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Staff Spotlight: Thomas Gilbert

This series provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with the people who power The New York Academy of Sciences.

A man poses for the camera.

Tell us what you do for the Academy.

I advise programming and research directions for the newly launched AI & Society initiative. This includes mentoring of postdocs, maintenance of the weekly research seminar, and the preparation of new public-facing programs on critical societal topics.

What has so far been your proudest accomplishment working for the Academy?

During my second week here, I gave testimony to the New York City Council on the integration of AI into public schools. Our schools are asking whether or how chatbots should be used. Should they be banned? How should teachers assess students’ work? These are important questions. But we might ask a different question: Are the challenges AI poses to schools also an opportunity to re-articulate the aims of education itself? The Academy is drawing on our deep ties to both leading AI professionals and the academic institutions of New York City, with the goal of facilitating discussion on generative AI as the value of education is transformed. I invite students, parents, teachers, administrators, and citizens to join us on this journey and help generate a new articulation of the aims of AI and education in tandem.

What makes you proud to work for the Academy?

I agree with the Academy’s values as a scientific society, motivated to advance the public interest towards democratic ends. All three of these values are frankly missing or massively undervalued in the AI space at present.

Why is science important to society?

Science is important because it helps keep outlandish claims about technology and the future in check. Very few of the leading voices in AI right now have substantive, meaningful commitments to science, but they draw from its language and methods in order to lend objectivity and authority to their work. Restoring the relevance of science means clarifying how it actually works and why it is important, so that it is not mis-appropriated by bad actors. I have a blog, The Retort, whose theme is the fact that most technical work in AI is more like medieval alchemy than modern science.

Which scientist (or scientists) would you most like to have dinner with and why?

Top of mind for me is Carl Sagan. Sagan was a unique combination of scientific integrity and public communication. He was a genius at both and in particular how to use one to inform the other. Over dinner I feel I would both learn a lot about astrophysics and about human nature—about our collective relationship to the cosmos.

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

I jog around the reservoir and garden in Riverside Park (my wife and I live on the Upper West Side of New York City). I also like to read for pleasure—my favorite books of all time are The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky and Moby-Dick by Melville. I reread them both on a semi-annual basis! A recent book I would also recommend is  Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen.


Academy Staff
This article was written by a member of the Academy staff.