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Faith in Action Blog

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Jane Neumayr Nemcova (’98) Jane Neumayr Nemcova (’98)


Actual Knowledge and Artificial Intelligence


By Jane Neumayr Nemcova (’98)

Note: Jane Neumayr Nemcova (’98) served as Managing Director of AI at Lionbridge until May 2020. She recently finalized a course at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in cryptocurrency and blockchain, and is planning to work on new projects in the area of natural language processing. The following article is adapted from remarks she made to the Thomas Aquinas College Board of Governors at its meeting on November 16, 2019.


Back when I was in high school, when people would ask me about my college plans, they would say things like, “Do you want to go play basketball or tennis?” Or, “Do you want to study law?” And I would say, “No, I think I probably want to study philosophy.” And they would respond, “Why would you ever do that? That’s, well, kind of silly and impractical, isn’t it? What are you going to do with that?”

And so I thought, “Well, OK, maybe it is silly,” but somehow I knew that I needed to learn, and deep down I knew that, while maybe everyone wants to learn in some sense, I kind of wanted it more. I knew that I needed to learn how to learn, and that, if I did that, then I could pursue any profession that I wanted. If I decided to go into law later, that would be great, and if I decided to go into some other area, that would be fine. I would have the necessary foundation.

From TAC to AI

I was always interested in language, but when I graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and I started thinking about what I wanted to do next, there weren’t many options in that field. I had studied French extensively and I had even lived in France for a while, so I thought maybe I would go back to France, continue with French, and see what I could do with that.

As I went to graduate school and then later into the business workforce, language was my focus. Back then it was really about translation, using translation services to take the products or software technologies that companies build in English, translate them into other languages, and then deploy them in other countries.

But as I was working I realized that technology was changing rapidly, and about seven or eight years ago, just as Artificial Intelligence (AI) was beginning to catch on, I started thinking about the role that language played in the development of technology. I saw an opportunity, and so I started an AI division within the language company where I was working.

What my team did, and what I have done, is structure an organization around supporting AI companies with data services. We developed the human side of the human-data input for AI. In language and speech, which are the most difficult parts of the process, we provided data services for developing language models, natural language processing, computational linguistics — all aspects of speech development for products — among others. We covered more locales than any other company. We specialized in finding people, even working in languages you’ve never heard of, and developing language technology across the world.

What’s funny, given the opposition I ran into in high school when I told people I wanted to study philosophy, is how philosophy proved to be the avenue that brought me to AI. And these days, many of my colleagues in the AI industry — very accomplished individuals who are creating the products and technologies that we all use day in and day out — often remark about my college education. They say, “It’s really the most interesting thing about you, that you studied Descartes, or Aristotle, or Kant.”

AI and Liberal Education

What’s more, they are beginning to see that the sort of education that I had is something like what they want for their own children. I have been involved in countless conferences and summits with different folks in the AI community over the years, and I have often heard industry leaders asked the question, “What should my child study in school to survive in this AI world?” What I find pleasing, but also ironic, is that these professionals who have spent so much of their lives — 20 or even 30 years — working on different areas of AI often see the perils of over-exposing children to technology.

One of the people I respect the most in AI is Andrew Ng, who was one of the founders of Google Brain; later he was a key person at Baidu, and he started Coursera, which is one of the most successful online education companies. He said at an EmTech conference, in answer to a question along those lines, “You know: for my children, if I could pick what I wanted, I would want them to learn how to learn.”

What pleased me, of course, was that I had essentially made that choice as a teenager — and now Andrew Ng was validating it.

Steve Jobs famously prohibited his children from using an iPad, and one of the reasons he did so is because these devices can be a huge distraction from focusing on the right things. Technology, in and of itself, might not be a problem; it helps in many practical aspects of life. But, as far as education is concerned, distractions from the focus on actual knowledge and learning can be a very big problem.

The emergence of AI is pushing everyone into understanding what education ultimately means, what learning is, and what knowledge is. And I do see, in the Silicon Valley in particular, that more people are trying to teach their kids languages; they are trying to get their children to read more, to decode what knowledge is. The people I have often encountered at big tech companies see that learning how to learn is really the most important part of education. The ability to think is essential to the smooth operation of business, and that becomes ever more apparent the more technical an area becomes. We are in a technology revolution of sorts right now, and we don’t have a choice about that. It is happening, and how we navigate and educate ourselves in and around that is absolutely crucial.

One of the ways in which I think this trend will evolve is that AI is going to force more true learning. It is going to heighten the value that society places on creativity, broad thinking, and the liberal arts. People with a liberal arts background typically end up being very good in a business environment because they are used to thinking about things from different angles, in different frameworks, and figuring out how to discuss complex topics. In business and technology, a liberal arts background is a kind of natural advantage. That will be even more true in an increasingly AI-driven economy. It will push people to figure out what makes humans different from machines — what ultimately makes humans valuable — and, as a result, knowledge itself is going to become a commodity worth purchasing.

