UC Berkeley News
Web Feature

UC Berkeley Web Feature

 David Sontag outside Soda Hall, where he spent many nights scribbling problems on the whiteboard with other computer science students, until they could get breakfast at 6 a.m. (BAP photos)

Computer science major David Sontag juggles artificial and human intelligence

– David Sontag got his first cell phone when he was 14. That's unremarkable these days, but back in 1999, few adults had them - let alone ninth graders. For Sontag, it was a professional necessity: he was working as a software programming consultant for two companies, and it didn't look good to have Mom taking messages while he was in class or at soccer practice.

The University Medal
Established in 1871 by California Governor Henry Huntly Haight, the University Medal honors UC Berkeley's most distinguished graduating senior. Three to five students finalists are also named.

Three previous winners have returned their medallions, then made of 14-karat gold, to Berkeley as gifts. The last to do so was Clothilde Grunksy Taylor '14, as a 90th birthday present to herself in 1981: "I received so much from the university — I had a wonderful time there — and I wanted to give a little of it back," said Taylor. Having appreciated in value 100 times, the medal was worth $4,000.

The Finalists
Lest visions of pocket protectors begin dancing in readers' heads, Sontag is "very far from the stereotypical computer geek," wrote Jitendra Malik, chair of the electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) department, recommending Sontag for the University Medal. Despite the 12 A-pluses he's racked up so far in computer science classes, and the graduate-level research he's done, Sontag could pass for a Southside major. Outgoing and articulate, he spent the fall semester in Sweden. He's currently taking an art history class and Issues in Foreign Policy, which he loves, along with ballroom dancing classes at International House, where he lives.

And although he admits to being slightly disappointed not to have won the medal, he's sincerely happy for fellow Argentinean Alejandra Dubcovsky, who did. (Sontag's father was born in Argentina; his mother, in France.) Sontag will graduate this month with his degree in computer science from the College of Letters and Science, a 3.968 GPA, the EECS Department Citation, and the UPE Microsoft, Barry M. Goldwater, and other scholarships.

Not too shabby for a high-school dropout.

Binary nature

Then again, Sontag isn't your typical dropout, either. He didn't finish high school because he was in such a rush to get to college. The itch started the summer after eighth grade, when he sat in on an introductory computer science course at Rutgers University, near his home town of Piscataway, N.J. Sontag's father is a professor of math at Rutgers, and persuaded his colleague to let his son take all the exams and do all the projects. Sontag took to it immediately: if he'd actually been enrolled, his would have been the top grade. It doesn't hurt that his genetic programming leans toward code - his mother does software testing and his sister is in the computational and systems biology Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Sontag will be heading in the fall.

In ninth grade, Sontag took a second computer science class at Rutgers at night, and taught himself all about HTML and server-side programming for handling dynamic content. He began working part-time for IDT Corporation and for 3DJoe, where he led server-side development projects for big technology companies including Seagate Technologies and Nortel. "They assumed I was in my 30s, I think," chuckles Sontag, who barely looks his age, which is 20. "But they never asked."

As if he didn't have enough on his plate, Sontag also got involved with Nation1, a nonprofit international youth organization that uses information technology to link and mobilize young people in hundreds of countries; for example, via a multilingual chat engine that translates on the fly, so a teenager in China can get advice about a project from one in England. (Nation1 has since merged with Taking IT Global.) Among the thousands of grassroots projects active on Taking IT Global are research on alternative energy sources for Malawi and education for women in Afghanistan.

"Nation1 was fantastic. It totally changed my life," Sontag says. "It introduced me to so many smart people around the world who inspired me." In addition to handling its Web technology needs, Sontag was Nation1's point person in the New York area from 1998 to 2001. He wrote and presented funding proposals, and participated in conferences as far away as California and Greece, working with the United Nations and major NGOs — and sparking a lifelong interest in international relations.

Not surprisingly, Sontag was realizing that "high school just wasn't fitting into my schedule," he chuckles. He felt increasingly impatient with the slow pace of his classes, and the time they took away from his many other interests. College seemed a lot more appealing, with its academic freedom and flexibility, and he wanted to be around people who could spark his ideas. When Sontag flew to MIT in 1999 as a finalist for the ArsDigita Prize, a $10,000 competition for under-18 Web developers, he says he was so excited by the brilliance of the other finalists he met that he couldn't sleep the night before the ceremony.

He dropped out of high school and enrolled at Rutgers while he figured out where he really wanted to go. "Berkeley has far and away the best computer science department," says Sontag, and it didn't hurt that, out of all the admissions offices he called, Berkeley's was the friendliest to the 16-year-old without his high-school diploma.

A learning machine

Sontag started school at Berkeley in fall 2001. Wanting to make the most of it, he vowed not to pursue any extracurricular activities his first two years. "I have a habit that if I get involved with something, I want to take a leadership position," he admits. (For example, after he was inducted into Upsilon Pi Epsilon the first semester of his sophomore year, he subsequently served as faculty liaison, then vice president, then president of the computer science honors society.) He scaled back his involvement in Nation1, and let the peer-to-peer company he and a friend had cofounded fade away, despite interest from an Irish software company and the Department of Defense. Sontag was paying his out-of-state tuition himself, and wanted to get his money's worth.

Plus, Berkeley turned out to be a lot more challenging than high school. "I really struggled my first semester - didn't you see my transcript? I got a B-plus in Physics 7A!" he moans, the pain of his first semester still fresh. (Don't feel too bad for him; he managed an A-plus in Physics 7B the following year.)

True to his speedy learning curve, Sontag was soon taking graduate-level computer science and artificial intelligence courses. His most recent research is in first-order probabilistic logic, which provides a way to reason about relationships between objects. Previously, Sontag worked on a probabilistic model for relational Web page classification. That interest grew out of his two summer internships at the search engine company Google, which resulted from his following Google CEO and Berkeley alumnus Eric Schmidt out of a talk in 2002 to ask for a job.

'In my junior year [of high school], I decided to apply for admission to college. Most places discouraged me from applying. However, the woman I spoke to in Berkeley's admissions office was wonderful: she encouraged me to apply and walked me through each step of the application process.'
-from David Sontag's
University Medal essay
"The company was much smaller than it is now, and I was one of their first college interns," he says. "It was an amazing experience, very academically oriented, with talks twice a week." (In case you're wondering, yes, he met Larry and Sergey, while playing Rollerhockey, and no, he didn't get stock.)

At MIT, where a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship will pay tuition and a $30,000 stipend for the first three years, Sontag hopes to get back into machine learning and apply it to search and computational biology. Both his father and sister are interested in computational biology, and Sontag jokes that "we're hoping a Sontag-cubed paper won't be too far in the future."

Eventually - and inevitably - Sontag will probably start a technology company, and he has been thinking lately that at some point he'd like to become a diplomat. "I know that sounds crazy, with all the things I've done," he says, "but I think of international relations as an interesting problem-solving task, and I think I'd be a good negotiator."

Few who know Sontag doubt that he can do whatever he puts his mind to, with ease. "David Sontag is a smart and ambitious man with a desire to accomplish as much as possible in as many spheres as possible," wrote EECS chair Malik. "I am sure he will go very far."