Fresh Faculty: Lee Spector

Lee Spector is a professor of computer science. He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Oberlin College and attended the University of Maryland, College Park, where he earned a Ph.D. in computer science.

Q: How did you become interested in the field of computer science?

A: I dabbled with computers a little bit as an undergrad, but primarily in computer music. I was an undergrad at Oberlin College and there is a fabulous conservatory, which has a program called ‘Technology in Music and Related Arts.’ I was a philosophy major, did quite a bit of studio art and other work in liberal arts and [took] a few STEM courses, but it was my courses in computer music that led me to do most of the computing. It was only as I was graduating that I read a couple of books that made me realize that AI [artificial intelligence] was very exciting to me. The most important of these books [to] me was a book called “An Eternal Golden Braid” by Douglas Hoftstadter. It brought together ideas from the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of mathematics, computer science, visual arts and music in a very interdisciplinary way. While reading, I realized that AI brought together a lot of my interests — and provided a way to do many of the things I wanted to do — in a better and more rigorous way.

For example, as a student of the philosophy of mind, I realized that while philosophers may write theories on how the mind works and discuss them with computers, one could build them. And when one builds them, one gets additional information on whether the theory works. One of my first attractions was the idea of AI as a way to do hands-on philosophy of mind, where you build your theories and test them. That led me to go back to school to learn some computer science and eventually join the Ph.D. program in computer science at the University of Maryland, College Park. I also, as a graduate student, worked with neuroscientists at NIH [National Institutes of Health]and NINDS [National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke], where I worked with neuropsychologists [to uncover] how the brain does certain kinds of computations. I did some projects using AI models of reasoning and planning and used those as a way to understand how the function of humans with brain damage is disrupted.

Q: What are your current research interests and how has your research gone so far?

A: My research is pretty broad — I work in a lot of different project areas. Most of them touch on computing and AI in some way. For example, I have projects on understanding human creativity, quantum computing, and artificial life.

The center of gravity for a lot of my recent research is something called evolutionary computation. This is work at the intersection of AI and evolutionary biology. The core idea is to use nature’s creativity engine in our technology to make [it] do more than what [it] currently can. The real goal of a lot of this is to solve problems that humans don’t know how to solve and to exploit the power of evolution and computers.

Q: What are some important applications and impacts of this research?

A: I think [that] there are problems in many areas of science that will have big impacts on humanity like climate change mitigation, alternative energy storage and artificial photosynthesis. If solved, there would be huge benefits — and AI could help to solve some of them. Not every kind of problem is amenable to this, but for problems that meet the right criteria, you could use AI algorithms, and even evolution, to find solutions that no human has thought of.

I think [that] it’s also important to see and get some experience on the range of different things that technology can do. Most people see computers doing a certain set of things and assume [that] that’s what they can do, but it’s important to open one’s mind to the different applications of computation. Some of the impact my research has is more on a general level — it helps stretch peoples’ imaginations on what is possible.

Q: How has in-person teaching been so far and how would you compare it to remote teaching?

A: In-person teaching is so much better in most ways than remote teaching! There is a kind of fluidity of discussion and communication on a topic that can happen in person that is very hard to do through Zoom. But I have to say that masks diminish it considerably because a big part of being together is how we read each other. A lot of our communication is visual, and faces are very expressive.

One or two things about remote are actually quite good for the stuff I do — screen sharing is actually pretty awesome for a coding class. This semester, I’m using screen sharing in my lab. Even though we’re in person, we’re using screen sharing. People are working in pairs and sitting across from each other, but they’re also screen sharing, which I had not done before the pandemic.

Q: What do you think makes Amherst different from other colleges?

A: Among the many things that I really appreciate about Amherst students and Amherst College as a whole is the seriousness with which people treat their intellectual work and their openness to new connections. I have been very happy with the ways in which other ideas are being taken very seriously by everybody. There is an openness to serious consideration of many ideas and the people really dedicate themselves to their work in a way that I find truly impressive.

I also have been impressed in the way that Amherst has a very long history, but it is not tradition bound. The questioning of that history has been forthright and the attention to new perspectives and the willingness to advance in new ways was a little surprising to me at first. I guess I sort of thought of Amherst as much more wedded to its traditions, and I am delighted to find that this is not the case. In fact, Amherst is quite open to new perspectives, originates them and takes them very seriously.

Q: What kind of impact do you want to have on Amherst?

A: I want to be a part of a few things — one is specifically about artificial intelligence. When I started working in artificial intelligence, it was something that many people were working on, but it was still quite a niche field. A lot of the big ideas about AI were still science fiction. Most people in most disciplines didn't have much reason to think about it. There were a few areas in computer science and the philosophy of mind where it made a lot of sense to know about it, but for most people it wasn’t a thing.

The world is very different right now, and my view is that AI is now a major force in the world — in society, technology, politics, and media, AI touches all parts of our lives every day. If you look at any news feed or social media site, what you're seeing is being curated by AI. Not only that, but AI is behind much of our science and media technology — AI is everywhere and it has huge consequences.

I do not think that it should only be advanced computer science majors who have some idea about what AI is and what it can do. I also do not think that it should only be computer science majors who have a say in how AI is used and regulated. I think it’s really vital that all educated people at least have the opportunity to engage with AI in a serious way.

I like to engage with a lot of topics and disciplines, but this is one thing I want to be a part of — creating an environment where students and faculty in any discipline have a way to engage with what AI is, what it can and cannot do, how they might be able to use it, and how they might have a seat at the table on how it is used. I hope that, regardless of what students are doing at Amherst, they see the AI dimension and how it affects the kind of work [that] they do.

Q: What is one hope you have for the future of the computer science field?

A: [One hope is for computer science] to be less walled-off from every other field, discipline, and community. I think [that] it’s crucial that boundaries between computation and other disciplines be broken down, that everybody can be involved, and that everyone has a say.

It’s crucial that people with a liberal arts background are involved with technology more than they [currently] are. And I think it’s important for the science and industry of computation to be a product of humanity, not of some small, self-selected subcultures as it currently is.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?

A: I've always been a musician and spend a fair amount of time making music and playing guitar these days. I don't perform, but I play with other people. I also ride my bike a lot and commute to Amherst by bike.

When I have more free time, I do more art-related activities. In the past, I [have] spent a fair bit of time making interactive art installations that involve technology and sound. I have a whole bunch of ideas for art pieces that I haven’t had the chance to work on lately, but I hope to eventually. But in the meantime, making music is the thing that I find the most important in my life outside of work.

Q: Is there any additional information you would like people to know about you?

A: I’m a big believer in learning by doing — [having students create] large-scale projects that stem from the interests of the student. I think that students learn much more from following their own passions, where they intersect from the material, so I try to do so in my teaching whenever possible. When I came to Amherst and described this to people, everybody [who] I spoke to was very open and supportive to that idea. I hope to bring more of this style of teaching into the curriculum at Amherst, and I’m really excited to do that.