MIT Prof. Constantinos Daskalakis Solves Life’s Equations

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel”, the great philosopher Socrates said. Constantinos Daskalakis is a beautiful mind who keeps the flame of education and innovation at the highest level.

He was born and raised in Athens and completed his undergraduate studies at the National Technical University of Athens at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. He graduated with the highest grade ever awarded.

At 27, Daskalakis was appointed Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Prior to joining MIT’s faculty, Daskalakis was a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research and before that he finished his postgraduate doctoral studies at the University of Berkeley.

He won the 2008 Doctoral Dissertation Award from the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM) for advancing our understanding of behavior in complex networks of interacting individuals. His dissertation, “The Complexity of Nash Equilibria,” provides a novel algorithmic perspective on Game Theory and the concept of Nash Equilibrium.

Daskalakis has also been awarded a 2012 Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship; such grants are awarded to promising young researchers worldwide in recognition of their groundbreaking, high-impact work that has the potential to help solve some of today’s most challenging social problems.

TNH’s interview with Prof. Daskalakis follows:

TNH: You were able to solve a problem that arose from John Nash’s work which stood unresolved since 1950. Many economists had been trying to find a solution, but with no results. What was the secret of your success?

CD: The contribution of my work was to characterize the computational complexity of Nash equilibrium, a concept defined by John Nash in 1950. The purpose of Nash Equilibrium is to predict what may occur in a non-cooperative game. A game is a mathematical abstraction of a strategic conflict between people. This may be a representation of some recreational game such as rock-paper-scissors, or it could model a nuclear conflict or an entire market. Nash showed that any game may find itself in a stable state whose characteristics he specified. This state is called Nash equilibrium in his honor. Following Nash’s influential theorem, mathematicians and economists alike have strived to design algorithms for calculating Nash equilibria, and therefore predicting what happens in conflicts. Nevertheless, all proposed algorithms are computationally inefficient. What is worse, this has cast doubt into whether Nash equilibria may truly arise in practical situations. After all, if Nash equilibria are computationally intractable, then how can they possibly arise in practice? Motivated by this important question and inspired by the lack of progress for fifty years, my collaborators and I took a different perspective, showing something quite unexpected. We proved that there is no computationally efficient algorithm for Nash equilibrium. That is, no matter how much scientist try, they will never be able to find such an algorithm, because it simply does not exist. The concept is inherently un-computable!

TNH: When did you meet Nash and what was your first impression of him?

CD: I met John Nash in Chicago during the 2008 Congress of the Game Theory Society. Christos Papadimitriou, Paul Goldberg and I were receiving an award for our work on the computational complexity of the Nash equilibrium, and I was invited to present our result at the congress. I was astounded to see John Nash in my talk, and had the honor of presenting my PhD research to the person who gave his name to Nash Equilibrium. Afterwards I had a conversation with him about the computational intractability of Nash equilibria. I was struck by his intelligence and clarity of mind. In the group of extremely smart and talented people I am blessed to interact with, John Nash offered me one of the most intriguing conversations I have ever had.

TNH: In 2012 you solved another challenging social problem that had been unresolved for thirty years. What was it about?

CD: As a whole, my research focuses on computational problems at the interface of Computer Science and Economics, particularly those relating to the design and study of the Internet. In addition to being a remarkable computational system, the Internet is also a complex socio-economic system that lacks centralized design or governance. To gain a better understanding of its operation, computer scientists are applying economic principles to its study. Through this research, we hope to gain a better understanding of what is happening in complex socio-economic environments and how to design systems that have good properties when economic and computational phenomena take place at the same time. My most recent findings have to do with the design of auctions. My students and I presented a new theory for the formerly elusive problem of selling multiple items under differing market conditions to maximize revenue, a problem left open by Myerson’s celebrated work on single-item auctions in 1981. This problem also has significant practical applications in sponsored search, online ad exchanges, and spectrum auctions.

TNH: What are you currently working on?

CD: I’m working on problems at the interface of Computer Science, Economics and Probability. Besides the problems we have already discussed, I am fascinated by Machine Learning, the subfield of Artificial Intelligence exploring the design and analysis of algorithms that learn models from data, in order to make reliable predictions. Automated translation, and recommendation systems, such as those employed by Netflix, are good example applications. Within this field, I’m interested in problems arising in Computational Biology and the interface of Learning and Probability Theory

TNH: Do you like living in the United States? How would you compare it to life in Greece?

CD: As far as my academic life is concerned, I really love being in the States. My students and colleagues at MIT are amazing and I find it a great pleasure and privilege to interact with them. On the other hand, I miss my homeland and some aspects of the Greek lifestyle. While Greeks do work a lot (unlike some stereotypes maintain), they also know how to enjoy their life more. I find that you should strive for balance in life, otherwise you may find yourself living only through your work. Work, I think, is too much of the focus in the States. Of course, things get more complex for scientists like myself, since science is not just work, but a passion.

TNH: Please describe a typical day in your life.

CD: Well, one of the things that I enjoy about academia is that every single day is different. This is a blessing and a curse at the same time. It is a blessing because you are mostly in charge of your own schedule, and a curse because you end up accepting too many tasks. In a usual weekday, I’ll find myself juggling teaching, research meetings, and university committees. When not doing all that, I love having a cup of coffee and thinking, catching up with my reading, or going to the movies.

TNH: What’s your opinion about the escalating political and economic turmoil in Greece? Have you ever considered to get politically engaged in order to help with your expertise?

CD: I find the situation that has been unfolding in Greece rather worrisome. It is quite unfortunate that, despite the obvious need for change, Greece has not been able to create an environment for exploiting well its remarkable human capital and natural resources. Instead of admitting the economy’s structural problems, a large part of the Greek population is still trying to find blame elsewhere, be it the Europeans or the immigrants. At the same time, Greek governments have been protecting economic interests and attacking the poor and the pensioners, creating a negative spiral that is shrinking the GDP. While Greece is perfectly capable to turn a corner and has a huge potential, some are working hard to keep the country in misery.

I have been asked to run for the elections several times, but I would only consider it if I were inspired that there is potential for real change. It would also have to be the case that my expertise is useful, as I have no political aspirations for the sake of being a politician. For the time being, I prefer to offer my services to my homeland from where I am, continuing my academic career.

TNH: Do you think that crisis has affected Greek education as well?

CD: Let me say first that for the size of our country it is quite impressive how much talent we have, as witnessed by world class recognition in science, art and entrepreneurship. If Greece could exploit this remarkable talent to its benefit, things would have been very different. Unfortunately, Greek academic institutions do not function the way they are supposed to. Funding is rather stingy. Classes are over-subscribed due to bad planning and corruption. Politics inside the universities are quite disruptive. Faculty hiring is often questionable. Research often does not meet international standards. What is worse, the Greek government is getting ready to bring changes that constitute negative progress. Without research excellence, Greece is doomed to lose its talented youth to other countries, and being a follower rather than a leader in innovation. Greece is capable of having top notch, internationally recognized academic institutions around which innovation and entrepreneurship will take place. To do this, we need funding and changes in governance. This is a high-stakes game for Greece and I hope the government realizes this soon. If rumors are true about imminent changes to education, they either seem to have a completely distorted image about what is needed, or are working hard to keep the country behind.

TNH: Would you ever go back to Greece ?

CD: I miss my family, but as things stand I will stay in the States. I will continue to help my homeland from my current position.