Todd Hughes -- Software Development Related to National Defense

Chief Technology Officer at Next Century Corporation

What stage of your academic career were you in when you decided to seek work outside of philosophy? What kind of work did you find, and how?

It was the fall of 1999 and I had an adjunct position in a Philosophy Department at a small state university teaching Critical Thinking. Of course it paid very little so I hosted and waited tables at a local restaurant to make ends meet…barely. Still ABD and a hopeful member of the American Philosophical Association, I received my copy of Jobs for Philosophers. Tucked away in the back of this thin publication was an advertisement for an artificial intelligence company. I emailed my CV and much to my surprise a couple of weeks later I received a response. After a short interview to assess my knowledge of formal logic, I was offered the position of Ontological Engineer. I had no idea what that meant but my salary would be more than a typical assistant professor in philosophy, let alone an adjunct instructor, so I took the job.

In essence, the job consisted of capturing the knowledge of a particular domain in a formal language that resembled first-order predicate logic. For two years I worked on a team that was creating an ontology of computational security including hardware, software, vulnerabilities, exploits, and attacks. We wrestled with some interesting philosophical questions like: What is a computer program? Is it the source code, the executable, the compiled version, or the process running in computer memory? What does it mean for a computer program have a flaw or a vulnerability? The purpose of all this was not necessarily to “carve nature at its joints,” as it were, but to enable a deductive reasoning program to draw helpful inferences about the security posture of your computer or computer network.

The security posture of a computer?

Without getting too technical, it meant specifying horn clauses (if-then statements) that stated the conditions under which a computer would have a certain type of vulnerability. For example, if the computer is running the Windows XP operating system and has version 7 of Internet Explorer then the computer has a remote access vulnerability. A simple scan of a computer would tell you if the antecedent of the horn clause was true, which would trigger the consequent that the computer did or didn’t have the vulnerability.

But getting back to the larger story, the initial results were promising enough to drive the company toward an IPO—this was during the first dot-com boom. But in the end, for reasons both technical and financial, it was a bust. The company underwent a major contraction and, although I kept my job, I knew it was time to make a move. By then I was married and finished with my doctorate. Fortunately the resume I posted on one of those job sites found its way to a lab for a major defense contractor, who was looking for someone with ontology and computer security experience because DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) was actively funding research in these areas. I was quickly hired and given the somewhat laughable title of Senior Engineer. For four years I worked on various projects funded by DARPA and was eventually promoted to a management position. It was then that I came to the attention of DARPA as a potential Program Manager. DARPA recruits people from industry and academia to take a special, limited Program Manager appointment where they devise new, multi-million dollar research programs that will help the Department of Defense. Then the Program Manager supervises the contractors and universities that do the work. That’s what I did for five years, and it was fantastic. The great breadth of this country’s research community was revealed to me and I had privileged access to all kinds of DoD organizations as well. Being a DARPA Program Manager is all about making an impact on our nation’s defense and I felt like I did that.

What do you do now, and what's interesting about it?

As my DARPA tenure was set to expire, I still wanted to do something that was meaningful and made a difference to people. I interviewed with a number of companies (I got to know many, many companies in virtue of my DARPA experience) and it took me a while to find one that genuinely shared my values. Now I am Chief Technology Officer for Next Century Corporation. We make software that takes the information that people need and delivers it to them so they can make decisions at a glance. We serve intelligence analysts, soldiers, first responders—people who save lives every day. They have important jobs and don’t have time to figure out how to use new applications, so we spend a lot of attention to elegant and intuitive interface design. If a user picks up one of our apps and uses it to help someone or to prevent someone from harming others, that’s a good day for us.

How did you first figure out what work projects you wanted to take on outside of academia?

At the time I jumped off the academic track, I hadn’t given much thought to leaving academia, much less what alternative projects I would pursue. It was really more of a case of the opportunity presenting itself. I suppose I could have ignored the advertisement in the JFP—in which case my life could have turned out quite differently. It also helped that I was no longer living near the university where I was enrolled, and barely scraping by, so I was more open to the prospect of a non-academic career when it arose. It’s hard to see this when you’re in the academic bubble, but there are more interesting and rewarding opportunities out there than you might expect.

