Charles Isbell and Michael Littman: Machine Learning and Education | Lex Fridman Podcast #148 | Summary and Q&A

December 26, 2020
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Charles Isbell and Michael Littman: Machine Learning and Education | Lex Fridman Podcast #148


Charles Isbell and Michael Littman discuss the relationship between machine learning and computational statistics, acknowledging that while there are similarities, they have distinct differences that should be recognized.

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Key Insights

  • 💦 Bell Labs, where Charles and Michael worked, was a magical place for research, fostering creativity and collaboration.
  • 🎰 Both Charles and Michael emphasize the importance of data in machine learning, highlighting that it is more than just computational statistics.
  • 👻 Teaching machine learning together allowed Charles and Michael to play off each other's energy and create engaging content.
  • 🤞 There is a distinction between struggling and suffering in the learning process, and hope is an essential factor in productive struggles.


the following is a conversation with charles isbell and michael littman charles is the dean of the college of competing at georgia tech and michael is a computer science professor at brown university i've spoken with each of them individually on this podcast and since they are good friends in real life we all thought it would be fun to have a conve... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: Is machine learning just computational statistics?

No, according to Charles and Michael, machine learning includes computational statistics, but it also goes beyond, considering factors such as rules, symbols, and the practice of programming.

Q: What is the role of data in machine learning?

Data plays a crucial role in machine learning, and its importance cannot be overstated. Machine learning models rely on data to generalize patterns and make predictions, making it a vital component of the process.

Q: How does neural networks change the relationship between machine learning and statistics?

Neural networks have expanded the scope and possibilities of machine learning. They have introduced new techniques and algorithms, expanding the focus beyond traditional statistics and requiring a broader understanding of computing.

Q: Does machine learning have a closer connection to software engineering or statistics?

Charles and Michael believe that machine learning has closer ties to software engineering, as it involves making programming decisions, using specific metrics, and dealing with hyperparameters. While statistics plays a role, it is not the sole focus of machine learning.


This conversation is between Charles Isbell and Michael Littman, who are the dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech and a computer science professor at Brown University, respectively. They discuss their views on machine learning, computational statistics, and the role of data in machine learning. They also share their experiences of working together and the importance of perseverance in education and research.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is their disagreement on whether machine learning is computational statistics?

Charles believes that machine learning is computational statistics but not just computational statistics. He argues that it goes beyond statistics and involves rules, symbols, and other elements. Michael disagrees with this view, stating that machine learning is not just statistics or computational statistics, but a different discipline with its own unique perspectives and challenges.

Q: How does Charles view the role of statistics in machine learning?

Charles views statistics as a means to keep oneself honest and to avoid lying to oneself. He believes that statistics is about finding rules and using them to analyze and understand data. However, he acknowledges that statistics is not the only aspect of machine learning and that there are other factors, such as computation and programming languages, that also play a significant role.

Q: How does Michael view the practice of machine learning compared to the practice of statistics?

Michael sees a distinction between the practice of machine learning and the practice of statistics. While both involve analyzing data and making decisions based on evidence, the focus and concerns of each field are different. Machine learning involves programming and engineering aspects, such as hyperparameter tuning and data collection, which require different considerations and approaches compared to traditional statistics.

Q: How does the use of neural networks change the role of statistics in machine learning?

The use of neural networks in machine learning expands the role of statistics and the importance of data. Neural networks require a deep understanding of hyperparameters and the role of data in order to design effective models. Additionally, the concept of software 2.0, where programming is seen as designing in the hyperparameter space, highlights the significant impact of neural networks on the field of machine learning.

Q: What was their first encounter like?

When Charles and Michael first met, Michael was interviewing for a position at AT&T Labs. During their meeting, Charles had a reputation of being grumpy and skeptical, which led Michael to think that Charles didn't like him. However, this initial encounter did not hinder their future collaborations and friendship.

Q: How did they develop their relationship after their first meeting?

After their initial meeting, Charles and Michael worked together at AT&T Labs. They didn't collaborate extensively on research projects, but they had the opportunity to interact with each other and other colleagues in the lab. The laid-back and collaborative atmosphere of the lab allowed them to have informal discussions and engage in fruitful conversations, which eventually led to a better understanding and appreciation of each other's work.

Q: How do they view self-criticism and dissatisfaction in their work?

Both Charles and Michael see the value in being self-critical and striving for improvement in their work. They believe that dissatisfaction with one's work drives them to constantly push themselves, learn from their mistakes, and make positive progress. However, they also emphasize the importance of having a balance and not indulging in self-loathing or constant negativity, as this can hinder progress and motivation.

Q: What is their opinion on the role of difficulty and struggle in education?

Charles and Michael agree that some level of hardship and struggle is necessary for effective education. They believe that through struggling with problems and overcoming obstacles, learners can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the subject matter. However, they emphasize the importance of maintaining a hopeful mindset and ensuring that the struggle is productive and not overwhelming or demotivating.

Q: What made Bell Labs a magical place for research?

Bell Labs was a unique and magical place for research due to various factors. It had a rich history of groundbreaking inventions and was committed to pure research. The proximity of researchers facilitated chance collisions and spontaneous discussions, fostering creativity and collaboration. The supportive environment and appreciation for risk-taking allowed researchers to explore innovative ideas and make lasting contributions to their respective fields.

Q: What did Charles and Michael miss most about Bell Labs after leaving?

Both Charles and Michael recall their time at Bell Labs with fondness and consider it to be one of the best experiences in their careers. They particularly miss the intellectual camaraderie, freedom to think and explore, and the chance encounters that sparked meaningful discussions. They acknowledge that the unique culture and environment of Bell Labs cannot be replicated elsewhere.


This conversation highlights the differing perspectives of Charles Isbell and Michael Littman on the relationship between machine learning and computational statistics. They emphasize the importance of data in machine learning and the distinct challenges and considerations of the field. They also share insights on education, research, and the significance of perseverance and self-reflection in achieving success. The magical environment of Bell Labs, where they first met, is remembered as a place of intellectual collaboration and freedom of thought. Overall, this discussion provides valuable insights into the mindsets and experiences of two esteemed researchers in the field of machine learning.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Charles Isbell and Michael Littman discuss the relationship between machine learning and computational statistics.

  • They explore the differences between the two, with Charles emphasizing the importance of rules and symbols in computational statistics, while Michael believes machine learning goes beyond just statistics.

  • They also touch on the role of data in machine learning, highlighting its significance in the practice as well as the need for a broader view of statistics.

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