When asked on his Knight-Hennessy Scholarship application to list eight improbable but true facts about himself, Harith Khawaja ’19 started with, “I speak 10 languages: five human, five machine.”
This is surprising, but it makes sense in light of other facts about his life: His worldview has been shaped largely by his cross-cultural experiences as an immigrant to the United States and a study-abroad student in France. His career so far has included developing AI apps, working as a machine-learning engineer for Lyft and writing for a nonprofit think tank called the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. “So many of my specific career aspirations,” he says, tie into a “quest to understand how technology is influencing our lives [and] to craft a vision of how technology can add value to our society.”
Over the next three years, Stanford University’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars program will help Khawaja on his quest. He will work toward a J.D. at Stanford Law School and be part of a cohort of 70 scholars from 27 countries, enrolled in 35 graduate programs. He is especially excited about the program’s guest speakers, who have included Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and recent Amherst honorary degree recipient Raj Chetty.
As an undergraduate, Khawaja was co-captain of the men’s squash team and a double major in philosophy and computer science. His senior thesis on artificial intelligence won the College’s Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize, and the video he submitted as part of his Knight-Hennessy application—a two-minute talk on the nature of time—was inspired by a seminar he took with his thesis adviser, Joseph Moore, the George Lyman Crosby 1896 and Stanley Warfield Crosby Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Environmental Studies. Khawaja emphasizes how much he appreciates the mentorship of Moore, as well as Assistant Professor of Philosophy Rafeeq Hasan, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Scott Alfeld, squash coach Stuart Crawford and many others at Amherst “who have shaped my views.”
In endorsing Khawaja for the scholarship, Director of Fellowships Christine Overstreet wrote, “I first became aware of Harith in 2017, when I heard a voice—clear, articulate, impassioned—amplified over a microphone outside my office window. It was his.” Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, he was a leader in a peaceful campus protest of President Trump’s executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States.
More than 140,000 YouTube viewers have since heard Khawaja’s voice through his 2019 TEDxAmherst talk about self-driving vehicles. “After the talk, many people in the audience came up to me and told me that I changed their mind about a certain technology they were previously fearful about,” he says. “So I’ve seen firsthand the power that ideas can have in the world.”
Throughout and beyond his years as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar, he hopes to continue sharing ideas through law journals, popular media outlets and speaking engagements. “I really enjoy, and in some ways consider it a responsibility, to break down complex technological problems that are affecting people, in ways that are easily digestible and understandable to them,” he says. In other words: he is a translator from the language of machines to the language of humanity.