When Max Tegmark was a teenager philosophising while relaxing in a hammock, a future as a physicist was a long way from his mind. He thought that physics was one of the most boring subjects in school. Today he is a professor of physics at the top-ranking Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA, and he’s a superstar – a rock star in the world of physics.
Clad in a black leather jacket, a T-shirt and jeans, Max Tegmark travels the world. Alongside his research work he lectures to full houses. He appears on TV shows in Sweden; he’s on the radio and in podcasts and holds TED talks. Dedicated and courageous, he approaches controversial issues such as what artificial superintelligence will mean for humanity.
“As a tech nerd I know how easy it is to fall in love with technology and to leave all responsibility for how it’s supposed to be used to someone else. But everyone needs to reflect first. In the same way as with nuclear weapons, it only takes one mistake and then it’s too late”.
This quote is from Tegmark’s episode of the popular Swedish “sommarprogram” summer series of radio broadcasts by prominent individuals, aired in August last year. In another radio program he talks about how his love of physics was sparked by a book. A fellow student at Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) gave him “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman”, written by Nobel Laureate in physics, Richard Feynman. The book would change his life.
“It was not about physics at all, but about how to pick up girls and break into safes. But a passion for physics shone through the pages. I started to wonder what it was that I was missing”.
The fact that his girlfriend at the time was studying physics at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and that her books were far more interesting than his played a role as well. Max Tegmark enrolled to study engineering physics and then studied simultaneously at both KTH and SSE.
His next stop was the US and University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a PhD in Astrophysics. This is also where he switched to his mother Karin’s last name, Tegmark. Previously his name was Shapiro from his father Harold Shapiro, who was born in the USA. A search for physics articles with M. Shapiro as author generated thousands of hits. But Max didn’t want to be confused with someone else. The name Tegmark made him unique.
In short order he was offered a position at the University of Pennsylvania and ended up being a physics professor at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While in the USA he has written hundreds of science articles that have been cited more than 50,000 times. Most of them are about the infancy of the universe, galaxies and the stars. Others are about hypotheses to link Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum physics. Some of his articles are so controversial that he is sometimes called Mad Max.
But around a decade ago his career took a different turn. He spent three years writing a popular science book entitled “Our Mathematical Universe – My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality”. His Swedish publisher has a bookshop in Stockholm’s Old Town. This is where he has his professional base when in Stockholm.
In the book, which was released in 2014, Max Tegmark presents his hypothesis that everything that can be explained mathematically also exists. This means, among other things, that there should be an endless number of parallel universes, some with a copy of each and every one of us. It is a controversial conclusion, but one that is shared by prominent physicians such as the late Stephen Hawking.
The content of the book and the way it explains complex physics made Tegmark famous among a wider audience. The last chapter of the book touches on what would be his focus going forward – superhuman artificial intelligence, AI. When AI exceeds human intelligence it will continue to develop itself and become ever more intelligent.
His fear that superintelligence could be a threat to humanity led to him founding the Future of Life Institute in 2014. Leading AI researchers came together and super-entrepreneur Elon Musk donated USD 10 million. The idea is to stimulate research into how we can steer increasingly powerful AI towards a future that is better for all of us.
Tegmark’s second book came out in 2017, “Life 3.0 – Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence”. It was a huge success. He was in such high demand that his publisher even let him appear as a hologram in realtime on a stage in Sweden so he didn’t need to come here in person
His book starts with a group of young scientists secretly developing and using artificial superintelligence to earn money and create a better world. In the end, with the help of a machine, they take over the global economy and achieve world domination. In one scenario the machine manipulates one of the scientists and manages to bypass all security systems to get out onto the web. It is a hair-raising story that is now being made into an English-language TV series produced by Swedish SF Studios.
In his own research at MIT, Max Tegmark is focusing on how to create good artificial intelligence – AI that we can trust because we understand how it thinks, and that can never crash or be hacked.
The question is what can the rest of us do so that artificial intelligence can improve people’s lives? His answer is in his latest book:
If you aren’t one already, work on becoming a conscious optimist. Start with what sort of society you want and not just what sort of society you fear; that way we can find common goals and make plans for it.
Education: MSc Engineering Physics, KTH 1990. MSc Business and Economics, Stockholm School of Economics, 1989. PhD in Physics, University of California, Berkeley, 1994
Career: Research at the Max Planck Institute for Physics, Munich, postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA, Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania. Since 2004 Professor in Physics at MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Co-founder of the Future of Life Institute, 2014. Author of My Mathematical Universe and Life 3.0.
Distinctions: Packard Fellowship 2001–2006, Cottrell Scholar Award 2002–2005, National Science Foundation Career Award (2002–2007), Science Magazine Breakthrough of the Year award 2003, KTH Great Prize 2015.
Photo: TT-Nyheter/Lars Pehrson