A progress report on a sitting Congressman who is back in college

When many members of Congress are unable to manage a Facebook account, Don Beyer of Virginia has been pursuing a master's degree in machine learning. He's been ...

When many members of Congress are unable to manage a Facebook account, Don Beyer of Virginia has been pursuing a master’s degree in machine learning. He’s been at it for a year. For a progress report,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin talks with the student himself: Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.)

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin  And this is now, what, a year and a half into this formal course of study for a degree, correct?

Don Beyer Yeah, Yeah. I’m on my fifth course now, Tom, and it’s been very fulfilling and lots of fun. I’m surrounded by young people and the best part is I’m learning things I didn’t know before.

Tom Temin And are you doing this as a personal pursuit just because it’s a very interesting topic and very current? Or could this help inform some of the legislative matters that are starting to drift in front of Congress in this whole area of machine learning and artificial intelligence?

Don Beyer Yeah, Tom, this started as just a personal pursuit. I’ve always loved doing puzzles and math problems and crossword puzzles. And I thought, well, this would be great. Actually trying to pursue a formal degree in it. They told me I could do it for free because I was old and paid Virginia taxes, but I said, no, I want the tuition because I want credit for it. But then it turns out that all of a sudden, with the rise of generative AI, it’s on everybody’s topic list. And especially the question, okay, what are we going to do about it at the federal level? So I don’t profess to be an AI policy expert, but I’m trying to become one.

Tom Temin Now. There is some differentiation in the field between machine learning and artificial intelligence itself. And then within the field of AI, generative AI is just one branch of it. But are you covering all of these things as a piece?

Don Beyer In fact, George Mason University, where I’m going, doesn’t have a formal subset in AI. I went and said, I want to do AI, and they said, Well, do machine learning. And it turns out that if you break it down into sort of three general categories pattern recognition, generative A.I., where you’re generating brand new things and reinforcement training, you’re just teaching machines to do something with lots of repetition. The part that was most fascinating for me personally was the pattern recognition, the notion that we have so much data. These are apocryphal numbers, Tom, but we’re generating more information for data last year than in the first 2000 years of the modern era. And we have 85 or 90% of the information from our satellites doesn’t even look that. Because it’s just too much for our human capacity. But to the extent that the machine learning tools with big computers can see patterns that enable us to perhaps understand what caused schizophrenia or how to recognize pancreatic cancer earlier or how to make our government work better. Those are really exciting.

Tom Temin Yeah, I mean, you can imagine almost every agency mission is enhanceable by this type of technology, if only to speed up learning and to speed up some of the decisions that government takes, the adjudications it must make from sometimes years or months down to very short times.

Don Beyer Absolutely. The government spent about $800 billion with a B during the pandemic for unemployment insurance, and we had Ways and Means hearings that said at least $60 billion of it was stolen. It was it was fraudulently taken and perhaps with much better AI systems, we could have cut that 60 billion to 6 billion or even less. Huge savings for the federal government, for the taxpayers right now.

Tom Temin Are you attending in person? You’re going to George Mason and sitting in classrooms or is it all online or accommodation.

Don Beyer It’s been a mix. The first couple of courses were almost completely online, except for the tests. You actually have to go out there, sign into the math lab, show your I.D., give up your cell phone just to make sure that it’s you taking the test. And this last course, it was a mix. And then starting in September, I’ve got to somehow find a way to get out there twice a week during the day for the in-person classes, because that’s where the computer lab is.

Tom Temin Yeah, well, that’s tough because you guys have pretty tough schedules. We’re speaking with Congressman Don Beyer, who represents Virginia’s eighth District. And I guess you had to take it in Virginia, Can’t do it in Maryland or anything, for that for that purpose.

Don Beyer We have an abundance of wonderful universities in metropolitan Washington.

Tom Temin We do. And what what’s your sense of the students that are typical student age, let’s say, Because I guess those of us that consider ourselves students of lifelong learning are always there. But let’s say the mode age that is attending, what are they like? I mean.

Don Beyer Yeah, well, they’re mostly late, late teens, early twenties. I’ll be 73 next year, so 3 to 4 times older than the average. But I’ve been really impressed. Well, first of all, George Mason University is extraordinarily diverse. If you just wander around, want to look for northern Europeans, you’re not going to see a lot. And the kids also seem, I shouldn’t say kids, but the young adults, seem very motivated. It’s been fun. This last class I was taking on a discrete mathematics, professor halfway through, would break us into groups and say ‘ok, work on the problem sets.’ And the kids would come over and were wonderful at helping me. Even sometimes if I didn’t think I needed the help. I wanted to be respectful because they were eager to show all that they knew how to do. It makes me really optimistic about the next generation.

