Taivo Pungas: Maximise the Total Happiness of All Sentient Entities in the World

An ethical data scientist is out to maximise the happiness of every sentient entity. Master’s student Taivo Pungas (23), who is studying at the technical university ETH Zurich, would not contribute to discovering new oil fields.

Why do you write your blog pungas.ee in Estonian? Doesn’t it mean that you are eliminating a great number of potential readers? 

The market has to be segmented. It’s better to be very good in a small segment than to be completely pointless on a big market. In other words, it seems to me that the things I write about have much more added value when I write in Estonian.

Your blog leaves a very analytical impression. How are you planning on spending the stipend?

It’s like in a company – you constantly have to calculate your costs and revenues. The stipend will give me a month, where I can fully dedicate myself to studying and I won’t have to work on the side.

What kind of work have you done in your life so far?

I have been a data scientist at Skype and at Transferwise. Most recently, I worked for six months in Switzerland for a research group and helped them analyse scientific citations.

What has been the hardest thing to get used to while studying in Switzerland? 

(Neatly pours himself a bit of peppermint tea.) Although Zurich is a rather small city, most people do not live in the city centre. It’s very common in Switzerland for people to commute an hour, an hour and a half to work every day. Luckily, I don’t have to – it takes me half an hour by tram to get to school.

Perhaps one thing that has also been complicated is that compared to Estonia, my network of friends and acquaintances in Switzerland is sparse. In that sense, Switzerland is similar to Estonia in that if you’re a local, it’s great to be there, but if you’re not, it’s difficult to find friends. All my friends in Zurich are also either foreign students or just expats.

What keeps new relationships from forming?

One thing is definitely the language barrier – even though I’ve studied German, Swiss German is more like a dialect. Regular German is more like a foreign language to locals and they have to make more of an effort when they’re talking to you.

Has living in Switzerland made you more precise or accurate? 

I think that Estonia is a very accurate country too; here they value arriving on time for a meeting just the same (as the interviewer realises that he did arrive two minutes late – author’s note). I suppose it is the German cultural influence that we have in common.

What does it mean to be a data scientist?

A data scientist is someone, who tries to make useful conclusions based on analysing data. For example, you take even just a pile of graphs and based on them you deduce how a company could behave in a more effective way. Or then in private life, how you can use your fitness tracker to decide whether taking a bike to work would change your life in a positive direction.

I like to have certain aspects as clear as possible from a data processing viewpoint and optimise everything, including myself – meaning, do what I do faster, cheaper or with less required attention.

Can you give me an example of how you have changed your life as the result of data processing?

For example, during my bachelor’s studies, I analysed when I study and I noticed that on Saturday I either don’t do anything or I do very little. So I decided that I’ll make Saturday my day off – better to rest in an aware manner than feel bad about not doing something useful.

Also, I have deduced the most effective training method considering the time spent on it – although for the past two or three years I haven’t been able to train regularly because of injuries.

What kind of training were you doing and what happened? 

I went to the gym to lift weights and then I played indoor hockey – that’s how I hurt my knee.

So then you processed some data and decided to not play indoor hockey anymore?

(Laughs.) I think I made that decision in those 0,4 seconds that it took me to hit the floor and sprain my knee. Especially since it was already the second time.

Your hobbies are writing code and playing the piano. Which is closer to your heart? 

I started to like both in my second year at the university, and I think that the piano is more likely to stay in my life, although I do hope that I won’t have to give either up to do the other.

I have programmed, for example, a Facebook Messenger spellcheck for Estonian. It doesn’t have any smarts of its own built in, but it runs on a regular dictionary. The idea came from when I was writing my blog – from time to time I checked things in the ÕS dictionary for Estonian and I discovered that while blogging on my mobile phone, it’s quite uncomfortable to check. So I put the two together and to my surprise it has turned out to be quite popular – it has around 2000 users already.

Speaking of “built-in smarts”, how do you feel about the creation of AI? 

I’d say I have positive feelings towards it, because it has so much potential to improve everyone’s lives, although there are, of course, plenty of risks too. A pretty big risk could even be if a system built with good intentions doesn’t do what we wanted it to do – this could happen, if we didn’t clearly define what we value for the AI in the programming phase. However, even if we’re not talking about bad AI that would destroy half of humanity, another danger would be the kind of AI that could do practically anything that humans have done so far, only better and cheaper – from cleaning to programming. That could mean ending up in a situation, where the companies that develop that type of AI, meaning a very small share of humanity, would gain practically all the income from that work and that would be a huge social problem. I’m not sure if making nearly all workers useless would necessarily lead to starvation and a bigger wave of extinction, since one solution could be universal basic income, but it certainly wouldn’t bring about anything good either.

