Constantinos daskalakis dissertation

Daskalakis could easily have landed a well-paying job after college, as most of his classmates did.

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It was , and the Greek economy was booming: The nation had adopted the euro a few years earlier and was now gearing up to host the summer Olympics. But Daskalakis never considered seeking such a job. He had found his undergraduate studies mostly uninspiring, but a summer program organized by the Onassis Foundation had given him a glimpse of a very different approach to learning. The program centered on the relationship between computer science and economics, and the foundation had attracted several luminaries to deliver lectures.

One lecture by the theoretical computer scientist Christos Papadimitriou made an especially deep impression on him. It discussed, among other things, the problem of computing a Nash equilibrium, one of the central concepts in game theory and economics. Originated by the mathematician John Nash, the subject of the best-selling book and feature film A Beautiful Mind , the Nash equilibrium represents the most stable and in some ways the most sensible behavior players in a strategic game can choose.

In , Nash proved that every game has a Nash equilibrium. But while Nash could prove that an equilibrium always exists, his proof gave no way to find it. For complicated games, finding a Nash equilibrium might be an enormous computational challenge — and if a Nash equilibrium is impossible to compute for all practical purposes, does it even make sense to envision players finding and using its strategies? By the time Papadimitriou gave his lecture at the Onassis Foundation, he was convinced that the reason for this failure was that no efficient algorithm exists.

A few hours after he dropped his application in the mailbox, he ran into Papadimitriou on the street in Athens — the first time they had seen each other since the summer lectures half a year earlier. Daskalakis has won numerous awards for his work on game theory, auction theory and machine learning. Daskalakis moved to Berkeley in the fall of With its olive trees and Mediterranean climate, it offered perhaps as smooth a transition from Greek life as any American city could have afforded, as well as the intellectual stimulation he had been craving.

Daskalakis won the bedroom but often ended up in the living room anyway, pulling all-nighters doing problem sets with Dimakis while his then-girlfriend slept in the bedroom.

A genius and one of the brightest minds in the world

Daskalakis had an indefatigable intellectual energy, Dimakis said. Once, Dimakis recalled, the pair went skiing at Lake Tahoe, and afterward Dimakis was so tired he could hardly move. But Daskalakis started thinking about some problem, and soon he was eager to discuss it — even though it was midnight. Over the years, Papadimitriou had tried the Nash equilibrium problem on several of his most talented students, but to no avail.

Daskalakis, however, embraced it eagerly. Daskalakis had a key insight just weeks into thinking about the problem. One evening, he thought he had figured out how to solve the entire thing. But the error morphed into an important advance, for Daskalakis simultaneously realized what kind of proof architecture should work: one that had a similar kind of circular structure to the one Nash himself had used in proving his theorem. It would be months before Daskalakis and Papadimitriou figured out how to combine this insight with another line of work by Papadimitriou and Paul Goldberg , now at Oxford University, to arrive at a complete proof.

The three researchers hoped it might be possible to extend their result to three-player games, and Daskalakis tackled the problem with his customary enthusiasm. But it proved a struggle, and one day, after thinking about it hard, Daskalakis felt ready to give up, at least for the time being. He turned on his laptop to check some emails, but the laptop crashed.

As Daskalakis waited out a lengthy scan of the hard drive, he turned his attention back to the three-player problem — and in an instant he knew how to solve it. In retrospect, he realizes that he must have already solved the problem in some inaccessible part of his mind. Pencil-and-paper calculations have their role, he said, but only after the initial insight.

After a blog post about his award went viral, the president of Greece invited him for a visit, and documentaries about him aired on Greek television again and again.

dblp: Constantinos Daskalakis

He remembers once accompanying Daskalakis to a Greek restaurant in Boston that featured live musicians. In the group of extremely smart and talented people I am blessed to interact with, John Nash offered me one of the most intriguing conversations I have ever had. TNH: In you solved another challenging social problem that had been unresolved for thirty years.

What was it about? CD: As a whole, my research focuses on computational problems at the interface of Computer Science and Economics, particularly those relating to the design and study of the Internet. In addition to being a remarkable computational system, the Internet is also a complex socio-economic system that lacks centralized design or governance.

Gautam Kamath

To gain a better understanding of its operation, computer scientists are applying economic principles to its study. Through this research, we hope to gain a better understanding of what is happening in complex socio-economic environments and how to design systems that have good properties when economic and computational phenomena take place at the same time. My most recent findings have to do with the design of auctions.

This problem also has significant practical applications in sponsored search, online ad exchanges, and spectrum auctions.

Besides the problems we have already discussed, I am fascinated by Machine Learning, the subfield of Artificial Intelligence exploring the design and analysis of algorithms that learn models from data, in order to make reliable predictions. Automated translation, and recommendation systems, such as those employed by Netflix, are good example applications.

CD: As far as my academic life is concerned, I really love being in the States.


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My students and colleagues at MIT are amazing and I find it a great pleasure and privilege to interact with them. On the other hand, I miss my homeland and some aspects of the Greek lifestyle. While Greeks do work a lot unlike some stereotypes maintain , they also know how to enjoy their life more. I find that you should strive for balance in life, otherwise you may find yourself living only through your work.

Work, I think, is too much of the focus in the States.

A Poet of Computation Who Uncovers Distant Truths

Of course, things get more complex for scientists like myself, since science is not just work, but a passion. CD: Well, one of the things that I enjoy about academia is that every single day is different. This is a blessing and a curse at the same time. It is a blessing because you are mostly in charge of your own schedule, and a curse because you end up accepting too many tasks. When not doing all that, I love having a cup of coffee and thinking, catching up with my reading, or going to the movies.

Have you ever considered to get politically engaged in order to help with your expertise? CD: I find the situation that has been unfolding in Greece rather worrisome.


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It is quite unfortunate that, despite the obvious need for change, Greece has not been able to create an environment for exploiting well its remarkable human capital and natural resources. At the same time, Greek governments have been protecting economic interests and attacking the poor and the pensioners, creating a negative spiral that is shrinking the GDP.

While Greece is perfectly capable to turn a corner and has a huge potential, some are working hard to keep the country in misery. I have been asked to run for the elections several times, but I would only consider it if I were inspired that there is potential for real change. It would also have to be the case that my expertise is useful, as I have no political aspirations for the sake of being a politician.

For the time being, I prefer to offer my services to my homeland from where I am, continuing my academic career.

CD: Let me say first that for the size of our country it is quite impressive how much talent we have, as witnessed by world class recognition in science, art and entrepreneurship. If Greece could exploit this remarkable talent to its benefit, things would have been very different. Unfortunately, Greek academic institutions do not function the way they are supposed to. Funding is rather stingy.

Classes are over-subscribed due to bad planning and corruption. Politics inside the universities are quite disruptive. Faculty hiring is often questionable. Research often does not meet international standards. What is worse, the Greek government is getting ready to bring changes that constitute negative progress.

Without research excellence, Greece is doomed to lose its talented youth to other countries, and being a follower rather than a leader in innovation.