Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

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.



(page 1 of 2)


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.
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

The 400-Word Review: The Equalizer 2

An unnecessary sequel to the Denzel Washington action flick arrives for a quick beat-em-up fix.

The 400-Word Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

The sequel to the 2008 ABBA musical is far from perfect, but might have enough charm to keep you on board.

You're Going to Be Upside Down a Lot on New Kennywood Coaster

Kennywood has revealed its replacement ride for “The Log Jammer” which will be located in a new portion of the park entitled “Steelers Country.”

Restaurant Review: Poulet Bleu

Richard DeShantz steps it up with a move from Downtown to Lawrenceville and shows Pittsburgh how to make French dining fun.

Pittsburgh to Host Nation’s First Black Beer Festival

Day Bracey and Ed Bailey of Drinking Partners Podcast and Mike Potter of Black Brew Culture online magazine will bring 12 black-owned breweries to Pittsburgh in August for Fresh Fest.

Coming Clean: Why We Aren't a Green City ... Yet

Pittsburgh is no longer a smoky city, but that doesn’t mean it has cleaned up its act. Pittsburgh's air quality still ranks among the worst in the nation. What steps are being taken to reduce Pittsburgh's ongoing dependence on fossil fuels?

Ultimate Comfort Food: The Joy of Dumplings

Why our dining critic thinks dumplings might be his ultimate comfort food.

Our Seven Favorite Dumplings in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, of course, is best known for the pierogi. Our love of dumplings extends beyond that, however. These seven dumplings are our favorite restaurant versions of their various styles.

The Tailor's Dumpling: Kreplach

A Pittsburgh chef and his family continue to craft a family recipe with roots in Poland.

The Pittsburgh Region's Top Dentists 2018

Our annual list, which contains 376 dentists across 11 specialities, as determined by topDENTISTS.

A Weekend Mission of Mercy in Pittsburgh

More than a thousand people come to PPG paints arena once a year for free dental care, thanks to an ambitious, all-volunteer effort.

Jump Into the River: Open Waters Beckons Strong Swimmers

It takes a strong swimmer and the right timing to dive into the three rivers. for those up to it, the difference between the pool and open water is profound.

Pirates Are Still a Long Way From a Hollywood Ending

Despite an 8-1 winning streak going into the All-Star break, the Bucs are in desperate need of a sequel, not only to win back some credibility with fans, but also to convince their owner not to sell off more pieces of the team.

National Aviary's New Renovations Make it Essential Pittsburgh

It's time to add the National Aviary to the list of local favorites you visit again and again.

PM on KD: Family City Guide 2018

PM Associate Editor Sean Collier appears on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live to discuss our Family City Guide for 2018-2019.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


You're Going to Be Upside Down a Lot on New Kennywood Coaster

You're Going to Be Upside Down a Lot on New Kennywood Coaster

Kennywood has revealed its replacement ride for “The Log Jammer” which will be located in a new portion of the park entitled “Steelers Country.”

Comments

Tom Hanks May Have Found Co-Star for Fred Rogers Film

Tom Hanks May Have Found Co-Star for Fred Rogers Film

One of the stars of FX's “The Americans” is reportedly in talks to appear in the Mister Rogers flick “You Are My Friend.”

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Pittsburgh to Host Nation’s First Black Beer Festival

Pittsburgh to Host Nation’s First Black Beer Festival

Day Bracey and Ed Bailey of Drinking Partners Podcast and Mike Potter of Black Brew Culture online magazine will bring 12 black-owned breweries to Pittsburgh in August for Fresh Fest.

Comments

A Pop-Up Bar in Pittsburgh that Serves a Sober Alternative

A Pop-Up Bar in Pittsburgh that Serves a Sober Alternative

Empath provides the vibe and social space of a bar, as well as stepped up beverage service ... without the alcohol.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Eight Best Frozen Treats in Pittsburgh

The Eight Best Frozen Treats in Pittsburgh

Our dining critic picks his favorite ice cream, ice pop, frozen custard, vegan delight and more.

Comments

Six Underrated Kennywood Rides You Need to Try Again

Six Underrated Kennywood Rides You Need to Try Again

Leave enough time in your next visit to Kennywood to revisit some old favorites and these underrated gems.

Comments


National Aviary's New Renovations Make it Essential Pittsburgh

National Aviary's New Renovations Make it Essential Pittsburgh

It's time to add the National Aviary to the list of local favorites you visit again and again.

Comments

Stop Using Uber and Lyft, Renting a Bike is Better

Stop Using Uber and Lyft, Renting a Bike is Better

You'll save money and have an easier time hopping between neighborhoods on a Healthy Ride bicycle.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pirates Are Still a Long Way From a Hollywood Ending

Pirates Are Still a Long Way From a Hollywood Ending

Despite an 8-1 winning streak going into the All-Star break, the Bucs are in desperate need of a sequel, not only to win back some credibility with fans, but also to convince their owner not to sell off more pieces of the team.

Comments

Compelling World Cup Worth a Periodic Embrace

Compelling World Cup Worth a Periodic Embrace

The competition is as fierce as the fans are passionate and both can be appreciated without a firm grasp of the details.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: The Equalizer 2

The 400-Word Review: The Equalizer 2

An unnecessary sequel to the Denzel Washington action flick arrives for a quick beat-em-up fix.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

The 400-Word Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

The sequel to the 2008 ABBA musical is far from perfect, but might have enough charm to keep you on board.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Perfect Proposals that Flashed Back to First Dates

Perfect Proposals that Flashed Back to First Dates

Return to your roots before your relationship blooms into a beautiful marriage.

Comments

I Do, Now Let’s Have Some BBQ

I Do, Now Let’s Have Some BBQ

A five-course meal doesn’t fit with every wedding. These laid-back couples opted for casual — and delicious — cuisine perfect for their outdoor and barn receptions.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Wow Factor: Empty Nest Inspires Timeless Makeover

Wow Factor: Empty Nest Inspires Timeless Makeover

When her last child graduated from college, Ingrid Meenen did something she had been wanting to do for 20 years — renovate the first floor of her Upper St. Clair home.

Comments

Head to the North Hills for Two Blooming Garden Tours

Head to the North Hills for Two Blooming Garden Tours

The Wexford Garden and Pond Tour and the Southern Butler County Garden Club tour both take place this weekend.

Comments