Smithsonian Long Conversation Event

Today, December 1st, Christmas came early. In late October, I was invited to participate in the “Long Conversation,” a series of dialogues about the future. As one of the invited leaders from the fields of arts and scientists, I participated in a brief dialogue with the one and only Yo-yo Ma about my vision for artificial intelligence and diversity in computer science.

The Long Conversation was unique in that it was not a presentation from a series of individual speakers but rather a relay of spontaneous conversations between two presenters: one in the humanities and one in the STEM fields. This setup created an interesting dynamic, one that was free-flowing but still packed with thought-provoking ideas. Mrs. Goslins informed me that my partner for the conversation would be Yo-yo Ma, world-renowned cellist and all-around amazing philanthropist. He even gave a spontaneous performance at the end of our conversation for me! I was speechless.

What do cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, a 23-year-old theoretical physicist called “the next Einstein,” a leader of the Mars Rover expedition, and the writer for Marvel Comics’ first lesbian Latina superhero have in common?

When I was first invited to speak at the event, I was BLOWN away at the other conversationalists. All the speakers have had amazing, impactful careers, so what could a 17-year old high school senior contribute to this event?

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This was exactly the last question Mr. Ma asked me to conclude our conversation. What unique viewpoint can I contribute to the global stage? As a young person, what makes me optimistic about the future? Turns out, a lot.

1. My relationship with my brother makes me optimistic.

My brother Neeyanth and I have a unique relationship. Since we are only a year and a half apart in age, we grew up doing everything together. Eating breakfast reading Scientific American? Check. Tinkering with Legos, K’Nex, and eventually 3D-printing? Check. Learning about Java, Python, Artificial Intelligence, and Computer Vision? Check. We always had different interests, mine in biology and chemistry and his in mathematics, but we shared a common passion for using computer science to tie them together. This complementary nature has always made us the perfect team. We’re a perfect example of how science is incredibly interdisciplinary; a field isn’t just one subject… math, chemistry, physics, and biology are all connected.

2. The willingness of the older generation to mentor the younger generation makes me optimistic.

There is no doubt in my mind I would be a completely different person without my mentors. As my mom always says, “You weren’t raised by just me and your dad, you were raised by your community.” I’ve had mentors from the Children’s Science Center, from Amazon, NIH, Google, and numerous research institutions across the US. When I would email an expert asking a question, nobody would ever say no; instead, they would be incredibly excited to help a future scientist. Mentorship and support for budding students give me incredible optimism for the future.

3. Innovation in artificial intelligence makes me optimistic.

There are no two words that make more people panic than “artificial intelligence.” As of today, AIs have invented a hyper-efficient language, defeated world chess champions, begun to write their own code, and beat 75% of Americans in a visual recognition test. Artificial Intelligence is all over the news, but is it really the doomsday technology the media makes it out to be? How can we live a future of harmony with this technology?

It’s all about trust. Trust in the computer scientists, trust in the legislation protecting end users, trust in the process. And while the media tends to focus on the potentially destructive powers of artificial intelligence, they forget all the ways AI can save and improve lives in just about every field. Over the past two years, I’ve been involved with artificial intelligence research, nothing gives me more hope for the future than advances in this field.

4. Age and gender diversity and inclusion in computer science makes me optimistic. 

Now more than ever, we need diversity in computer science. And in recent years, we’ve made incredible progress in achieving equality in this field (see my posts about GirlsComputingLeague).

And the best part about computer science and AI is that it’s incredibly accessible for high school students. As young scientists fresh into the field, we’re blissfully naive, ready to tackle any challenge. We view the world not how it is, but how it can be as a result of technological innovation. We’re not constrained by grant funding or a pressure to publish; we’re able to explore our true, perhaps outlandish, visions for the future and make them a reality. We’re not conservative in our efforts, we’re radical.

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Photos from my Conversation with Yo-yo Ma in the main hall of the Arts and Industries building. The art installation with the dangling lights isn’t just for show; as the event progressed and more bright ideas were shared, slowly the lights turned on, showcasing the optimism communicated.

And although all the ideas I was able to communicate to the audience was amazing, the true highlight of the event was the conversations that took place behind the scenes in the speaker room.

 

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With Rachel Goslins (Director of Arts and Industries Building of the Smithsonian), Yo-yo Ma (World-renowned Cellist), and Mark Hannum (TJHSST’s Head of Science/Tech Department, and my physics teacher)
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With Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski, dubbed “The Next Einstein.” While we were talking backstage, we covered topics form human cloning to how to explain string theory to black holes.
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With Steve Case (co-founder of AOL) and Muriel Bowser (Mayor of Washington DC). During our brief meeting, we debated the role of technology in education and ways to help improve inclusion in the technological fields.
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With David Skorton (Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution) and Robin Davisson (Professor of Molecular Biology at Cornell).
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With Brian Mathews (Vice President of Platform Engineering at Autodesk). Prior to meeting Mr. Mathews, I thought Autodesk simply produced the best CAD software (which is also free for students!) but I learned they do so much more than that; for the Smithsonian, they used advanced computer modeling software to digitally reconstruct artifacts, fossils, and ancient buildings in 3D from a series of pictures. They also do a lot of machine learning with robotic systems, teaching them to be more human-aware and interact gracefully. Mr. Mathews was kind enough to take out his laptop and explain all the groundbreaking work he does for over 30 minutes.
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The speaker dinner following Session 2, with Secretary Skorton presiding.

If you’d like to check out our 15-minute conversation, I’ve uploaded the video below (thanks Dad!)

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