“Ordinary people are being empowered,” says Professor Michael Littman of Brown University’s Department of Computer Science, “in a way that makes the experts unnecessary.” Coming from a thought leader whose research is helping create household gadgets that can be programmed in a user-friendly and natural way, it's not an unusual statement.
Except in this case: he’s talking about his appearance in a recent television commercial.
This week, Michael has taken to the air alongside luminaries such as theoretical physicist Michio Kaku and Nobel laureate George Smoot to demonstrate the simplicity of a popular piece of income tax refund software. "A member of the creative team for the commercial is a family friend," he explains, "and asked for my help in finding notable geeks. I sent a list and slipped in my own name! They watched my [popular series of YouTube videos using music to reinforce CS concepts and video of a winning performance on Dancing With The Profs with Quynh Tran] and decided it was worth giving me a shot at it."
What was the whole experience like?
Micahel says, "It's just such a wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse of another industry. The day of the filming felt like being part of a circus -- there were dozens of trucks and people and machines that all had to work together flawlessly on a very tight schedule. So much of it was planned out, but there were also parts that were incredibly spontaneous and creative. I was very impressed."
The portrayal of academics as vast, benign, but slightly awkward intellects is interesting (the "Michael Littman" of the commercial puts his hand to his forehead to peer in a window and doesn't seem quite sure when to end the conversation with the person he's helping), but Michael finds it a "balanced" one.
"I think they're leveraging the perspective of academics as being very bright and talented," he explains. "They use that idea to argue that this particular task, doing your taxes via a software program, doesn't require a high level of talent...Part of the humor comes from the idea that the ordinary people are being empowered in a way that makes the experts unnecessary."
You can watch the commercial here.
For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communications Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.