Constantinos Daskalakis on Tackling Hard Problems

Scroll down to the bottom of Constantinos Daskalakis’ web page— past links to his theoretical computer science papers and his doctoral students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and you will come upon a spare, 21-line poem by Constantine Cavafy, “The Satrapy.”

Written in 1910, it addresses an unnamed individual who is “made for fine and great works” but who, having met with small-mindedness and indifference, gives up on his dreams and goes to the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes. The king lavishes satrapies (provincial governorships) upon him, but his soul, Cavafy writes, “weeps for other things … the hard-won and inestimable Well Done; the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels” — all the things Artaxerxes cannot give him. “Where will you find these in a satrapy,” Cavafy asks, “and what life can you live without these.”

For Daskalakis, the poem serves as a sort of talisman, to guard him against base motives. “It’s a moral compass, if you want,” he said. “I want to have this constant reminder that there are some noble ideas that you’re serving, and don’t forget that when you make decisions.”

The decisions the 37-year-old Daskalakis has made over the course of his career — such as forgoing a lucrative job right out of college and pursuing the hardest problems in his field — have all been in the service of uncovering distant truths. “It all originates from a very deep need to understand something,” he said. “You’re just not going to stop unless you understand; your brain cannot stay still unless you understand.”

Today, Daskalakis’ contributions have been recognized with the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize, which is awarded every four years and is considered one of the highest honors in theoretical computer science. The award cites his “powerful body of results” that explicate core questions in economics about how rational players behave in games and markets, as well as his more recent work in machine learning.

“I really can’t think of anyone else who has been a leader and influencer in so many areas,” said Éva Tardos, a computer scientist at Cornell University. “It’s amazing and it’s impressive.”

Daskalakis is interested only in problems that will be “wildly impactful,” said his former doctoral student Matthew Weinberg, now a professor at Princeton University. Daskalakis’ attitude, Weinberg said, has always been: “Here’s all these unsolved problems that are crazy hard and will be really impactful to solve; someone has to do it, so let’s make it be us.”

Daskalakis’ work sits at the interface between mathematics and the study of human behavior, and this is no accident. The son of two high school teachers in Athens — his father taught mathematics and his mother Greek literature and history — he spent his childhood steeped not just in science but also in the deeply human-centric mindset of the ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights.

“That’s a super important heritage that I carry,” he said. “It’s inspiring, it’s humbling, it’s a big responsibility, it’s a challenge.”

Read more here

Constantinos Daskalakis is a Greek theoretical computer scientist. He is a professor at MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department and a member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

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