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Published 2/18/2004
An Unconventional Scientist
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.
MICHAEL COVINGTON (photo by Joan Stroer)
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 North.
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 can answer.


Flagpole: What do you think about Bush's space proposal? Onward and upward?
Michael 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."

FP: 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 intellectual life?
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.
But I 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 creative.
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.
My 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.
We're 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.
I particularly 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 intelligent discussion.
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.
It raises 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 scientist.
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 study classes.

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 unpopular.
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 successful.

FP: What do you do with your spare time?
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!
I don't 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 do it.

Joan Stroer

Joan Stroer is a local freelance writer. She can be reached at jstroer@bellsouth.net.

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