Out There! (events)
|Michael Covington Talks
About Sex, Work, Christianity, The Civil War & Space
Men on the moon? Again? What about
building better spam filters first? So says Michael Covington,
Athens' own astrophotographer and technology guru.
Grounded to Earth himself during the
recent ice storm but ever helpful and accessible by email, Covington
fielded questions from Joan Stroer on space exploration, Hollywood,
his life as a Georgia Baptist and why the South is better than the
| MICHAEL COVINGTON (photo by Joan Stroer)
A fluent Latin speaker who holds linguistics degrees from
UGA, Yale and Cambridge, Covington is the Associate Director of the
Artificial Intelligence Center at UGA. He conducts research on
computer processing of human languages, teaches two graduate courses
a year and administers the lab. A father of two, he is also a
devoted fan of fountain pens. He receives more emails daily than he
Flagpole: What do you think about
Bush's space proposal? Onward and upward?
Covington: I am very dubious about proposals to put men on the
moon and Mars again. It's terribly expensive and risky and not of
much scientific value. And in order to do this, they're prematurely
de-commissioning the Hubble Space Telescope, which is the most
scientifically valuable space probe ever built.
I am afraid
people want to play "Star Trek." But "Star Trek" is based on a lot
of things that are pure fiction: the transporter, warp speed and a
universe of strange life forms that speak perfect American English!
Real space travel won't be like "Star Trek."
Yeah. And if NASA scientists wanted photos of red dirt they could
have come to Georgia. But haven't we gotten some useful technologies
out of space exploration?
MC: Whenever we spend that
much money, we're sure to get some spin-offs. But some kinds of
spending are wiser than others.
FP: Some people
might not be aware that you're a Georgia native. Tell a little about
your upbringing. What did your parents do to stimulate your
MC: I was born in Valdosta and
lived there until I started college. My father was an ATF [Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms] agent and was killed in the line of duty when
I was nine. My mother worked for a credit bureau and later managed
the Credit Bureau of Athens. No ancestor of mine has ever had a
college degree. But I have five of them, which ought to be enough to
backfill several generations.
I started learning to read when I
was less than two years old. That got me a reputation as a child
prodigy, although my daughters have done the same thing. (Hmmmm,
maybe we're all a family of geniuses.) From about age four, I knew I
was headed for some kind of academic career, and my parents were
solidly behind it.
I'm a product of post-World-War-II
middle-class hard work. Everybody had come a long way and was
determined to go a lot further. My parents had high ambitions for
me, but they weren't pushy – they gave encouragement, not pressure.
FP: What kept you in the South. What do you like
about the South?
MC: I'm back at UGA because in 1984,
I was recruited by Fred Davison, then-president of the University,
who remembered me from my student days. I actually turned down a
tenure-track position at the University of Southern California,
which is one of the world's great linguistics departments, in order
to come here and do something unknown with computers.
don't regret it. Most new Ph.D.'s go right into a rat race, enduring
low pay, undesirable jobs and high costs of living to compete for
academic promotions. I don't like rat races. What I like best about
my present job – which I've had for nearly 20 years – is the
flexibility. I haven't been competing directly against anybody else
to do something pre-defined. I've had time to look around, be
What I like most about the South is the tradition of
mutual respect and courtesy. People treat each other decently and
don't see each other as rivals. Up North, the prevailing mood seems
to be a sort of Nietzschean struggle against all the other life
forms on the planet. Down here people appreciate each other.
What I like least about the South is Civil War nostalgia. I
understand that the war was fought over two issues – slavery and
self-government. Self-government was a noble cause, but slavery was
something to be ashamed of. And don't try to rewrite history and say
that slavery wasn't an issue. It's what precipitated the war.
FP: When did astronomy become a hobby?
MC: One day in sixth grade, I got bored and started
reading ahead in the science textbook. I came to astronomy and liked
it. I started looking at the stars, and one thing led to another.
Today I'm the author of three and a half books about viewing and
photographing celestial objects. Some of my astronomical photos are
on sale at Elements, the art supply store and gallery on Baxter
Street. I also dabble in fine-art photography, but have never tried
to sell or exhibit any.
FP: Tell a little bit
about your creative process.
MC: Nothing special. I
just keep working, and progress happens. I insist on working at a
steady pace and getting enough rest and exercise. No crises, no
all-nighters, no short deadlines. What I would most like to give my
students is the ability to work hard without deadline crises. As I
see it, a deadline crisis is an excuse to lower your standards, and
it's often self-inflicted.
FP: What do you see as
the goal of artificial intelligence?
MC: Like many AI
researchers today, I see the goal of AI as building better tools by
modeling human mental abilities. I have no interest in
"Frankensteinian AI," that is, making the whole machine act like a
human being. We already know where to get more human beings.
research revolves around getting computers to understand human
languages. This is a truly difficult problem, much harder than
putting a man on the moon – it requires some fundamental discoveries
that haven't been made yet. But spin-offs are abundant. For
instance, I'd like to build a better spam filter – who will fund me
to do that? Right now most of my other work is commercially funded
and I'm not at liberty to tell you about it. I have a pending
patent, and eventually you'll find out what it's for.
