Major Anxiety

I attended the University of Toronto and took a double-major Bachelor’s degree. My majors were religious studies and zoology. My fourth-year thesis for religious studies concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed. My zoology thesis was a functional analysis of the thyroid gland of the three-toed sloth.

Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of my fellow religious-studies students – muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason, that fool’s gold for the bright – reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God. 

Yann Martel, Life of Pi 

That’s right. It’s major declaring time. Either that, or I wanted an excuse to quote an awesome book that you should all read. (Like now. Seriously.)

Actually both, but we’ll only deal with majoring for the rest of the post.

I could do robotics of some kind, which means a combination of computer science (cs) and mechanical engineering (me). I briefly considered double majoring – it’s actually possible, with my APs – but it would require 5 engineering classes a semester for the rest of college. So I could major in me and minor in cs. Or I could major in cs and – well, there’s no minor in me, but still take some classes. Like machine design, or statics and dynamics.

The other possibility is to forget about mechanics and go into AI and data processing through the cs department. That opens up the possibility of minoring in cognitive and brain science. So leaning how people think, and how computers “think”. Comp sci and cog sci. Confused yet? Good. Because we’re transition to memories that have pulled me in one way or another over the last week or so.

Monday night, I was surrounded by high schoolers building a robot. I liked the feel of physical components in my hands, seeing designs evolve into prototypes into a finished robot. Moreover, seeing ideas develop from generations of robots come to life. But I found myself more interested in talking to our driver, who near as I can tell is a part-time student who’s been here for a long time with plenty to go. He tried explaining a problem in computation theory to me, which didn’t work so well, so we wound up just talking about life and what I should try to get out of my education. The problem, he explained, was a mathematical artifact. I should focus on writing effective code, the nitty gritty.

I’m walking up the stairs outside the library, nonchalantly examining the flyers posted. One is for the Tufts Republicans general interest meeting. Take back America, it declares. Since when does America need to be taken back? From what? Such a mentality is extremely partisan, divisive, simplistic, and unhelpful. Not the Tufts Republicans so much as the Tufts Tea Partiers. (Yes, I’m generalizing. I’m sure the Tufts Republicans are very nice people who just need to take remedial flyer design. But still. Sarah Palin is to Republicanism what Osama Bin Laden is to Islam.) Real politics is much more like C-SPAN than Fox News. Obama has done a lot so far; it’s just boring. It’s also effective. The people who work with nitty-gritty details get a lot more done than the people in the limelight. 

I’m sitting on a bare mattress in someone else’s dorm as my friend paces, explaining how a computer and brain work on fundamentally the same principles. Digital electrical signals, interaction in a complex system, virtual machines built on top of virtual machines. It’s a compelling argument, and I’m aware of a feeling both novel and unsettling, that my counterarguments are inferior, and less mature. I talk about the sheer number of sensory inputs that the brain has, fumbling for some analogy about a submarine swimming. In the time since, I’ve realize that the brain is not so much a computer but a robot. It has tens or hundreds of thousands of sensors (nerves) covering 1.73 square meters of skin, as well as information about your GI tract, your position in space, your environment, and much more. This setup is much more advanced than any robot; a robotic hand might have a single two-state touch sensor on the tip of each finger, responding to a simple program. The brain, by contrast, is extremely adept at gathering and processing empirical data and integrating thousands of sources into coherent information. Rub your finger across some corduroy (with eyes closed) and you can tell that it has ridges in one direction, is soft, flexible, and room temperature. Your brain makes judgements based on the data and past experiences: it is safe to touch, possibly evokative of a person, place, or event in your past, of a time of year, or a mood. Making these sensory observations is a feat for any robot; extrapolating their meaning is a burden for any computer. But we do it effortlessly – and then proceed to add 2 and 3 and get 6. So clearly, the experience of being human (and not a computer) is qualitatively different. (“We’re not programs, GERTY, we’re people.”) Is that due to intrinsic, fundamental differences between a brain and a microprocessor? I could spend the next three years finding out.

I’m in the computer lab trying to get my homework done. It’s a traffic simulator that involves virtual boxes inside boxes and text parsing and file io (read: getting the computer to understand a human-readable text file). I’ve had a long day and there’s an upperclassman goofing off. He’s a stereotypical asshole nerd, who refers to obscure lines in Star Wars while wearing a shirt that says Resistance is futile (if <1 ohm), meaning it’s a trite Star Trek-circuitry joke. He ranted about different types of programming langues, cs professors, and how much work he had. Apparently he hangs out in a computer lab for fun, because he wasn’t working. He proved incredibly distracting and annoying. I spend 3 hours getting my homework done when I could have done it in 2 and a half, probably just 2, for want of peace and quiet. It was the first time I’ve had a negative experience programming.

Last night, Mike Granoff (A91) spoke about his involvement with Better Place. He drew a crowd of about fifty people from across Tufts. It was equal parts current students, alumni, and faculty; equal parts Jews, Gordon institute (engineering management) types, and entrepreneurs. Granoff spoke, not about the technical details of how to make electric cars, but how to make it a viable business. The original white paper called for a government agency to build the infrastructure; Better Place has been able to do it privately, with more than $700 million in venture capital. They’ve raised so much because they’re not relying on ideological buyers replacing their Priuses, but rather by making it cheaper and easier to own an electric vehicle. By appealing to a your wallet, rather than your conscience, Better Place hopes to market to the masses.

Granoff alluded to an “OnStar on steroids” software system, where the car knows where it is going (and if it has enough charge to get there), relays that to a central control station, which keeps track of every Better Place vehicle. He predicted that within the year, “three Chevy Volt owners on the same block will plug in their vehicles and then turn on their plasma TVs,” blowing out the transformer. This would spiral into a news frenzy: “A million electric cars? We can’t even handle three!” The solution is the monitoring software, which is smart enough to stagger charging, and even discharge batteries during peak demand in late August. I asked Granoff about the importance of smart software to his business, and to the future of business. He told me it was “hugely important”.

So I’m still undecided. I’ve got another three weeks.

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