Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Life imitates art (I hope)

It's that time of year when the cable channels start to show that old Frank Capra standard, It's a Wonderful Life. I just learned that life may be mimicking art. Phil Agre has gone missing.

To understand the impact that this news has had on me I have to take you back to 1985. That year, an MIT graduate student named David Chapman published one of the very few solid theoretical results that the field of Artificial Intelligence has ever produced. David formally proved that planning was NP-complete. What's more, it was a constructive proof: David actually wrote a planner that was provably complete and correct, the first such planner ever to be produced after years of ad hoc research. And this was David's master's thesis!

For his next trick, David teamed up with Phil Agre to help pioneer what was then a completely new approach to AI. The technical details don't matter much. The point is, in my mind David was a demigod, Phil was his main collaborator, and the work they were doing was wicked cool. Their work ultimately had a huge influence on me, and even today I think it never received the attention and appreciation it deserved.

Back in those days I was, like many graduate students, haunted by myriad insecurities. Would I ever find a thesis topic? Would it have an impact? Was I kidding myself that I was capable of doing original research? Was I wasting my life? And on and on and on. At times it got pretty bad and led to some bouts of severe depression, which I now understand is not at all unusual.

Around the time that I was hitting bottom, there was an AI workshop at JPL that Phil attended. To make a long story short, I ended up taking him on a driving tour of Los Angeles (it was his first visit) so I got to spend quite a bit of time talking to him one-on-one. That conversation influenced me more than any single conversation I've ever had in my life. It got me out of my doldrums and I returned to work with renewed vigor. A few months later I had a thesis topic, and a year or so after that, I phinally phinished.

Now, I can't really say I knew Phil. I only ever met him that one time. We never corresponded, though I followed his work for many years. So I have no idea why he has disappeared. Maybe he's just decided to go walkabout. (He seemed like the kind of person who would do that sort of thing.) But I'm telling this story on the off chance that Phil has succumbed to the same sort of demons that once haunted me, wondering where his life is going, if he's made the right choices, and whether his accomplishments measure up to anything. In that case, and on the off chance that Phil might stumble across this blog, I want him to know the impact that he had on my life. Maybe that will help.

There are details of that period that I do not wish to put on the record, but it would not be unfair to say that Phil Agre once saved my life. It would be fitting if perhaps I could return the favor simply by saying so. Phil, wherever you are, I wish you good fortune.


Sebastien said...

Thanks for that story. I hope someone finds Phil.

Those checkboxes are cool. How did you put them down there? Is it a Blogger gadget?

Ron said...

> Those checkboxes are cool. How did you put them down there? Is it a Blogger gadget?

It's not a gadget, it's a blog-post option. Go to the "Layout" tab, "Page elements" sub-tab, and click on the edit link in the blog-posts panel. That will bring up a "Configure blog posts" window. The configuration for the checkboxes is about half way down.