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Chasing Rabbits: Why Tuomas Sandholm Almost Always Wins

The winding career path of Tuomas Sandholm has taken detours through kidney transplants, Texas Hold ’em, windsurfing and more. Next, he’d like to save the planet.



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photos by Tom M Johnson

 

Tuomas Sandholm remembers the year the cod disappeared from Helsinki.

He was about 10 years old and spent much of his free time on or in the waters around Helsinki, Finland, learning to sail and fish. Typically, when the cod were running, Sandholm remembers barely putting his bait in the water before he got a bite. But that particular summer, there were no cod. They seemed to have vanished inexplicably.

“I felt that very, very personally,” Sandholm says.

In the late 1970s, as a kid, he had no idea what he could do to solve the problem — which may have been due to pollution. 

Now, Sandholm is 48 and one of the world’s leading authorities on artificial intelligence as a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. That sense of loss when the cod disappeared has him looking for his next major project.

“I’d like to do something for the planet,” Sandholm says during an interview in his not-quite-cluttered-not-quite-neat office, which overlooks a small green space next to the busy series of buildings that make up CMU’s Gates-Hillman complex.

For many, helping the planet is a vague and half-hearted goal. Sandholm, though, has the experience — and the tenacity — to achieve whatever goals he sets.

His accomplishments in artificial intelligence have benefited business, security industries and even kidney transplantation. His work has centered around the development of algorithms that can sort through data in search of solutions to pressing problems.

Last year, he ranked as the ninth most influential artificial-intelligence scholar in the world, according to research site AMiner (which uses algorithms of its own to track citations of scholars’ work in significant publications). Now, though, Sandholm is searching for a new challenge — the next problem worthy of his considerable talents.

Whatever he decides to pursue, his wife of 17 years, Christina Fong, a CMU senior research scientist in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, says it won’t be a probing half-effort.

“Once he decides, it’s not much of a thought process for him” afterwards, she says. “It’s more like a dog running after a rabbit. He sees the rabbit and he has to chase it.”
And unlike most dogs, Sandholm almost always catches the rabbit. 

That’s not to say he does not fail. In fact, he says, like so many inventors before him, he accepts and relishes failure as a way to learn — a trait he got from his parents.
“I had a very free childhood. There were very little constraints — total ability to fail,” he says.

He grew up on a small island called Tammisalo on the east side of Helsinki, located on the Gulf of Finland but connected by bridges to the mainland. His late father, Markus, was a pharmacologist and toxicologist at the University of Helsinki; he died in 1999 at age 56 from a cancer he contracted researching chemicals, not yet known to be carcinogenic, early in his career. Sandholm’s mother, Leena, was a dentist specializing in periodontology and researcher who also ran a dental clinic. 

Asked via email about her son, Leena Sandholm offered this illuminating tidbit about him at age 7: “He was climbing up a high, sandy river bank, which I considered dangerous and gave warnings. Tuomas answered: ‘Don’t destroy my self-confidence.’”

Fong says the stories she has been told by Sandholm’s family over the past two decades — they started dating seven years before their marriage — paint a picture of a precocious, energetic child who might not have fared as well in another setting (or with more confining parents).

“When he was a kid, he would get outside and just be gone,” she says. “It just sounds like they were barely able to contain him. If he’d been in the U.S. — this really bright and energetic kid — it might have led down the wrong path. But he was in a forgiving environment.”

He loved building with LEGO bricks as a kid — not from the planned, mapped-out superhero or action sets found in toy stores today, but from the unstructured boxes of random pieces that once served as the go-to toy for industrious youngsters. He was doing well in school; at 13, his mother asked Sandholm and his brother if they wanted to try a week-long computer class. The Finnish-language course used a computer with only three kilobytes of memory; nevertheless, Sandholm’s interest was piqued. A year later, his school — where lessons were taught in English by Catholic sisters — added some pre-Macintosh Apple computers.

“I just liked it right away,” he says. “I don’t really know what it was. But it was just so easy to make something.”

Students were told they could play with the computers as much as they wanted outside of the class. Often, though, it ended up with just Sandholm by himself in the computer lab (with a sister assigned to keep watch).

He began building programs almost immediately, including a self-teaching language-learning program. Another time, his mother recalls, “He participated in a competition of making computer games. His program was considered too large and complicated to be accepted.”
 


 

After his obligatory year serving in the Finnish armed forces — he rose to second lieutenant as a pilot in the Air Force Academy — Sandholm went to college at the Helsinki University of Technology. Though he started out as an industrial engineering and management science major, he began to focus on computer science and game theory, a branch of applied mathematics.

In 1989, at age 20, he began searching for a topic for his master’s thesis (the university program he was enrolled in was similar to a combined bachelor’s and master’s program). A pair of trucking companies had approached the technology program looking for help making itself more efficient after it noticed it had too many trucks driving around empty after dropping off deliveries.

​Sandholm’s approach was to attack the problem as one of “optimization,” a theme he would come back to again and again in his career. He devised a program that allowed the trucking company to save money by finding the optimal route and pick-up schedule among its customers. Such a program now may seem typical, but then it was groundbreaking; Sandholm was teaching software, which is programmed towards self-interest, to negotiate with other software on its own.

​Sandholm also spent some time working on a theoretical idea that was so far ahead of its time, some of his colleagues dismissed it as fantasy: An online marketplace where people would buy things using interconnected computers, even though they could not touch or see those things in person. 

“I felt very fortunate the web came through. If the web had not come through, people would have thought I was crazy,” he says with a hearty laugh. “So [the creation of the web] was validation, and I’m grateful for that.”
 

He then put his focus on getting into the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where Victor Lesser, a pioneer in AI research and what are known as multiagent systems, worked with a team of expert colleagues.

UMass would prove to be doubly beneficial for Sandholm, who met Fong, then a doctoral student at the school, during a midsummer party a friend organized for all of her Finnish friends (including Sandholm) and her horse-riding friends (including Fong).

For the couple’s first date, they were going to go water skiing, but it rained. Instead they had dinner and played the board game Othello. Fong beat him 11 straight times.
She had played the game on a computer before but didn’t tell him that until the end. When she did tell him, Sandholm laughed, impressed.

“He was so happy to be taken down by a successful bluff,” she says. 

They became inseparable after that, Fong says. They’re raising two daughters — Sophia, 11, and Annika, 9 — in their home not far from CMU’s campus.

In 1996, Sandholm earned his Ph.D. in computer science. At the time, Lesser — Sandholm’s mentor through those years — was upset that the big players in the academic AI world didn’t offer Sandholm a position. “I always felt the field was [at the time] too young to understand Tuomas’ work,” Lesser says.

Titans of the emerging field such as CMU, MIT and Stanford failed to take notice. For the next four years, Sandholm ended up at Washington University in St. Louis. It wasn’t the most highly ranked computer science school, but it offered Sandholm something vital: the freedom to research what he wanted. It was there that he started his first company, CombineNet, which used his combinatorial market algorithm to help companies buy products more efficiently.

“What Tuomas comes up with, it’s so far ahead of its time,” says Tom Finn, who worked with Sandholm at CombineNet to sell his algorithm to companies. “Our market was limited when we started because we couldn’t find enough people who understood what was possible.”

CombineNet would eventually grow to 130 employees; in 2010, Sandholm and his investors sold the company.

After moving to CMU in 2001 — finally getting the position his mentor always thought he deserved — Sandholm rocketed into AI superstardom as his concepts began to be more clearly understood. His work was cited more than any other AI research in papers published from 2000-2010, according to Microsoft’s Academic website. He became famous not only for the ideas behind his work, but also how that work touched on so many different topics.
 

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