spoke with The Herald about the next frontiers for research, as well as his experiences at Brown and in the tech industry.

Herald: What were some of the most valuable things you learned at Brown?

Norvig: I learned the basics. I learned how to work, how to get work done and how to work with other people. Back then, nobody owned their own computer, so people would congregate where the computers were and hang out late at night. There was a real sense of camaraderie.

The best things were my fellow students and the faculty members. Some of them, like Professor of Computer Science Andy van Dam and Professor Emeritus of Applied Mathematics Ulf Grenander, are still around. I worked as a teaching assistant, and I learned more from that than from the classes themselves. What mattered more were the people and what you got interested in. I’m not sure classes mattered all that much.

What are some of the lessons that you learned throughout your career?

I learned a different definition of success. Originally, when I was a grad student, I looked at what was a cool problem. I would look at what I knew and what I didn’t know and saw how we could push things forward. When I moved out of academia and into the industry, success was not just a cool problem. It was looking at what people actually want. If they want something and you can do it, that’s the right solution, even if it’s not technically new. You have to deliver something useful. It changed the way you look at things.

What are you working on at Google now?

I watch other people do things and hope to contribute to that when I can. There are a variety of projects — language and image understanding, user interfaces, online education. We’re also working on education and helping all our partners teach the students. Part of that education is internal, since we are trying to do a better job with bringing our own staff up to speed on all the things they need.

What are some of the questions that still need to be answered?

What do people want to do? Who’s going to be in charge? How are people going to act with their machines in the future? There is a lot more emphasis on interaction with the everyday user, rather than a programmer. We’re starting to see more things under computer control and becoming more energy efficient. There are lots of challenges, and we choose the ones that are interesting.

I grew up thinking about one computer at a time, and now that the Internet came along, we think of lots of computers interacting with each other. We’re catching up to that and figuring out how we make those types of systems safe and reliable. It’s interesting that you can reimagine everything you’re doing and try to figure out a better way to do it.

What are some of the things you’re hoping to improve on?

Interacting with people on their own terms. We’re getting better and better with language. I think speech recognition had a really big turning point. The phone is as good as I am in terms of getting individual words, but where I still have the advantage is figuring out what it is you really meant.

I think that’s one of the big challenges for us to figure out. Then once we figure out the words, there are the other modalities. Using cameras, we can start recognizing what’s out there in the world. Machines can recognize pictures of cats. We have cars driving around that can recognize other cars, things like that.

We also have a great responsibility to make things easier and more understandable and to give fairer access to everybody. Tech has been a benefit to the world in general, but not everybody has equal access now, and we need to try to even that out.

What advice would you give to current Brown students?

Find some problems that interest you and work on them. Go out and find something you’re interested in and get involved with it. Read about what other people have done and talk to professors.

Brown has great opportunities, and the professors are very open to doing things with you. Spend time with other people around you. There are so many places you can learn, like libraries, or by reading books and online materials.

Anybody can do that anywhere. The reason you’re in college, specifically a college like Brown, is because of the people, not so much because of the course material. Take advantage of the other people around you.

— This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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