Computer Science professor discusses AI, family history
February 8, 2018
The following is an entry in a series called “Voices of Santa Clara,” which profiles noteworthy students and faculty. The Q & A is excerpted from the “Voices of Santa Clara” podcast.
Maya Ackerman is a professor of computer science at Santa Clara and creator of ALYSIA (Automated LYrical Songwriting Application), a software program that creates melodies based on user-inputted lyrics. She also wrote a book about her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, titled, “Running from Giants: The Holocaust through the eyes of a child.”
Gavin Cosgrave: Where did you spend your childhood?
Maya Ackerman: I was born in Soviet Russia back when it was communist, then in 1990 my family moved to Israel where we spent five years, which was fabulous. We lived in this little poor neighborhood, but it was still the best five years of my life. We moved to Canada when I was 12, which was vastly different. It was only for the past five or so years that I’ve been in the U.S.
GC: When did you first discover computer science?
MA: That was much later, I was into the arts as a kid and teenager. I talked to my dad, and he suggested that I did what he does, and [programming] fit so well.
The idea of somehow incorporating my artistic interest in with computer science had occurred to me several times, but I didn’t think there was an interesting way to do it. I didn’t want to do anything similar to the arts and music software that existed at the time. I was already a professor, and I attended ITA, a workshop on information technology.
There was a little segment in it on the arts, and I was completely blown away by the way the speakers were combining art with computing. I waited until everyone had finished asking the speakers questions, then ended up speaking with the professors for about an hour about computational creativity as a research area.
Then, I went to the international conference for computational creativity. Somebody offhandedly mentioned that a computer could be a creative collaborator. In that instant, I thought, “Okay, I need to make myself a collaborator to write songs.” And that’s how ALYSIA started.
GC: What next steps did you take to develop ALYSIA?
MA: It was so exciting. The most similar thing is falling in love. You’re waiting your whole life, and then you meet that one person and it’s so heartfelt. That was my experience of it. I came home and my husband was a very good developer and I convinced him to do it. Within three months we had a prototype.
The idea has always been that you type text and it gives you melodies. At this point, there was no user interface, and there was this terrible format with numbers representing the duration and pitch of each note. I’m sitting by the piano trying to read this horrible notation, and suddenly I could write songs. It was a completely surreal experience.
GC: One other area I’d like to touch on is the book you wrote in 2013 called, “Running from Giants: The Holocaust through the eyes of a child.” Where did you get that idea?
MA: I’m the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. My grandfather was born in Poland, and when he was an older child, the Nazis invaded Poland and killed off his whole immediate family. He ran away and ended up spending a long time in a ghetto. The fact that he survived at all is probably the most unbelievable thing that has happened to anyone in my family.
Holocaust survivors don’t like sharing their stories. I remember learning about the Holocaust when I was in Israel. Coming home, telling my mother, “Did you know this terrible thing happened?”
She said, “Oh yeah, your grandfather is a survivor.” I was totally shocked. We went to see him that day, and we didn’t have a car, so we just walked up the mountain and it took a long time. He just told me he didn’t want to talk about it.
Towards the end of his life, my mother convinced him to talk about it so we could write it down. I spent three years trying to get him to talk about it. It’s definitely one of the most meaningful projects I’ve engaged in.
GC: What did you learn from studying your grandfather’s life?
MA: My grandpa was the happiest person I ever met, which flies in the face of what I know about psychology, so that was very confusing. I had a pretty major car accident, and I remember afterwards having this immense appreciation for life when I realized I was okay. That brought back my grandpa and perhaps that was why he was so happy—because he was able to sustain this appreciation for life.
GC: What advice would you give to a student starting college?
MA: There are so many forces in society that tell us who we are, but I think anybody who has achieved something meaningful has had to break through from that and to trust that they know what’s better for themselves. People are interested in different things. You might as well go after what makes you tick, because that’s what you are going to be amazing at.
To listen to the full interview, visit voicesofsantaclara.com or search “Voices of Santa Clara” on the iTunes Podcast App.