Premium on Philosophy

A couple years ago I spoke to students at the College and shared with them a story about a friend of mine who developed “Magic: The Gathering,” which is a famous game that was later bought by Hasbro some years ago. The story has to do with a discussion we had about the hiring practices at his company, which was worth something like $300 million at the time. “What are you looking for in students coming out of college?” I asked him. “Are you looking only for candidates with degrees in gaming?” And he said, “Well, we’ve got PhDs and master’s students from gaming programs, but they have not been our best hires. What we have come to figure out is that we really need to hire philosophy majors. Those are the guys and gals who are creating next-level games and characters and storylines — all the exciting, interesting things that lead to success in this industry.”

That story is, I think, representative of what is happening in the marketplace right now. Philosophy is no longer an impractical piece of your education; it actually may be the most important piece.

An enormous amount of human data is required to make AI and related technologies work, and an obstacle to using that data properly can be labeling and categorizing. Now, TAC students know well that Aristotle spent a lot of time going through all kinds of data empirically, labeling and categorizing the natural world around us. In a sense he is the number-one thinker in AI, and many of the great AI thinkers reference him and talk about him as an important part of building any kind of machine-learning model. He is also one of the initial data collectors. So he went about observing nature and observing everything about the world that he could in order to use empirical means as a form of validation.

What I tried to communicate to the College’s students was their value as philosophy students, which is now recognized as an important criterion by people looking for the next generation of professionals — especially in areas such as management and marketing, and particularly in AI. Thomas Aquinas College graduates are well positioned for these sorts of positions and can interview very effectively. The ability to discern and navigate complex matters is the most crucial trait that our economy needs right now — in other words, critical thinking.

What Thomas Aquinas College is doing in the lives of its students is invaluable not only in terms of the good it’s achieving for American higher education, it’s vital for preparing the next generation to navigate the AI world. And the folks in AI are looking for candidates exactly like those coming from Thomas Aquinas College to help them, not only in developing their products, but in figuring out how those products should function and how they should be applied.

As I have spent much time in AI with accomplished engineers, I have come to realize how precious my own education in philosophy is — and that has been recognized by the folks I work with in Big Tech everywhere. They have all noted that. So thank you for your support of Thomas Aquinas College. It’s been amazing. 

 Ken May (’03)Ken May (’03)There are those, no doubt, who would argue that Ken May (’03), a cybersecurity expert and CEO, misspent four years of his life by pursuing a Catholic liberal education at Thomas Aquinas College. Surely he would have been better served earning degrees in computer science, or business, rather than studying the great books of Western civilization?

Mr. May disagrees. “My education at TAC did a wonderful job of preparing me for doing research, seeking original sources, and thinking critically,” he says. “It has served me quite well over the years.” So well, in fact, that Mr. May has authored a new book, detailing how history’s great thinkers provide invaluable insights into some of the most critical technological challenges of our times.

Cover for The Art of Hacking In his newly released The Art of Hacking: Ancient Wisdom for Cybersecurity Defense, Mr. May explores the teachings of the greatest minds in a wide range of fields — from Sun Tzu to Machiavelli, from Thucydides to Musashi — and how these can help small businesses and information technology professionals shield computer and data networks from attack. “The teachings of the greatest minds of the world have endured through countless generations,” he says. “The tools and techniques may change, but the primary principles remain the same.”

Citing age-old insights on warfare, politics, martial arts, history, and strategy, The Art of Hacking combines ancient philosophy with contemporary, practical advice. “The College’s curriculum was a driving force in my decision to write the book,” Mr. May observes. “Thucydides is in the book, as is Machiavelli. I was mostly focused on texts working with warfare, political strategy, and martial arts. I do wish dear St. Thomas wrote more on martial arts …”

Mr. May is chief executive officer of Swift Chip, Inc., an IT solutions firm serving more than 400 small- and medium-sized businesses in California, He is also an experienced educator, serving as a community instructor for SANS, the globally leading cybersecurity educational organization, where he teaches military, intelligence, and Fortune 500 teams in ways to protect the country’s IT infrastructure. He is the father of four young children, ages 5 to 11.

The Art of Hacking: Ancient Wisdom for Cybersecurity Defense is available in both printed an electronic formats via Amazon.

stars in the night sky

“According to thousands of years of human observations, the heavenly bodies were eternal, they always were, they always will be, world without end. They were immortal, divine, yet visible, and moving with what must be mathematical precision. The hope of drawing close to God by uncovering the mathematical elegance and precision of the divine heavens is what attracted Ptolemy to devote his life to studying the heavens.”

