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Oxford and beyond

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Rhodes winners bring big aspirations to big challenges in science, economics

They may have different approaches — one wants to teach computers to “think” like humans, and by doing so unlock the secrets of how the brain works; the other is interested in economics and public policy — but both Ruth Fong ’15 and Benjamin Sprung-Keyser ’15 share a desire to improve the world around them.

And their hopes were just given a major boost.

Fong and Sprung-Keyser were among the 32 Americans named as Rhodes Scholars on Sunday. The scholarship, one of the most prestigious academic awards in the world, covers the full cost of two or three years’ study at the University of Oxford.

Harvard has now produced a total of 350 Rhodes Scholars.

Ruth Fong

“I was pretty shocked when I found out,” Fong said. “I think it’s still sinking in, to be honest. The other finalists are all really remarkable, so I was really caught by surprise.”

Fong’s interest in whether a computer could be taught to “think” like a human began an early age, when her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Sciacca, introduced her to the notion of context clues. By examining all the words in a sentence, Fong was able to guess what an omitted word might be.

At Harvard, she became intrigued by the idea that a computer might learn to do the same.

As a sophomore, the Mather House resident and computer science concentrator enrolled in a computational linguistics class, and worked on using algorithms to extract the meaning of single words from sentences using context clues. She later applied similar techniques to images.

“I seek to develop a comprehensive understanding of learning,” she wrote in her Rhodes application. “Currently, I am developing techniques that utilize fMRI brain activity data to improve object detection algorithms. Some preliminary results demonstrate that context clues about how ‘animated’ an image is — that is, how likely it contains living things like humans or animals — can be extracted from fMRI data. These findings support my driving hypothesis that computers ‘learn’ better when they ‘think’ more like humans.”

Fong plans to continue those studies at Oxford, where she will pursue degrees in both computer science and math and foundations in computer science.

“I knew I was in love with computer science from a pretty early age,” she said. “I grew up playing with Legos and K’nex. Now is really a critical time for the field, but these questions are not new. We’re at the beginning of an era in which we finally have the computing resources to explore the question of what it would mean for a machine to think and be human-like.”

Benjamin Sprung-Keyser

“It’s been quite the whirlwind over the past 24 hours, but people have been so incredibly supportive … it’s just been fantastic,” Sprung-Keyser said.

A large part of his interest in economics, he said, stems from the fact that he was introduced to the field during one of the most serious crises in recent memory, the Great Recession of 2007-09.

“With millions displaced, I saw that the costs of unemployment are not just monetary; they are psychological,” he wrote in his scholarship application. “I saw that labor may be a necessity, but it is also a source of fulfillment — allowing individuals to impart meaning to their lives. I was drawn to the study of employment, and that has influenced nearly all my work.”

Sprung-Keyser plans to pursue a master’s degree in economics at Oxford, with a goal of eventually obtaining a Ph.D. and conducting research on issues that lie at the intersection of economics and public policy.

“There are some things about the subject of economics that are incredibly attractive to me,” the Kirkland House resident said. “It has a quantitative component to it that I find very interesting, but it also has a little bit of messiness of the real world as well. I can’t think of doing anything else.”

His time at Oxford, however, may not be limited to study in his chosen field.

With a strong background in debate, Sprung-Keyser said he is looking forward to taking part in discussions at the renowned Oxford Union.

“That is perhaps the best place in the world to engage in debate,” he said. “It’s hard to know exactly what experience at Oxford will translate to the future, but you have to imagine if you have two years to study economics, conduct your own research, and participate in debates on public and social policy at the Oxford Union, that those things become important in the future, and they end up mattering.”