A brave new podcast: CDS faculty Vasant Dhar on his podcast “Brave New World”

In December CDS faculty Vasant Dhar launched his “Brave New World” podcast which seeks to “a look into the transformation of humanity by machines in the post-COVID era.” With four episodes out, the podcast has covered a wide variety of topics surrounding AI including social media, inequality, and healthcare. Colton Laferriere, from the CDS social media team, spoke to Professor Dhar about how the podcast came to be, what topics we can expect him to cover in the future, and what he’d like us to take away from his conversation with the experts he interviews.

The following has been edited for clarity.

CL: First off, I’d like to ask about how you came to CDS?

VD: I’ve sort of grown up with the field of AI from its early days. I’m talking about the early 80s when it was largely what we call “symbolic AI” like the world of knowledge-based systems, expert systems, and then I transitioned to machine learning in the 90s and brought machine learning to wall street. I had taken several years off from university and created the first machine-learning-based, systematic hedge fund in the 90s. So, I’ve been engaged in AI for a long time and when CDS was formed, I was part of the faculty from across the university involved in the creation of CDS.

Shortly thereafter, I chaired the committee that set up the PhD program in data science. I had done the same role at NYU Stern about 20 years ago, and tried to bring in some of the ideas that had worked there and grafted them into the CDS PhD program which is still evolving. So I’ve been involved in CDS right from the start. I’ve continued to stay engaged in CDS because I find the research fascinating and I really like my colleagues at CDS.

CL: What prompted you to start a podcast on AI?

VD: Well, the driving factor was really the post-COVID move towards virtual existence and the role of technology in this disruption. I wrote about it early during the pandemic where I. drew a parallel between one of Asimov’s science fiction novels — the Naked Sun — and how we seem to be in that kind of world already — where communication and the way we do things has changed. So, I was interested in looking at the larger implications of virtualization. And the fact that virtualization has created this discontinuity in our existence. That’s what prompted me to ask the question as to how it would impact all areas of our life, and I literally mean all areas from health to education to entertainment to work, and spirituality. It’s really a very broad canvas. So that was my forcing function to get this off the ground.

CL: So was your broad approach to topics necessitated by the fact the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all areas of our lives?

VD: Not just that, but the fact that some of these changes are likely to be irrevocable. There are certain changes that occur in evolution where once we go to a new state we don’t go back. One of the core questions was, in what ways has humanity changed forever because of this. … My neighbors have a four year old and the conception of the real world that their child will grow up with will be different from what you and I grew up with.

CL: I see people in TV shows, obviously filmed before all this, and I think, “Why aren’t they wearing masks?” It’s had an impact on adults, too.

VD: I think this germaphobia is likely to stay. That’s likely to be one of those irrevocable changes and it’ll be interesting to see the implications of that. That’s what the Naked Sun was about. It was written in 1957 by the way.

CL: Returning to the podcast, what do you expect to cover in the coming weeks? I was listening to the past three episodes and you’ve already jumped around lots of different, really interesting topics. What we can expect going forward?

VD: You can expect a lot of diversity. As you noted, the three are very different. The first one was about platforms and the role of those platforms in society. The second one got more into the rising inequality that’s been accelerated by COVID-19 and the possible role that universities can play in trying to stem this. The third one was about the social media industrial complex and larger questions that have been raised about what free discourse really means in this era. The most recent one is on AI and healthcare with Eric Topol, with whom I discuss “Deep Medicine,” which includes deep learning, but equally importantly, deep phenotyping and deep empathy and care. Despite amazing advances in Medicine, we’ve lost the care part because of the healthcare system.

And then, you know, subsequently, we’re going to talk about what’s different about AI, the history of AI and where it’s going, I have some journalists who are going to talk about the roles of social media in broadcast journalism, economists talking about the implications of COVID and the economic stimulus, legal scholars, moral philosophers, and more.

CL: Each episode of the podcast strikes me as sounding the alarm on a particular issue. What would you want a listener to take away from sort of any given podcast episode?

VD: It’ll be different for every episode and the intention is not just to sound the alarm but also to consider the opportunities. I mean, certain things look incredibly promising in fields like healthcare and education. For example, the healthcare episode informs people about how to take care of themselves given all of the research and all the findings that we have at our disposal. One of the things I found really interesting about Eric Topol’s book was that it brings together the science and the humanistic aspect of medicine, the fact that we are unique biologically, where a one-size fits all approach doesn’t work. There’s so much we don’t know that we should.

CL: It’s about empowering people with more information.

VD: Correct. Exactly. It is about empowerment, as much as it is about awareness.

You can check out “Brave New World” on its webpage or listen to it wherever you get your podcasts.

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