Tuesday December 3rd

Tech Can Save the World…or can it?

Beginnings

  • I find myself a few days away from attending one of the largest Machine Learning conferences in the world. Every distinguished author, and the next stars of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will all be there. The talks are highly technical, dense, and several pioneers of areas within the field will be there. This will be my first time attending. I think about whether I can make it across the border, and back into the country. I think about whether the algorithms will work in my favour, or if something in a scanner or database will be a problem. I am already meeting people who will be attending online, and we have already begun discussing where we will go sightseeing, who is planning After hour drinks, and what talks look interesting.
  • Yet, today I found myself at my college’s Graduate Writing Centre. It just made sense to me to apply to their grad writing training programme, which would allow me to learn how to become a stronger writer in graduate school, as well as a mentor to others (with some pay). I don’t know if I will get the opportunity, but I am writing about it because it’s intriguing. The opportunity presented itself via a school email and something about it just felt..compelling. I found myself writing up the application and hitting send.
  • I found my way over to the interviewing office, which was in the school’s library, and on the way got excited by a shelf of books that had a mix of books on Mathematics, Logic and Philosophy. It wasn’t just another shelf of books on Discrete Mathematics or Data Science; the books that say to say to a visitor of an Academic office “the person who inhabits this office works in Computer Science”. Does everything have to be so serious? Is this all Computer Scientists read? When you get a job in tech, are you trained to argue about the syntax and semantics of a language and about libraries? Let’s not forget the obligatory Steve Jobs biography many startups display on their shelves; you need that for your startup to succeed (apparently, or was there a bulk sale on that book for startups?). I giggled.
  • In my office, I would have books by Mamet, Feynman, Roald Dahl and Niall Ferguson. I would have books on the busts of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, the work of Dan Flavin and Julie Taymor. I would let Computer Science students borrow those books and read them and ask them what they thought. I want them to feel uncomfortable, to swim in a sea of ideas in a field that wasn’t necessarily familiar to them.
  • The person who is interviewing candidates spoke to me today. She was fascinated by my application, and we got along almost instantly; we had the same values in common.
  • She said to me “you know, I was really intrigued by your application. We don’t see a lot of (people like) you here until dissertation time; the Computer Science and Engineering people. They don’t see writing as important, generally, until they have to write their disseratations and really get into writing”. Then she said “we’ll also train you; the expectation is no one is born knowing how to do this stuff, and we support and teach other and a senior person (and I) will mentor you”. I loved that. It sounded exactly like what I was doing in grad school. You have an advisor who trains you to be a researcher in Computer Science grad school. And this department would teach me how to write, and how to share that with others. Something about the process feels so collaborative and empathetic, and demands humility.
  • Writing has always been very much a part of who I am, whether I’ve had an art blog, am learning Computer Science, writing technical reports or emails to friends and family; it’s the way I have communicated ideas and cleared my head throughout my life.

I’ve been hearing this over and over again

  • I seem to be in a cycle where I have a knack for getting into fields or finding opportunities with a need for people in Computer Science, but where people like myself are a rarity. To me, the applications seem obvious; people with the ability in my field are desperately needed, and the work is really interesting. And yet, the people in my field seem to stick to areas that people in my field already pursue. Like an invisible box that holds someone in my field in, they dare not go past its walls.
  • A friend of mine told me recently that she expected me to be hugely successful because I had the right kind of curiosity and humility to go into other fields, learn, and to contribute. I remember in my first semester of Undergraduate study, absolutely horrifying an advisor when I said to him “there’s this guy who makes Neon art in New York City, and I’d like to take his class for summer”. I had spoken to the artist a couple times over email and was really curious about neon. I never did end up taking it, because I was steered against doing that, but I did eventually learn a bit about neon.
  • So I asked myself, can tech really save the world? I can’t say I’m sure. Some of the most interesting people I’ve met consistently throughout my life are smart, creative and thoughtful, but they’re also in every field. They care about ideas and will learn whatever they need to pursue an idea; whether it’s welding, painting, machining, glassblowing, kinetic sculpture, theatre lighting, computer aided design…or coding.

My time, this place

  • My time at my lab this semester has actually proved to be incredibly lonely; I’ve spent a lot of time by myself, and with my friends online. Most of my friends are currently in various places all over the world, but still particularly on the West Coast. One of my number theory friends in St. Louis told me that it sounds like I just “haven’t found my people” quite yet. I had a chat with my advisor about this (or rather, one half, since he co-advises me), and he told me that it’s okay if I never find them here; you can find your people anywhere. Interestingly, this doesn’t bother me, because I’ve found a healthy dose of friends online, and can be found snickering to myself because of their texts and Slack messages.
  • Today, one of my friends (from the West Coast), who I decided to mention my application to, said to me “that’s so fantastic; imagine the breadth of your experience from participating in something like that”. It’s a simple but profound statement.

So I’ve been thinking…

  • So I’ve been thinking…can tech really save the world? Should we rely on tech? We have already begun to discover again that interdisciplinary teams are important, as topics like biases in algorithms are creeping up into our consciousness. I can’t say, as a budding Computer Scientist, that I believe this with 100% accuracy, and in fact, in Undergrad, I wrote an article (which proved to be controversial) about interdisciplinary opportunities and my experience pursuing that in New York City over a summer. The professors within a particular department weren’t happy about that, and neither were the students; they were very territorial and thought that they should be the only people who could do what they do. My Undergraduate study was fun in some ways, and worthwhile, but painful in many ways. I had a handful of friends, but was an outcast.
  • So I guess what I’m saying is I think we need all the help we can get, and perspectives and questions and values from different types of people, all people. And I know that I enjoy working with interdisciplinary teams; I’m happiest on these teams.

And that’s it

  • Update: I am pleased to announce that I received an offer from the Graduate Writing Centre for Spring 2020! :)
Written on December 3, 2019