On the power of storytelling, chasing adventure, and pushing the limits of intelligenceZhihao Deng considers himself to be three things: an engineer, an award-winning filmmaker, and an amateur athlete with an affinity for extreme sports. Though filmmaking is his professional goal, his journey to get there has and continues to be anything but ordinary. He has handled emergency situations as a backpacking guide, walked through the forest of Aokigahara alone at midnight, made a radical change in philosophy and methodology, graduated in engineering but went on filmmaking and cave expeditions for two years, received an offer from a major TV production company and subsequently switched back to engineering, got into UC Berkeley, joined one of the nine autonomous indy car racing teams building perception systems, raced at world-famous tracks and became part the first American team to race in a final, spent half a year making a documentary landing him a spot on IMDb, and joined a civilian dive team searching for a missing diver. Again, anything but ordinary. This is his story.
What led you to apply and join the Berkeley MEng program?Although we didn’t end up together, my first love encouraged me to apply to this program even though I didn’t feel I had a good chance because my GPA was low. I want to thank UC Berkeley, and her, for changing my life! What do you think you gained, either personally or professionally, from the MEng program? The technical courses in Berkeley EECS are both deep and wide in coverage and taught in high quality. It’s intense and challenging and I have friends saying the courses here made them think, “Did they really go to a proper undergrad?” I am glad the MEng program includes business classes taught by Haas teachers. Those courses opened my eyes to what could happen in business and to the culture in Silicon Valley. Some of my friends thought business classes are a waste of time but I think engineers need business courses. After school, there will be nobody teaching you this and you will probably continue life in the same echo chamber. Speaking of echo chambers, the biggest gain my education at UC Berkeley gave me is a new echo chamber filled with people who are altruistic, passionate, have wide expanses of knowledge, and are willing to hear different opinions. In my experience, Berkeley students like to open-source their work while Stanford students try making a profit from their work.
People around you will have a huge impact on your future. I am glad that we are the people making the world a better place.
What drew you to the film industry?It started with engineering. I was obsessed with model airplanes when I was young. In undergrad, I began to build aerial filming drones — the goal then was to record my hiking and camping in the mountains so I was on a quest for lighter and faster solutions. I started video editing at that time. Later, I began flying FPV (first-person view) drones and eventually got sponsorship from DJI. The sponsorship connected me with many filmmakers and my interest in documentary filmmaking began to grow. Fueled by my desire for artistic expression following a mental illness, I decided that flying drones wasn’t as important anymore and turned my attention to storytelling — it became both my passion and escape.
What have you been pursuing since graduation?After graduation, I returned the focus to myself. In my methodology, a good mental balance is the most important thing. Sports and meditation are my balancing tools. I have a road map for my sports goals. Diving is the current one and northern California has amazing sites. I did my first swim in the ocean in June and I am advancing fast, both in scuba diving and freediving. I can go 90 feet/27 meters deep in one breath or hold my breath for more than four minutes. It is decent but not near a competitive level which is not my goal — I aim for multi-sport capability so I don’t want to tune my body to a specific sport while sacrificing others. I am also working as a software engineer for Sambanova, a start-up in the Bay Area. We are building exciting new systems for AI computing from chip design to application and I am helping develop the compiler.
What are some of your hobbies/passions?Becoming a backpacking guide in challenging conditions is a life-changing experience. In normal leadership positions, when you fail, you fail. In the mountains, people might die. Nature is fair to everybody and this pressure is such a driving force for perfection. It made me discover that we put too much emphasis on intellectual knowledge rather than raw information from nature. This became the reason why I don’t believe AI will replace artists and it made me understand art deeper. Becoming an alpine cave rigging operator is another life-changing experience. The rigging operator is the most important person in a caving team. My job is to be the first to go into an unknown vertical cave, installing rope for the entire team, while taking the biggest risk. Rolling the dice with falling rocks while operating on a slim safety margin with a penalty of death is an achievement that marks a person’s high level of mental stability under extreme pressure. After I picked the site, installed the bolts, tied the rope, and checked my gear one more time, I stepped into the void, trusting my life on my gear and execution. My brain is both yelling and calm, my survival instinct both overloaded and bypassed. Like in particle physics where the more extreme the energy, the smaller things you can observe, extreme pressure enables me to do inner exploration with new viewpoints. I realized that our rational mind is implemented by instinct. This made me question if pursuing explainable artificial intelligence is the right way to achieve autonomous driving because our brain is not explainable to us. Blindly applying rational or intellectual thinking to everything is choking the performance of our artifacts, both in engineering systems and sociological constructs.
What is your professional goal and what have you learned by pursuing it?Filmmaking is my professional goal. Before, I knew nothing about art except the techniques, so I went into it. All those years of shooting and editing taught me that I am choreographing a brain dance with the viewers and how people’s attention can be manipulated by the use of information. Information is a drug; like oxygen, it has the potential to cause great harm. Engineers commonly focus on tools but not the goals. This is dangerous. The idea of using AI to generate films based on personal taste gives shivers down my spine. Remember the old days when people called it “surfing the internet?” How do we feel now when using our phones? We already have an overload of information, especially short videos which are deteriorating the attention span and deep thinking of society. The current data-driven AI feeds people information that’s not from nature but recycled from past human data, creating a huge echo chamber for humanity and making us even more detached, limiting our scope of understanding the universe. This is especially bad because we also use AI to exploit weaknesses in the human brain for a naive pursuit of user attention.
We are already so detached from the universe that most people forget (or don’t agree) that the world is more than just intellectual knowledge.If we look back to art (especially contemporary art) and religion (especially Buddhism) we had so many ideas about expression, the “inner world,” and the “Tao” (the way of nature but not in an analytical way). From my years of meditation, I can now sense how my day is affected by whether or not I receive an information dosage in the morning. If I check my phone upon waking, the entire day it becomes harder to focus and to do any task. The bad news is that most media companies are incentivized to train your mind into information addiction. The result is a decrease in the perception ability of the universe for the society as a whole.
What kind of impact do you want to have on the world?I want to unlock intelligence for humanity. After the industrial revolution, we went from rule-based solutions to data-driven solutions. I believe there’s a higher level of intelligence from my experiences. I am loosely following a grand plan to gather ideas for the ultimate problem with the most diverse signals possible: the mental observation from extreme sports, the thinking as an artist in filmmaking, and ancient wisdom from religion, math, and engineering of course. This is an experiment of a whole new doctrine of perceiving the world, hopefully beyond the limit of academia and even the scientific method.
Common misconceptions about me:The craziest things I do often get overlooked because understanding requires uncommon knowledge. I don’t compare engineering to my other parts of life but extreme sports are more important than filmmaking. Many think extreme sports are about adrenaline, but it’s the opposite in most cases. A lot of people find sports like motor racing, climbing, and freediving calming and meditative. Connect with Zhihao Deng. Edited by Veronica Roseborough.
Zhihao Deng, MEng ’22 (EECS): “We are the people making the world a better place.” was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.