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Karen Bakker, 1971-2023
A true visionary, gone too soon
When I first arrived in Vancouver in 2018, practically everyone I met said, “you have to meet Karen.” Eventually I did, and we quickly became friends, and eventually close collaborators. In the middle of the pandemic, when I was feeling pretty lost, she helped revitalize me. Few people I have met are as broad as she was, able to say something smart and surprising about pretty much anything we ever talked about from politics to music to science to technology.
Technically speaking, Karen was in the Geography department at UBC, in Vancouver, but no pigeonhole could ever possibly capture her. Her interests and expertise were vast, ranging from animal communication to water rights; she seemed to know everybody, from the former mayor to cabinet ministers, and had immensely practical ideas about just about everything. She seemed to have lived everywhere and done everything. She was a devoted mother to her daughters, a devoted wife to her husband, an academic, a global adventurer, a political leader around water rights, and also an entrepreneur, most recently as VP of Strategy for an educational technology company Riipen, which she joined after they had acquired a company of her own. (She even had a whole third career, aside from her best-known academic work, writing a pair of bestsellers under a nom de plume, about cooking and children.)
2023 was, at least initially, her year. Her book The Sounds of Life, in many ways about AI -- how AI might help us communicate better with animals -- had just come out the previous fall, and was immediately wildly successful. She was on sabbatical at Harvard, gave a fantastic TED talk on the prospects of using AI to decipher animal communication, and was constantly doing podcasts and interviews. Somehow in her spare time, behind the scenes, she joined Anka Reuel and me in co-launching ca-tai.org, the Center for the Advancement of Trustworthy AI, working with us on it until almost her final days. Literally every time we spoke, I learned something from Karen. Anka felt the same, “After every meeting with Karen, I went back to my partner and told him about all the things I learned from her that day. About how in awe I was with this women who barely knew me but who shared her knowledge and time and wisdom with me so graciously, without any agenda, just to help a young woman grow as a professional and human being.”
And then all of the sudden, the music stopped. In June, having just spoken at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Karen felt ill, and never recovered. On August 14, she passed away.
It is almost unfathomable to me that she is gone.
The Sounds of Life, which she somehow managed to write during the early isolation of Covid-19, was really just a small part of a larger treatise she wanted to write. The rest will appear in a second book early next year, called Gaia’s Web, about the intersection between digital technology and the environment. According to the publisher’s web page, it will be “A riveting exploration of one of the most important dilemmas of our time: will digital technology accelerate environmental degradation, or could it play a role in ecological regeneration?”
In her TED talk, Karen imagined a world in which AI and machine learning helped to bring us humans deeper into the world of animals. She closed by asking us to imagine an orca giving a TED talk:
And maybe one day in a speculative future, instead of a human here on stage, maybe bioacoustics would enable an orca to give a TED talk.
The audience laughed — and then Karen characteristically doubled down, pushing the thought experiment far past what initially sounded like a quick throwaway line, into a far richer image that brought tears to many eyes, beautifully underscoring her own tremendous love of nature, as she imagined what the orcas might care to discuss, when it was their turn on the stage:
Why not? Sharing orca stories about dodging ships and seismic blasts and human hunters, stories about desperately seeking the last remaining salmon, stories about trying to survive on this beautiful planet in this crazy moment in our era of untethered human creativity and unprecedented environmental emergency. Now those would be ideas worth spreading.
I wasn’t only the person who saw the magic in Karen, not by a long shot. In the words of Chris Anderson, the head of TED, in an email to me,
Karen truly lit up the last TED Conference. It was apparent to everyone there that she was a remarkable person. Not just in the brilliance of her work and of her eloquence. But in the way that she stood for a deep and beautiful respect for life in all its crazy amazingness. To have this taken from us makes no sense. We can only do what we can to honor her legacy and the values she stood for.
You can read more about Karen and her many books and articles at https://karenbakker.org.
Gary Marcus is a cognitive scientist and AI researcher, who learned much of what he knows about how governments do and don’t work, and a whole lot more, from Karen Bakker.