Skolar Award judge Timo Honkela: “I encourage those who go to directions that don’t exist yet”

Trying to explain cultural or psychological phenomena with scientific formulas is like asking someone to fly to the moon on a table, the artificial intelligence researcher says.

Timo Honkela

We’re fifteen minutes into the interview when a colleague emerges through the coffee shop doors and breathlessly makes a beeline for Timo Honkela.

“I have a thousand photos that need organizing. I don’t want to go through them, I just want to press a button so that they would sort themselves out. Can you please do something,” he pleads and hands out his smartphone.

If someone knows how to apply machine learning to sorting out data, it’s Honkela. He is an internationally recognized researcher of digital humanism and artificial intelligence at the University of Helsinki. He has studied digital humanism before it even was a discipline and applied neural networks to Shakespeare’s sonnets.

“Artificial intelligence only expands the way we live now. No matter how far machines develop, humans won’t stop walking or breathing,” Honkela says.

This winter Honkela will be a Skolar Award stage judge at Slush. He sees the event as an important opportunity to advance societal change.

“Unfortunately, many people think the world only consists of things they can see. But then there are people who take steps toward directions that don’t exist yet. I want to encourage those who recognize opportunity, seize it and boldly take it forward.”

Turning impossible things possible

A few years ago Honkela was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer that made him lose a part of his sight. Because of this handicap, he dictates most things into a voice-operated app on his phone that turns spoken words into text: thoughts, research papers, and even a book.

In 2017, Gaudeamus published Rauhankone – Tekoälytutkijan testamentti (loosely translated to Peace Machine), in which Honkela launched the concept of advancing global peace with the help of AI and machine learning. He wants to find out whether machines can ever learn to negotiate meaning as humans do.

It might seem like an impossible mission, but Honkela likes to turn seemingly impossible things possible. Once when he applied for a professorship, one of the appraisers took a look at his research plan and claimed that “you can’t do that on a computer”.

“I’ve thought back to that moment so many times and had a laugh. I’ve been doing those things they deemed impossible ever since.”

Finding ways to explain the world’s complexities

Timo Honkela sees the world as a chaotic place filled with an abundance of sensory experiences. Although language has been the most important tool for expressing the world’s complexities, it has its limits.

The Skolar Award finalists will have to try to work with these limits when they take the stage on December. There’s been some debacle on whether or not it’s fruitful to pitch humanities research in the same format as hard sciences. According to Honkela, that’s not really even the main point.

“Trying to turn this world into a formula is akin to violence. Explaining cultural or psychological phenomena with scientific patterns is like asking someone to fly to the moon on a table.”

The most important point in any research communications is to convey one’s capacity to create something meaningful, he says. And although machines might not be able to negotiate meaning, the world is full of it. Honkela knows both life and his field well enough to understand their pitfalls and threats, and still chooses to be optimistic.

“I like to think that in general, people are your friends. If you’re talking to an audience of 1000 people, 998 of them are on your side.”

Timo Honkela is one of the six members of Skolar Award stage jury. They will choose the finalists and the winner of Skolar Award.