Rice Economics Spring 2019 Newsletter - Page 2

Spotlight on our Faculty   Mallesh Pai, Assistant Professor of Economics Research Interests: Mechanism Design/Auction Theory, Economics of Privacy, Social Networks/Social Learning, and Statistical Decision Theory Mallesh Pai came to Rice in 2016 from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a prominent researcher and outstanding teacher, and received the Ralph O’Connor Award for Distinction in Teaching and Research in Economics in 2018. Mallesh’s research focuses on issues in mechanism design, auction theory, the economics of privacy, social networks, social learning, and statistical decision theory. He received his Ph.D. in 2010 from Northwestern University. Mallesh has taught two undergraduate courses at Rice: Econ 470, Market Design, an upper-level elective, and ECON 496, Research in Economic Theory, a capstone course for MTEC majors. Both courses examine various aspects of how innovations in modern economics, as an empirical science, are used to understand any system or process that determines who gets what by matching demand with supply as a market. How did you first become interested in economics? Can you give a brief summary of your field of research? I majored in computer engineering in undergrad and liked it, but there were a lot of policy changes going on in India during that time that fascinated me. In the fall of my junior year, I attended a game theory conference in Mumbai. All of the big names in game theory were there; John Nash, who had already won the Nobel Prize by that point, and Lloyd Shapley, who everyone predicted would (and did soon after) win the Nobel Prize, were both there. Before that conference, I had taken zero courses in game theory and only one elective in economics. Afterward, I ended up moving some things around and applying to graduate school in economics! Broadly speaking, I’m an economic theorist, which means that I believe in the power of theory and simple models to give us real insights into the real world. I work in a field that’s called mechanism design, which focuses on designing institutions that help us achieve goals we set as a society in situations where the necessary information and actions that people need to take in order to achieve those goals are disparate. Essentially, I work on figuring out how to design institutions that align people’s incentives with the incentives of society. Do you think your computer engineering background has helped you as an economist? Research in economics has become very quantitative, and my engineering training provided me with math skills, which has helped a lot. Moreover, the research that I’m most interested in sits at the intersection of economics and computer science. I find it beneficial that I can understand both the economics and computer science aspects of my work. As an example, in the past I’ve worked with Google and Microsoft on ad auctions that they designed for their search engines. What are some of your own research projects? My own research looks at the impact of computers and the internet on modern society. With the innovations of the information and internet revolutions of the past 20 years, we can design and execute markets that we couldn’t dream of implementing previously. Recently, I’ve been interested in the question of whether machine learning algorithms that are designed to help humans make important decisions, such as approving a person’s loan application, can learn how to discriminate. Part of the reason that we have moved away from people making these decisions and toward machines making them is accuracy; another is that machines presumably do not suffer from the same biases that humans do. Of course, the answer to this question fundamentally depends on the design of the algorithm, but it also relates crucially to the type of market and economy in which these algorithms are operating. You have recently been appointed Director of Managerial Studies. What are your plans for that program? Lots of exciting things ahead! In the short- term, the plan is to refresh the curriculum. Several departments around the university have revamped their course offerings, and in light of that we’re tweaking the major a little: using the practicums offered by the school of social sciences as the capstone class, updating the core statistics requirement, etc. In the longer run, we’re exploring offering a “full” major, that is a major that can be taken as a standalone, while keeping the interdisciplinary flavor of the major. There’s also a few social events planned so majors and prospective majors get to meet and mingle. Professors Schaefer (CAAM), Schwindt-Bayer (Political Science), and Zodrow (Economics) have graciously agreed to be part of an advisory committee and provide adult supervision while I tinker with things. If you have thoughts or suggestions, stop by! For more information on Professor Pai’s research projects, including his current working papers and his C.V., see the Faculty Page on the Economics Department website. 2