Hal Daumé III is a Language Person

In an interview with Roadmap Magazine, Daumé emphasized the need to stop worrying about autonomous AI systems and start prioritizing systems that help people.
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As a Volpi-Cupal Professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, Hal Daumé III thinks a lot about how machines learn language. He also thinks a lot about trust: he leads the Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS)Roadmap spoke with him about all of the above—plus béchamel sauce, toddlers and The Terminator.

What are you working on right now?

In a professional capacity, I’m trying to understand how we can make AI systems work better for people and work better for society. A lot of that is trying to understand the technical piece, the traditional computer science stuff—what I’ve been trained to do the longest. More recently, it’s also trying to understand how people make sense of technology and how technology is reshaping society in various ways. 

Outside of work, I have an almost three-and-a-half-year-old, so that’s a big part of how I spend my time. I’m a language person, I really love language. And with a three-and-a-half-year-old, I’m super excited to see all the language development. My kid is growing up speaking French, which I don’t really speak, so I’m trying to learn it at the same time he is. That’s been a bit of a challenge for me—it’s now getting to the point where his French is surpassing mine in some places, vocabulary in particular. He’ll say things, and I’m like, I don’t know if that’s a nonsense word or if it’s just French. 

What does work mean to you?

The first thing that comes to mind is what do I do to earn a paycheck. I’m in a pretty fortunate position where [that’s] also what I really like doing. It also comes with downsides, in the sense that sometimes it can be hard to separate yourself from work. I do really like most aspects of my professional career.

Work at home is kind of similar, right? I love my kid, by the time it’s 2 p.m. and I’ve been on Zoom all day, I’d much rather go pick him up from school than—sorry, it’s 4 p.m. and we’re having a Zoom!

It’s okay, I have a stroller ready at the door too. It’s what I’m doing as soon as we sign off.

I certainly enjoy it, but it is also certainly work. There are things that have to get done because that’s the responsibility of being a parent. So maybe there’s some notion of responsibility [to how I think about work]. I have a responsibility to the people who pay me and to the students who take my classes and to the research organizations that fund me as well as to my colleagues. I also have a responsibility to my family.

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