Dr. Andrew Seeley (’87) Dr. Andrew Seeley (’87)So writes Thomas Aquinas College tutor and alumnus Dr. Andrew Seeley (’87) in a fascinating essay for The Imaginative Conservative, The Gravity of Gravity: A Quick Look at Astronomy and its Relevance. In discussing the discoveries of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein, Dr. Seeley explains the effects of astronomy on history and culture, and why its study is an important part of a liberal education. He also writes about how his alma mater — and the emphasis its classical curriculum places on astronomy — made him a lifelong stargazer:

At the beginning of Sophomore year, I spent two weeks systematically observing the sky with the naked eye, then studied Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein over the next three years. Not only was I introduced to the historical developments of science, but I came to see the reasons why we believe that the Earth moves, and that all things are heavy. More than that, I was able to enter into Dante’s imaginative vision of the cosmos, and understand the ways in which St. Thomas used astronomy to help understand the science of theology.

The Ptolemaic portion, especially grounded in the two weeks of observations, made me a friend of the night skies for the rest of my life. The observations involved watching the sky at different times through the night, and watching it at the same time every night for a while, noting especially what was rising and what was setting. It set up a habit of keeping track of the sky …

In addition to serving on the College’s teaching faculty, Dr. Seeley serves as executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. His full article is available via The Imaginative Conservative.

Thomas O’Hara (’18)Two months after he graduated from Thomas Aquinas College in 2018, Thomas O’Hara married classmate Misha (Johnston ’18), and the couple departed for Prague. Mr. O’Hara had discovered that he could pursue an electrical-engineering degree inexpensively at the Czech Technical University, and his wife — who spent much of her childhood in the Czech Republic and spoke the language fluently — would be very much at home.

Once in Prague, however, he realized that his interests lay elsewhere — and that his Thomas Aquinas College education had prepared him in ways he didn’t even know.

“I got really interested in the programming classes that I was taking,” Mr. O’Hara says. “A lot of my associates complimented me on how fast I picked it up, which was the result of the logical reasoning  — and especially the math — that I had learned at TAC. Programming is really just applied math and logic, and the College had prepared me well in both.”

So he decided to pursue a computer-science degree and to seek employment in a computer lab. When applying for a job, he found himself, once again, relying in ways unexpected on his Catholic liberal education.

“There were 30 other people applying for the same position and, frankly, most of them were much more qualified than I was in terms of their knowledge of programming. But they hired me because of my enthusiasm for learning,” Mr. O’Hara says. “I like to think that I love learning naturally, but I know that I learned to love learning even more at the College. I became very enthusiastic about just figuring things out, analyzing, trying to think outside the box. All of that was cultivated at TAC, especially the analytics and working with people in order to solve a specific problem.”

Now Mr. O’Hara works at Stratosphere Labs, which conducts research for, among others, Avast Software, one of the world’s largest cybersecurity, machine learning, and AI firms. Among his projects, he maintains “honeypots” — machines that have been left deliberately unsecure, or infected with malware — in order to monitor the strategies of hackers, and thus develop Intrusion Prevent Systems. In October, Google sponsored him to attend Virus Bulletin, an international cybersecurity conference in London, and he also participated in the Cyber Sec & AI conference in Prague.

On top of his busy academic and professional life, Mr. O’Hara is also a new father. Six months ago he and Mrs. O’Hara welcomed twins — Thomas Edmund and Hannah Marie. The young family plans to stay in Prague until he completes his degree, then return stateside.

The family of Misha (Johnston ’18) and Thomas O’Hara

Olivia Cobb ('16)Olivia Cobb (’16) reports from Washington University in St. Louis, where she is “studying biostatistics and loving every minute of it” in one of the field’s top academic programs. She is learning various statistical and computational methodologies, particularly as they pertain to biomedical data analysis and genomics research. She is also working part-time at an oncology lab, where she conducts statistical analysis on a rare form of sarcoma cancer.

“All of my classes are going well,” she writes. “My training at TAC has obviously been very helpful, and my philosophical training has turned out to be quite applicable to this scientific field.”

Still, having a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts makes her something of an outlier in this rigorous, STEM-focused graduate program. “The faculty is constantly checking in with me, as it turns out that I am their guinea pig for accepting students with a background in humanities rather than strictly math or biology,” she says. Nonetheless, “everyone I have talked to has been thoroughly impressed with my background and excited to find a position for me in the biostatistics field.”

She is delighting in the moment and looks forward to what lies ahead: “I absolutely love seeing where God is taking me on this path!”

 Daina Andries (’09) Daina Andries (’09), photo: Donna Sokol, Library of Congress

The website of the Library of Congress has published an interview with Daina Andries (’09), a metadata technician with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. In it Miss Andries discusses her work at the library — “capturing and reviewing metadata, or data about data, which renders a resource more searchable by supplying identification information about the resource” — as well as her background, which includes a master’s degree in French from the University of Delaware and a master’s of science in information from the University of Michigan.

