About the author
Matt Ginsberg got a doctorate in astrophysics from Oxford when he was 24. He quickly came to his senses, however, switching to artificial intelligence and teaching at Stanford for a decade. He’s been on the front page of the New York Times and, surprisingly, was happy about it. He’s been a political columnist and published playwright, and constructs crosswords for the Times. He has written about a hundred technical papers. And one novel.
Two of Ginsberg's passions--artificial intelligence and crossword puzzles--came together in Dr.Fill, his computer program that successfully competes in professional crossword puzzle tournaments. The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, directed by New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, appears in Ginsberg's debut novel Factor Man. Factor Man will be published in late March to coincide with the 2018 event.
Matt Ginsberg on NPR Science Friday, talking about Dr.Fill
Matt Ginsberg's crossword puzzles in the New York Times
Q&A with Matt Ginsberg
Why did you decide to write Factor Man? Hah. Good question! I’ve been working on one specific problem, the P=NP question, for most of my professional life, pretty much without success. I was just imagining one day what would happen to the poor guy who actually solved it, and it seemed like an interesting story. Worth writing down.
You’re really getting nowhere on P=NP from a research perspective? It’s science. Sometimes you make progress without realizing it. Other times, you think you’re making progress but it’s just a mirage. The P=NP question is very hard.
Can you explain in a sentence what P=NP is about? Sure. If P=NP, it would mean that pretty much any problem that God can solve, we can solve. We could break any code, whether it’s the computer code that Amazon uses to store your credit card information, or the genetic code that predetermines how likely you are to get heart disease or cancer.
Are you sure we would want such power? Of course not. But Heisenberg and the other early 20th-century physicists had no way to know if people would put quantum physics to good use, either. In fact, we arguably still don’t know if we’re using quantum mechanics wisely. But scientists make the progress, and somehow assume that society will always put technology to good use.
Same question. Is that optimism justified? Historically, I think it has been. Both the quality and length of an average human life have skyrocketed since the industrial revolution. Well, up until the invention of smartphones, at least. Solving P=NP would be sort of like inventing artificial intelligence all at once. I know plenty of people think that AI may be the end of the world, but I just don’t share that view. You know, Musk, Hawking, like that.
You think they’re wrong? Absolutely. First, I have a broad general optimism about what human beings tend to do with what we create. We make mistakes, of course. But those mistakes seem to generally matter much less than the positive things that technology brings.
But more important, when computers are able to think, they’ll think much differently than we do. We already see that in all sorts of applications. To me, that means that we’ll be able to solve harder problems with computers standing beside us than we can solve without them. We will complement and strengthen each other as opposed to competing.
Let’s get back to Factor Man. Surely you don’t believe that if someone were to prove that P=NP, things would play out like they do in the book? At a very high level, I think they would play out very much like what’s in the book. You’d have one scientist, or perhaps a small group of scientists, with far more power than can reasonably be concentrated in the hands of such a small number. To me, Factor Man is fundamentally about the problem that they would inevitably confront: How to release their discovery to the world without either destroying the world or getting killed in the process.
Of course, the details would be completely different. Probably no Chinese assassin, no attitude-laden New York Times reporter trying to figure it all out. I guess that the FBI would probably be in there somewhere, though.
Those characters from the book, Burkett (the reporter), Hudson (the FBI agent) and Liu. Are they based on real people from your life? Hudson, absolutely. John is an old friend of the family who helped keep me honest when describing life from an FBI perspective. Burkett is a combination of many people, including reporters I’ve interacted with and other folks. Liu is completely made up. But she was one of the most interesting pieces of the writing; I think it’s important for antagonists to have reasonable motivations, as opposed to being some kind of comic-book incarnation of evil.
How about the other folks? Bob Hasday is real, right? He is, and he’s pretty much as described in the book. Same with Brian Finn.
Remember, I wrote this from the perspective of taking the world as I currently know it, and changing just one thing: someone proves that P=NP. Ideally, I would have changed just that one thing, and everything else would be “real”. So Brian and Bob are real people. John Hudson is real, too, but he asked me to change his name.
That’s unusual, having real people in a work of fiction. I know. Probably at some point, some lawyer is going to come along and tell me to change everything. But Hasday actually is a lawyer, and he seems to be ok with it. He even told me he wants Ben Stiller to play him in the movie.
You want Factor Man to be a movie? Of course! It would be just a crazy amount of fun.
I suspect that most people who want to option their books as movies are in it for the money, as opposed to for the fun. No? No. I have enough money. But you can never have too much fun.
Was writing Factor Man fun? Absolutely. For a start, I got to pretend that someone had resolved the P=NP question. And the writing itself was just plain fun. Figuring out what the characters would do next, how all the various plans and subplans would interact.
Any other novels coming? I certainly hope so. The next one will probably be titled The Man Who Died Last. But my wife tells me I have to sell one of the companies I run before I start writing another book. So it might be a while!