Tom Temin Because, yes, they’re diverse and they have a lot of racial and gender backgrounds coming together, but they’re studying a single thing together. And maybe that gives us hope that there is commonality, that we bring diversity to an endeavor of study. But then the study itself becomes the common language and people can solve problems with those different dimensions that they bring to it, as opposed to remaining sorted out in all our little egg crates with our own group.


Don Beyer And I also think with these guys who are probably first, second, third generation Americans and they all see education as the path to the American dream. And specifically in this case, that since technology will likely dominate the 21st century, that they see becoming a master of technology will give them the best path to a great a great America.

Tom Temin Getting back to the practical aspect of having a master’s degree in machine learning, how could this apply to perhaps the processes of Congress, which there’s been some modernization? There was a special select committee on that, which is now disbanded, but there’s still an effort to try to modernize Congress itself. Do you see this applying there too, possibly.

Don Beyer That would be wonderful. Tom, the thing I’ve been working on for eight or nine years right now is moving to ranked choice voting and multi-member districts. You get away from Congress being so polarized where most conservative Republican wins the primary and the most liberal Democrat wins the primary. Maybe, if you knew ranked choice voting with Walton over districts. I do think that the larger picture is, that when I finally get the masters, then obviously I’d be fine if I’m not too old, to think about a Ph.D.. So I’m already thinking, well, that means you need a thesis, you need a project. Some way to apply machine learning to a real problem in real life. And I’ve been thinking all along that suicide prevention might be at the top of the list, but I should put Congress functioning in there, too, especially since as we speak right now, the House is in a state of suspended animation because of a revolt within the term. I’m not sure how AI gets us out of that.

Tom Temin Well, that’s right. Yeah, I know. It’s pretty hard to see. You can’t change the human psyche that much. But with respect to something like ranked voting, that can be complicated for people to understand how this ranking works, and therefore they would be suspicious that it’s rigged in some way. And what you hear the AI experts and the ML experts talk about all the time is the need for explainable and accountable and transparent algorithms. And that would seem like a good area to specialize in.

Don Beyer And in fact, of all the concerns, that’s the one that appeals to me most trying to address that. We’re working right now on a piece of legislation, which our shorthand is called the Show Me Your Work legislation, just as the math professor doesn’t want to see the answer, it wants to see how you got there. We want to be able to say, if you’re recommending that Tom Temin, just jump off the bridge, why? Explain to me how that logic works.

Tom Temin Let’s hope it’s a low bridge, because I have a terrible fear of heights. And in the classes. What are the tools? I mean, does this require heavy computing to do this, or is it mostly theoretical? I mean, do they still use blackboards and, I guess whiteboards nowadays with erasable –

Don Beyer They’ve been using whiteboards in the classroom. So he scribbles at his desk and it shows up on the big screen. But I’ve been really, really impressed with all the five courses I’ve taken, how much of has been done online with the different companies that are out there doing it. Pearson and iBooks and stuff we didn’t have when I was in high school or college. I really like it. It means you can work on it any time, night or day, get instant feedback. There is a learning process in a lot of the software where you keep getting the same kind of problems wrong, they come back to you again and again. It’s a different world and I think it really accelerates learning.

Tom Temin Of and what have the other members how they reacted to this.

Don Beyer I had less Congress. Jerry McNerney had a Ph.D. in mathematics and was always trying to come help me with my homework, which is nice. I think most of them just think it’s maybe quirky. Although we had a bunch of people say that it’s, inspired might be the wrong work, suggestive, inspired that they might likely to go back and take some courses.

Tom Temin Interesting. Yeah.

Don Beyer That that you’re not shut off just because you’re older. One of my friends is the Republican chair of the Intel Committee, Michael Turner, who actually went back to Georgetown and got a Ph.D. in international relations. He was ahead of me, but I was inspired by that.

Tom Temin Interesting. And I guess my final question is, when do you do your homework?

Don Beyer I spent most of Saturday morning and Sunday morning on the computer doing it. And I kidded, it’s been a long time since I’ve climbed into bed and my wife not already be asleep.

Tom Temin Wow, and what’s your end point? How much longer does it go to get that new a new degree?

Don Beyer I think I have at this point, 11 more courses.

Tom Temin Wow.

Don Beyer This is the summer one, basically three and a half years. And if I get beat in a primary or general, I’ll be able to finish in a year. But I’m trying not to make that happen right now.


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