She also describes her education at Thomas Aquinas College, and how it prepared her for the complex, detailed-oriented line of work that has become her passion. “The curriculum at Thomas Aquinas was rigorous and interdisciplinary. Every class was taught as a seminar, providing practice in critical thinking, reasoning logically from first principles, and grappling with scientific, literary, and philosophical texts held to have shaped Western thought,” she says. This “foundation in logical reasoning and philosophy” helped, she adds, “with learning about semantics and knowledge organization, object-oriented programming, and analytics.”

Having graduated from Michigan and moved to Washington, D.C., just last year, Miss Andries is still very much a newcomer to the Library of Congress. It is “a place that stirs the imagination,” she says. “It’s the largest library in the world, and you’re guaranteed to find something with regard to any topic you can imagine. It’s a privilege to help with the work of making the Library’s wealth of unique resources accessible to researchers and to the public.”

04, 2014

Aaron Lee (’07)Having completed his coursework, Aaron Lee (’07) will soon be declaring candidacy for a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. Mr. Lee works with the university’s Joint Quantum Institute, conducting research in the areas of atomic physics, condensed matter, and quantum information. He is a contributing author to two large studies that the group published within the last year in the journals of Nature and Science.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Mr. Lee and his wife, Ada (Doi ’07), have announced the arrival of their third child and first son, Andrew Joseph McArthur, born in June.

Jon B, Syren ('87)In 1993, one year after one of its former medical students died of cancer, the University of Alaska Anchorage created an award in his honor. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of that award, named for Jon B. Syren, a member of the Thomas Aquinas College Class of 1987.

The university website notes:

Jon Benedict Syren expected to graduate from the University of Washington School of Medicine in the Class of 1993. He began his medical training in Anchorage, Alaska, in the fall of 1989 as a member of the first class of WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho) students enrolled in the Biomedical Program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.…

Jon distinguished himself by earning honors in several categories of studies, both in Anchorage and Seattle. He is also remembered by those who knew him for his strong commitment to his family and his faith, and for his unflagging courage and equanimity in the face of personal adversity.

The Jon B. Syren Award recognizes a first-year medical student in the University of Alaska Anchorage WWAMI School of Medical Education who has demonstrated personal qualities of character, integrity, and compassion, combined with a commitment to and promise of community service in medicine.

Mr. Syren’s widow, Angela (Andersen ’87) Connelly is a member of the College’s Board of Governors. She has spoken eloquently about the blessing that accompanied her first husband’s holy death for those around him:

When Jon died, it was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. I saw the effect that our education at the College had had on him. It was absolutely beautiful. And there was a ripple effect on the entire medical community and all that knew him and watched him suffer — in a way so beautifully, not dismayed or broken by it. His suffering was so faith-filled that it was just triumphant.

Twenty-one years later, Jon Syren’s life and death continue to touch lives. May he rest in peace.

Jonathan Doylend ('96)

It was a reunion of two Thomas Aquinas College classmates when Dr. Jonathan Doylend (’96), a postdoctoral researcher with the Optoelectronics Research Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently spoke before the Catholic Business and Professional Group in Reno, Nevada. The group’s president, attorney Jeremy McNeil (’96), had invited his onetime roommate to address members about the alleged contradiction between faith and modern science. Among Dr. Doylend’s remarks was the following observation about why the Christian is especially suited for the natural sciences:

“Rather than being unmotivated to uncover explanations of what he sees in nature, a scientist who is also a Christian has two motivations that a non-Christian might not have. Firstly: He is confident that sense can be made of the universe, since he attributes its design to an intelligent being. His inquiry, in other words, is inherently optimistic.

“Secondly: He knows that by uncovering the secrets of the universe, he is not discovering a world which is chaotic and inelegant, and thus lesser than himself. Rather he is delving into the designs of the ultimate intelligence, and thus learning indirectly about God Himself.”

Mr. Doylend is, notably, one of several Thomas Aquinas College alumni to speak before the Catholic Business and Professional Group, including Rev. Sebastian Walshe, O.Praem. (’94)

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Caleb Skvaril (’19)

“Learning from the great books, you can see the questions that history’s greatest thinkers have asked and all the ways that they have tried to answer them. You’re able to see what’s right about what they’re saying, but also what’s wrong. The more your opinion is challenged, the more you have to refine it in order to get closer to the truth.”

– Caleb Skvaril (’19)

Asan, Guam


“With an academic program as rigorous as Thomas Aquinas College’s, and with a long line of successful alumni, Thomas Aquinas College is essential to the health of our Church in the United States and beyond.”

– The Most Rev. Thomas Daly

Bishop of Spokane