1 hr 33 min

#108 – Chris Olah on working at top AI labs without an undergrad degree 80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

    • Education

Chris Olah has had a fascinating and unconventional career path.

Most people who want to pursue a research career feel they need a degree to get taken seriously. But Chris not only doesn't have a PhD, but doesn’t even have an undergraduate degree. After dropping out of university to help defend an acquaintance who was facing bogus criminal charges, Chris started independently working on machine learning research, and eventually got an internship at Google Brain, a leading AI research group.

In this interview — a follow-up to our episode on his technical work — we discuss what, if anything, can be learned from his unusual career path. Should more people pass on university and just throw themselves at solving a problem they care about? Or would it be foolhardy for others to try to copy a unique case like Chris’?

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

We also cover some of Chris' personal passions over the years, including his attempts to reduce what he calls 'research debt' by starting a new academic journal called Distill, focused just on explaining existing results unusually clearly.

As Chris explains, as fields develop they accumulate huge bodies of knowledge that researchers are meant to be familiar with before they start contributing themselves. But the weight of that existing knowledge — and the need to keep up with what everyone else is doing — can become crushing. It can take someone until their 30s or later to earn their stripes, and sometimes a field will split in two just to make it possible for anyone to stay on top of it.

If that were unavoidable it would be one thing, but Chris thinks we're nowhere near communicating existing knowledge as well as we could. Incrementally improving an explanation of a technical idea might take a single author weeks to do, but could go on to save a day for thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of students, if it becomes the best option available.

Despite that, academics have little incentive to produce outstanding explanations of complex ideas that can speed up the education of everyone coming up in their field. And some even see the process of deciphering bad explanations as a desirable right of passage all should pass through, just as they did.

So Chris tried his hand at chipping away at this problem — but concluded the nature of the problem wasn't quite what he originally thought. In this conversation we talk about that, as well as:

• Why highly thoughtful cold emails can be surprisingly effective, but average cold emails do little
• Strategies for growing as a researcher
• Thinking about research as a market
• How Chris thinks about writing outstanding explanations
• The concept of 'micromarriages' and ‘microbestfriendships’
• And much more.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.


Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

Chris Olah has had a fascinating and unconventional career path.

Most people who want to pursue a research career feel they need a degree to get taken seriously. But Chris not only doesn't have a PhD, but doesn’t even have an undergraduate degree. After dropping out of university to help defend an acquaintance who was facing bogus criminal charges, Chris started independently working on machine learning research, and eventually got an internship at Google Brain, a leading AI research group.

In this interview — a follow-up to our episode on his technical work — we discuss what, if anything, can be learned from his unusual career path. Should more people pass on university and just throw themselves at solving a problem they care about? Or would it be foolhardy for others to try to copy a unique case like Chris’?

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

We also cover some of Chris' personal passions over the years, including his attempts to reduce what he calls 'research debt' by starting a new academic journal called Distill, focused just on explaining existing results unusually clearly.

As Chris explains, as fields develop they accumulate huge bodies of knowledge that researchers are meant to be familiar with before they start contributing themselves. But the weight of that existing knowledge — and the need to keep up with what everyone else is doing — can become crushing. It can take someone until their 30s or later to earn their stripes, and sometimes a field will split in two just to make it possible for anyone to stay on top of it.

If that were unavoidable it would be one thing, but Chris thinks we're nowhere near communicating existing knowledge as well as we could. Incrementally improving an explanation of a technical idea might take a single author weeks to do, but could go on to save a day for thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of students, if it becomes the best option available.

Despite that, academics have little incentive to produce outstanding explanations of complex ideas that can speed up the education of everyone coming up in their field. And some even see the process of deciphering bad explanations as a desirable right of passage all should pass through, just as they did.

So Chris tried his hand at chipping away at this problem — but concluded the nature of the problem wasn't quite what he originally thought. In this conversation we talk about that, as well as:

• Why highly thoughtful cold emails can be surprisingly effective, but average cold emails do little
• Strategies for growing as a researcher
• Thinking about research as a market
• How Chris thinks about writing outstanding explanations
• The concept of 'micromarriages' and ‘microbestfriendships’
• And much more.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.


Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

1 hr 33 min

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