Snigdha Roy is a teen hacker who is convinced that AI can teach us about our humanity. The high school student says with the right dose of curiosity, we can learn about AI systems and use them for social good.
Working with notable institutions like the Stanford Natural Language Processing (NLP) group, she built an AI therapist and technology aimed at understanding how the pandemic has changed our emotions.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Cureha Mitchell, YR Contributor: What project are you working on right now? Or what project have you worked on that you are most excited about? How does it work, and what makes it special?
Snigdha Roy: I am working to understand human nature via artificial intelligence. I have been working with a Ph.D. candidate from the Stanford [Natural Language Processing] (NLP) group to understand how our emotions have changed throughout the pandemic: we use natural language processing to analyze the data to create models of what we learn.
I have been curious about human nature since I was young, and I am exploring it via computation. It is special because it goes beyond our psychological and social intuition and concretely becomes a study to solidify our understanding in a quantifiable way. And of course, the pandemic is one of the most significant events in our lifetime.
CM: Can you tell us about a person or experience you credit for putting you on the path you’re on?
SR: Whether it came to Twitter, Facebook or other mediums and just DMs, I asked a lot of questions. A community of researchers, entrepreneurs online, and mathematicians were answering my questions, and were very thoughtfully responding to me. They inspired me with the integrity of how they took their lives and to take that for myself, and to direct my questions, not to thin air, but to actually do stuff about it.
CM: Is there a void in your field and how do you see your contributions as filling that need?
SR: I’m afraid a lot of people are working on artificial intelligence just because it’s trending. We need more people that are deeply curious about something, and you’re doing it primarily for that reason. Now, I’m not doing it to specifically draw attention. It’s interesting for a lot of people to know how our emotions have changed about the pandemic.
CM: What advice would you give to young people looking to break onto your world?
SR: One of the most powerful things is someone who knows what they want to do and exactly why they want to do it. The most important thing for people interested in getting into this sort of field is to determine whether it’s something that they’re truly curious about. That just comes from exploration, asking questions. They should form their own motivations, independent of what they hear around them.
CM: We know you can’t see into the future, but if you were to predict: What will be happening in your field of tech that’s different from now?
SR: A lot of people are going to start paying more attention to how we can use our knowledge of artificial intelligence to advance what we already know about biological intelligence, because there are similarities between synthetic and biological intelligence. There are new projects coming out, where people are using AI to advance parts of us, literal, parts of us.
CM: How do you want your legacy to be remembered?
SR: I want to be known as somebody who was with the fullest integrity, pursuing what they wanted to, because they felt it was what needed to exist in the world. And mostly it was independent of what other people wanted them to do.
CM: What is one way AI can help humans learn more about themselves and others?
SR: When you are observing an agent, an AI agent, you can see how the agent is learning or doing a particular thing because it’s repeating those patterns over and over again. So understanding how AI works will really help us understand how humans work by just watching the mechanics of their movement. When a machine is just starting, it’s a lot like how a baby learns.
CM: Can you think of a time when you ever considered giving up on your dream? Walk us through what you did to get past that.
SR: When I first started programming, I met a community of people that were around my age, they were excellent programmers. I had a hard time believing that I was good enough. When I felt I couldn’t go past the basics, that sort of impatience and self doubt, and combination with fear, led me to want to give up on trying to program and further my interest. What really inspired me was meeting people that were in my position before.