How likely is it that AI will be capable of competing in creative jobs as well – for example, in art or literature?

I have seen an actual project that tried to get AI to make jokes, but they weren’t exactly good jokes. For example, sarcasm is something that people have a tough time distinguishing in speech and the comprehension capability of machines is even less.

In the future, the kinds of vocations will have value, where humans participate in the process – from handicrafts to nursing. A robot may have even warm and soft hands in the end, but people will still crave human contact.

At the same time, in your field of specialisation, data processing, AI would most likely be especially competitive? 

(Smiles in agreement) Yes, that kind of an automated data scientist has already been programmed. For that matter, my ten-year future perspective isn’t to do purely data science, it’s rather an approach to any kind of perspective. I would rather go into business, launch a rapidly growing start-up.

You have some experience with start-ups already…

I have pitched a few ideas and even won an award at an early phase competition, but I haven’t gotten any further than that. Nobody from the team was willing to focus on the project, meaning actually put in the work. Everyone had this idea that it would be great if the start-up was initiated, but nobody wanted to commit.

What about business is it that inspires you? Money?

Money makes doing almost anything simpler, but the main goal would still be to bring some kind of positive change about in the world. I wouldn’t want to start a company that would make drilling oil simpler, because making new oil fields more readily discoverable would not be positive. Transferwise is a good example, because decreasing the service fees that banks had been taking so far means people will be left with more money and that is positive.

When is the next Estonian start-up going to make a big breakthrough? 

I don’t have an explicit model to answer, but if you extrapolate from the piece of data that Skype was founded in 2001 and Transferwise in 2011, then perhaps it will be in 2021 (laughs).

What are you planning on doing after graduation?

The plan for these coming years is to develop as fast as possible and see various sectors. Then I’ll have a better idea about how the world works and where I could create the most added value. Plan A would be to find a really cool start-up and work there. I believe that starting on a completely blank page is not necessarily good for me, however, (smirks) it did work out well for Elon Musk.

Do you believe that it is possible to increase anyone’s IQ? 

There are some apps out there claiming that if you play certain games, it will increase your intelligence, but I think that it is genetic to a degree that you might be able to improve it by only a few points on the IQ scale. What can, however, be improved is the hygiene factor – exercise, nutrition, sleeping and mental health, meaning how you manage your emotions. That all influences how much you will achieve in life and that is perhaps even more important than your IQ.

What have you changed about your eating?

I’ve tried to eat less simple sugars and I’ve also tried the paleo diet and the ketogenic diet. To me it seemed that my energy levels were the most even with the last one, but as a vegetarian it is a very tough diet to follow – I don’t eat meat or fish for ethical reasons. I believe that the worse the conditions in which an animal has been raised, the worse it is to eat. For example, according to what I’ve read, farmed eggs are ethically the worst – they represent the most suffering for one gram of protein.

If you had to choose between killing one blue whale that weighs a hundred tons and 55 000 chickens that are not that intelligent, which would be more ethical – assuming they produce exactly the same amount of protein?

I think that I’d rather kill that whale. Luckily enough I have to choose between different types of nuts, not chickens and whales.

How did you become a vegetarian?

I became a vegetarian after reading Peter Singer’s book Practical Ethics. In it Singer analysed several ethically complicated situations and, among other arguments, convinced me that not eating meat is ethically a better option.

Do you believe in god?

I am pretty sure that there is no evidence to support the existence of any god or the great beyond.

So what pushes you towards ethical living?

If there is no god that would chastise you after death, if there is no feedback mechanism, then you have to choose what the goal of your existence is. The direction that fits me the best is utilitarianism – the attempt to maximise the total happiness of all sentient entities in the world.

That is one thing I’ve decided to do.

Cat or dog?

I’m a dog person.

Favourite month?

I like the long nights in June the best.

Tea or coffee?

Tea for its taste; I use coffee more for the caffeine.

South or north?

South, with a good friend.

Favourite browser?

Chrome, because it syncs with all my devices.

Bus or train?

Train, because you can work properly in a train.

East or west?

West as a word sounds better :).

Beach or forest?

Beach in nice weather, forest in bad weather.

Best time of day?

The few hours in the morning after waking up, that’s when I’m the most alert.

What would you change in Estonia?

I would decrease gaps in income and ideology in the society (but I don’t have any good ideas about how to achieve that).

Apples or oranges?

Apples, but only if they’re fresh.

Checks/plaid or stripes?

Both are equally represented in my wardrobe, I think.

Your motto?

I don’t have a motto, but there is a quote that I like the best. It’s from the French comedian Remi Gaillardilt, who said, “C’est en faisant n’importe quoi qu’on devient n’importe qui,” which roughly translates to “when you do whatever, you become whoever”.

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