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June 19, 2014: People of ACM: Daphne Koller

Today's Topic: People of ACM: Daphne Koller

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Daphne Koller is the president and co-founder (with Andrew Ng) of Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company that works with universities to make education freely accessible. Coursera, a leading Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform, has partnered with dozens of the world's top universities to offer hundreds of courses in a broad range of disciplines. Prior to founding Coursera, Koller was the Rajeev Motwani Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, where she served on the faculty for 18 years. In her research life, Koller worked in the area of machine learning and probabilistic modeling, with applications to systems biology and personalized medicine. The recipient of the first ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in the Computing Sciences, Koller was cited for her work on combining relational logic and probability that allows probabilistic reasoning to be applied to a wide range of applications, including robotics, economics, and biology. She is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. She is a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. She received her BSc and MSc degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and her PhD from Stanford in 1994.

In your promising research on machine learning, which enables thinking about cancer not just as a bunch of bad cells in a tumor but, more holistically, as a complex system, how is this advance being applied in practical situations?

The process of taking a medical idea into the clinic is long and complex, since it involves prospective, double-blind trials and FDA approval. However, we are currently working with a company that's licensing the technology to explore how it might be applied in a clinical setting.

Do you agree that Massive Open Online computing courses are emerging not as a substitute for college education but as a way to enable the idea of lifelong learning?

Massive Open Online Courses are opening up educational opportunities for people who normally do not have access to traditional models of education. One important category of such people includes the lifelong learners, both those looking to reskill themselves for a world that is changing rapidly, as well as those that are just looking to learn something new. However, we are also seeing significant use of these courses by learners, especially those in the developing world, who never had access to the kind of education that many people in developed countries take for granted. For these learners, the MOOCs are very often the only option for getting a high-quality education that can open opportunities to a better life.

Has your recognition as a MacArthur Fellow and the first ACM-Infosys Foundation Award recipient influenced your research interests or career path?

I was truly honored and humbled by getting these prestigious awards, and it made me feel as if I needed to live up to that recognition. As a consequence, I started seeking ways to make an impact on the world—not just by creating ideas, but by touching the lives of actual people. This wish drove my research into personalized medicine, and, more recently, into opening up access to education. I believe that these awards played a central role in shaping my motivations in these directions.

As a pacesetter in computing innovations that are impacting on real-world domains, what advice would you give to young people considering careers in computing?

I believe that computing is a critical force in transforming the world into a digital economy, where many important goods and services are moving to a close-to-zero marginal cost. This is one of the most significant shifts to happen in human history, in terms of improving the quality of human life. Computing also provides us with the ability to collect and analyze huge amounts of data (the so-called "big data"), and thereby gain insights into phenomena that have remained opaque until now. Computing is becoming pervasive in all aspects of science, society, and technology. Therefore, this is probably the most exciting field for a young person to enter, since, with it, one can enter into and have an impact on any sector of society, science, or engineering.