What about your philosophy background (AOS/research/teaching experience) do you think appealed to the artificial intelligence company that first hired you? Did you have programming skills?

I studied philosophy of mind and my dissertation was on the concept of consciousness. It was an attempt to disambiguate the many senses and uses of terms like “conscious” and “consciousness.” So it was an exploration of the ontology of consciousness, in a way. My undergrad and grad programs both had logic requirements, which were definitely not my favorite courses. But I knew enough logic to get that job as an ontological engineer at the AI company.

I’ll say a bit more about the company to illustrate what I’m talking about. Cycorp was an offshoot of the Cyc Project, an initiative to create so-called “knowledge-based” artificial intelligence. The approach is to manually populate a knowledge base with assertions expressed in a formal language. These assertions talk about common sense (e.g., all humans are mammals). An inference engine is used to reason over the assertions. So if you tell Cyc “Todd is human” it will automatically infer “Todd is a mammal.” Cycorp believes at some point, Cyc will reach a critical mass of knowledge and begin learning on its own. But this will require A LOT of assertions. Hence the need for a small army of ontological engineers.

Being an ontological engineer didn’t require any expertise in software programming because the language used (CycL) is not a programming language but a knowledge representation language. My software development skills are nonexistent.

What advice do you have for philosophers who, by chance or by necessity, are considering leaving philosophy?

For a time I was a member of an APA committee on nonacademic careers and the only concrete advice we could offer philosophers looking for a position outside of academia was “go back to school and get a degree in something else.” That’s not a recommendation I would necessarily endorse today. On the other hand, my career path through the technology field was somewhat accidental so it’s difficult to draw any specific lessons from it. Something I did learn is that the kind of thinking you learn doing philosophy has much broader applicability that you think. Going back to my days at the AI company, my boss had the insight that it was easier to hire philosophers and teach them a bit of coding than to hire computer programmers and teach them philosophical logic. I think the philosophical perspective, which constantly seeks to reveal the essence of things, has served me well throughout my career. Whenever someone gave me a chance, I spent a lot of time thinking about what it really meant to be successful in that context. This was a distinct advantage, I think.

You say that your boss at the AI company was inclined to hire philosophers. To your knowledge, is AI still open to newcomers with backgrounds in logic or philosophy more generally? If a certain level of coding experience or other experience now requisite for employment, can you say more?

In general, AI has moved away from knowledge-based approaches—where a computer makes inferences on the basis of a mountain of assertions expressed in a formal language—and toward more promising methods based on statistical inference and machine learning. Great strides have been made as a result, even if “artificial intelligence” in any meaningful sense of the term remains elusive.

However, knowledge-based technology is definitely growing in other areas. Internet search engines use formal knowledge representation to enhance their search results. Investment banks build repositories of finance knowledge to facilitate trading. Some companies ("enterprise data management" firms) engineer ontologies that link databases into a common semantic framework. It’s all very exciting work that could be done better if philosophical minds were more involved.

Coding experience certainly helps but I’m not sure I’d recommend that philosophers interested in a career in the tech field become highly proficient programmers. I certainly know philosophers who learned how to code early in their careers, but they quickly rose to positions of leadership and never went back to programming. The key is that they developed a strong set of technical intuitions about what it’s possible to do with computers and imagined new applications that were consistent with those intuitions yet still very innovative.

What's your perspective on academia today? Is there anything you miss about academia that can’t be replicated at your current job?

There are philosophers who happily continue to advance the field and to inspire younger minds to think better, and I admire them for it. There’s a possible world out there where I am a tenured Professor of Philosophy at an institution of higher learning. I can tell you I do not want to be that guy. There’s nothing I miss about the academic life, not because I’ve found a way to replicate it in my current circumstances but because what I have is much more rewarding and interesting to me.

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Todd's Background

Ph.D. in Philosophy
University of Wisconsin-Madison