NYU associate professor in the Department of Psychology Todd Gureckis was honored with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award, presented to Gureckis by he White House, is considered the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to science and engineering professionals. Established in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, the award is coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President and recognizes innovative research in the fields of science and technology. WSN spoke to Gureckis about his research for which he won the award, along with its scientific significance in the real world.
WSN: What research have you conducted at NYU?
Todd Gureckis: My research compares the behavior of humans to intelligent machine learning algorithms. The goal of this human-machine comparison is to discover the core building blocks of human cognition that make us such uniquely smart and adaptable learners. By knowing what things are easy for people, but hard for computers and vice versa, it gives a lot of interesting insight into human behavior.
WSN: What got you interested in psychology?
TG: I was an engineering undergraduate, and I’ve always been more excited by math and computers than by trying to understand people. However, in my junior year at university I started learning more about artificial intelligence and machine learning. By random chance I took a job as a programmer in the psychology department at my university and met an amazing mentor there who was interested in making computer models of human cognition with applications to machine learning.
WSN: What do you plan to do with the award?
TG: The award I received, the NSF CAREER award, is a five year grant to study how people ask questions and how we can endow computers with a similar type of “curiosity” about their world. Our work on this is ongoing. I’m really excited about a current project where we are building a computer program that can ask interesting questions in a sort of simple language.
WSN: What’s been the hardest part of your job at NYU?
TG: Professors have many responsibilities including teaching, grading, advising, meeting with guest speakers, administering the operation of the department, taking part in university governance, doing research and writing grants. Juggling them all while having time for the rest of life is difficult.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 29 print edition. Email Kati Garrity at [email protected]