By Nancy Xu
In this new series, The Daily sits down to talk with several new faculty on campus.
Omer Reingold joins Stanford’s computer science department, taking over instruction of CS154: “Complexity and Automata Theory” as the newest addition to the theory group. Reingold sat down with The Daily to discuss his research interests in the societal implications of computer algorithms, as well as his outlook on joining the Stanford community.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What was your path to coming to Stanford as a professor?
Omer Reingold (OR): I went to undergrad for a math and CS program in Israel. My original plan was to do math, but the CS degree courses were very attractive as they gave me the feeling of doing real research much more quickly. So I decided to continue with CS and went to graduate school at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. Upon finishing, I took on a research position in NJ at AT&T Research and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. I returned to the Weizmann Institute as a faculty member. More recently I was at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley for five years afterwards, followed by a period of time at Samsung Research. Finally, I’m here now!
TSD: What academic areas interest you at the moment? What do you hope to pursue in your upcoming time here at Stanford?
OR: In graduate school, I did research mainly in cryptography and complexity. I worked a lot in derandomization — questions of whether randomness in algorithms helps to save time or to save memory. Recently I’ve been very interested in questions about privacy [and] questions of fairness to prevent discrimination. Many decisions are being made by algorithms, and the question is: are these algorithms fair or do they discriminate? … The more algorithms affect our lives, the more we need to make sure we address the ethics surrounding them. Computer scientists need to be involved, but it’s not only computer scientists. At the very least, it should be a collaboration between computer scientists and legal experts and policymakers and sociologists …. but what computer scientists can contribute is a wider range of solutions. There are contexts where we don’t even know how to define privacy, For example, if you see an ad and you click on an ad, what kind of information does the vendor know about you from the fact that you clicked the ad? This can expose us in very significant ways.
TSD: How has your transition to Stanford from industry been? What are you are looking forward to the most?
OR: I didn’t think that I would spend so many years in industry. The Silicon Valley lab was a very special place. There were a lot of great collaborations, so it was too nice to give up. But the moment it closed, I knew I wanted to go back to academia, and there are trade-offs in any of these places. I had more time for my own research in industry, but on the other end, I love the collaboration here with students, especially the potential to impact more students. This is one thing I really loved at Weizmann. I had a few students [whom] I am very proud of and whom I really enjoyed working with. Many of them have gone on to become professors, and all are very successful and very talented. I can tell that the students here at Stanford will give me equal gratification. For me, it’s all about the community, the colleagues and the people around me. I’m a very social researcher; it’s just more fun that way. One thing that excites me is actually being able to collaborate with some people that are not the usual suspects — people outside of the theory group. I want to be able to work with people all across the campus.
TSD: How do you spend time outside of your academic pursuits? What do you enjoy doing?
OR: One thing that I’m hoping to do… I did this at Weizmann… is this notion of theatre called playback theatre. It’s something I hope to establish here at Stanford. I’m actually part of a more traditional theatre troupe outside as well and I perform plays with them. Outside of theatre, I also have three children that I spend time with. I love work, I love [my] family and I love the theater.
TSD: What is playback theater? How did you learn about it?
OR: It’s a kind of theater that’s based on stories from the audience. There would be a conductor who would be getting input. Then at some point, people from the audience will come up and tell stories of their own, and a group of actors and musicians will perform the story back. As an actor, you have the general audience watching the theatre, and it should be entertaining for them, but you also have the special audience which is the storyteller. One of the purposes of playback is to give a present to the storyteller whose story you are acting out. It’s a very strong experience to see it played back. There was this group at Weizmann, and I would often see them coming out after their rehearsals with dazed eyes. One of them was my student, and somehow I got into it through the people I knew.
This transcript has been edited and condensed.