FP: It's said the democratic push of the Internet
is diminishing the influence of Hollywood and Madison Avenue,
empowering the individual to think and work for himself. Can you
expound on that?
MC: The Internet has given people
unprecedented freedom to communicate. You no longer have to own a TV
station or even a printing press to put your ideas before the
public. Nor can you keep other people from discussing and
criticizing you. I think that in the long run, the Internet will
have as much impact as the invention of printing, and certainly a
lot more impact than the mass media of the 20th Century.
coming out of a period of several decades when a few people in
Hollywood and Madison Avenue told everybody how to think and how to
live. I'm glad.
FP: What do you like least about
Madison Avenue and Hollywood?
MC: Lots of things.
They're trying to run America while being fundamentally out of touch
with it. Half of Americans go to church every Sunday; movie and TV
characters never do. For Hollywood and Madison Avenue, the Supreme
Good is spending money and consuming luxuries.
dislike their totally unrealistic portrayal of human sexuality. In
much of popular culture, sex is presented as a sport like tennis,
and it doesn't even convey affection, much less reproduction. I
suppose people can lower themselves to that level, but they make
themselves less human. Too many people adopt the lifestyle of movie
characters and spend their youth trying to make sure they will never
be happily married.
FP: In your youth you made a
vow to live a "public" civic-minded life. What prompted that? Is
that why you have decided to be so open in talking about your faith,
and other topics? You've written letters to the local daily paper on
everything from cell phone bans to zero-tolerance polices.
MC: By "living publicly" I meant trying to give something
back to the community around me. I don't jump on political
bandwagons, but I do comment often on matters of public interest. I
think people overestimate the amount of good they can do through
politics, and they underestimate what can be done through
If I have one political principle, it's
from Sir Karl Popper: Political changes should always be made in
small steps. Big, grand plans always backfire.
eyebrows when people find out I'm a practicing Christian. Lots of
people think I shouldn't be, but the only reason they usually give
me is social conformity - scientists in 2004 aren't supposed to be
believers. That's not good enough for me; I prefer to think for
myself! Very few people have actually rationally examined the claims
of Christ and rejected them. Quite a few prominent scientists are
Christians, including D. E. Knuth, the greatest living computer
Of course, a six-year-old's religion won't survive a
college freshman's intellect. But there's a centuries-old tradition
of Christian intellectuality that we need to reclaim. Universities
and even science as we know it are products of a Christian matrix.
If you believe in God, you have a reason to explore His creation. If
you think you're just a fluke of mindless coincidence, why would you
expect your mind to understand the universe?
I should add that
I'm not an odd or "modern" kind of Christian. I haven't invented a
new flavor of Christianity for myself. I'm completely orthodox and
am active in Beech Haven Baptist Church, where I often teach Bible
FP: Of course, your public spirit
extends to your technological expertise. Not every computer
programmer seems as open in discussing his or her work.
MC: Around 1993, I led the group that constructed the
University's computer acceptable-use policy. This was a challenge
because, at the start, lots of people wanted the Internet to be a
wild frontier with no rules. I had to convince them that in any
society, people have responsibilities to each other.
At the same
time, I fought hard to preserve users' rights. The rights I secured
include the freedom to explore. For the most part, you can use the
University's network to learn about anything you want to. Some
people wanted a rule that "it's only for work" or "it's only for
your courses." I stood up against that.
I also stood up against
having any kind of "political correctness rule" on our computer
system. We tell people that they're subject to the same laws of
slander and libel as if they were using other media, but we don't
censor what they say. We will not punish you for saying something
Since 2000, I've moved back into research. What
strikes me as odd is that nowadays I have to tell computer science
students to move into the future! Too many of them are deeply mired
in nostalgia for the 1980s, when nerds were heroes because ordinary
people couldn't use computers. These are the people who think that
UNIX (vintage 1972) is the latest and greatest operating system, and
who disdain anything that is easy to use and commercially
FP: What do you do with your spare
MC: I don't consume much entertainment - real
life is too entertaining already! But I like detective stories,
especially the classics - Sherlock Holmes, Chesterton, Sayers,
Agatha Christie's short stories. And I like music - mostly
classical, but I'm impressed with the quality of modern popular
music. I can't remember anybody in the 1970s to whom you could
compare Celine Dion, for instance. Standards have risen!
see a lot of movies, but two recent favorites are Monsters,
Inc. and Schindler's List.
Monsters, Inc. is
the best of a new genre. I thought it made the most effective use of
some new techniques, with a very satisfying result.
What I like
about Schindler's List is that it's about a fairly ordinary
man muddling through life and doing a heroic thing, not because he
wants to be a hero, and not out of pride, but simply because it's
what needs doing. That is what great courage and great virtue are
always like. Ask any soldier - the bravest people don't even know
they're being brave; they just know something needs doing and they
Joan Stroer is a local
freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.