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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Philosopher Applying Kant and Plato to Contemporary Computer Science

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

You may not typically think of your PC and Plato at the same time. But the cross section of technology and philosophy is where Maya Krishnan lives.

Krishnan is in the most recent crop of Rhodes Scholars, picked for her work, which inquires into what the flood of information unleashed by technology means for humanity.

“I think about how traditional philosophical theories about human reason have relevance in the modern world,” she says. “This means reading philosophers like Plato and Kant and then seeing if I can use their ideas to make sense of contemporary developments in mathematics and computer science.”

Krishnan grew up in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Her father, who worked at the World Bank, is from India, and her mother, a management consultant for non-profits, comes from a Jewish family that emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe about a century ago.

"While society requires many data scientists who are able to develop technical solutions like the ones I have worked on, it also requires humanists who able to interpret and explain the significance of the changes that new technology brings about."

“None of us consider ourselves to be religious believers,” Krishnan says, “but part of what my parents taught me is that religion can be about a set of values that you use to form your life. They always put a strong emphasis on the importance of finding a way to improve others’ lives.”

As she got older, she started noticing the extent of income inequality around her. During high school, she volunteered as a technology specialist for Horton’s Kids, a non-profit that educates and supports about 150 children in Ward 8, one of D.C.’s most difficult neighborhoods.

When she saw that the non-profit’s paper-based record-keeping was out of step with its needs, she customized a cloud computing-based database to keep all of the organization’s information in one place. “I wanted to make a tool that would be intuitive for people who were not computer experts,” she says.

She also taught the kids computer skills. “Teaching this class really changed the way I thought about the social impact of technology,” she remembers. “Middle-class and wealthy kids are learning the skills that are going to get them good jobs. Some of them are eventually going to learn how to program these computers. They’re getting an entirely different skill set from the low-income kids. This made me think about how inequality gets perpetuated—through the different kinds of education people receive based on their economic background. Getting the hardware in kids’ hands is only the beginning.”

Krishnan spent her four years at Stanford developing new ways to gain insight from raw data. The first two, she studied sequencing data to look for early-warning signs for ovarian cancer. Her junior and senior years, she led an effort “to develop a visualization of sociopolitical change in ancient Greece and Rome.”

“But the more advanced my work became,” she says, “the more curious I became about the nature of the knowledge I was producing with my computer science skills. My own situation was part of a broader dilemma we’re now facing as a society.” That is, our new ways of getting information have deeply changed how we understand the world, Krishnan explains. “But these changes have come so fast that it’s hard to step back and ask what it all means. Our ability to comprehend the implications of technological change does not move in pace with technological development itself.”

Krishnan has written a collection of 10 essays, Modern Illuminations, about how theological concerns influence recent philosophical thought. In her free time, she plays the oboe, sometimes with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, and goes for early-morning and late-night runs.

It occurred to her to apply for the Rhodes scholarship because Oxford is a major center for philosophy and theology. “After spending several years absorbing the kind of fast-paced innovation-driven mindset of Silicon Valley,” she says, “I wanted to have the chance to think more deeply about the implications of recent developments in computing. I wasn’t really expecting to win so I was shocked when I heard my name announced. I had to remind myself to keep breathing.”

During her Rhodes-funded time at Oxford, Krishnan plans to get Master's degrees in theology and computer science.

Within 10 years, she wants to be doing two things: One, writing computer programs to better analyze complex datasets, and two, reflecting philosophically on the implications of computing. “It’s possible that this work will take place in a philosophy department,” she says, “but I’m open to other options.”

In the longer term—by the time she’s 70, say—she hopes to have worked on “a systematic study of rational human thought.” She sees herself working out a general theory of human reason that accounts for the technological developments that have unfolded over the past century.

In the meantime, she may be Stanford’s only philosophy major who minors in computer science. “While society requires many data scientists who are able to develop technical solutions like the ones I have worked on,” she says, “it also requires humanists who able to interpret and explain the significance of the changes that new technology brings about.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).