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Source: Emile Perron

Why I Study Computer Science

“Visionary Seeking IOS developer”
“Potential Opportunity for Computer Science Majors”
“I’d prefer to have a coder with some share of equity.”

Developers are in high demand. Every day at universities across the nation, ‘visionaries’ are trying to recruit engineers to make their own bitcoin-like cryptocurrency or the next “Uber but for laundry/dog-walking/________”.

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Source: Yale CS class numbers — class sizes have since doubled to almost 500

Within these universities, the number of students studying computer science has increased by a full order of magnitude. Given its popularity, let me shed some light into why I personally chose to study computer science. Generally, my reasons fall into three categories: impact, freedom, and stability.

Impact

Honestly, this term is overused. In every career fair I’ve been to, recruiters will drop the word impact every other sentence to describe their new banking app, a shiny website, or even the color of a button. When I say impact, I mean none of these trivial things. I hope use the scaling nature of technology to provide previously costly services for free.

Digital applications are in a unique position where the cost to distribute each successive item is essentially free. In other words, another user downloading your app after it’s done costs almost nothing, but baking and selling an additional loaf of bread costs you time and labor for every loaf, no matter how many you sell. For this reason, digital goods can have a large effect with relatively low investment. In economics, this concept of cost for additional items is called marginal cost.

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Let’s take an example: Airbnb

Officially launched in 2008 with less than 20 people, Airbnb found itself used over 10 million times around the world by 2012, in just four short years. The platform itself is almost costless to the developers. Once it existed, the developers could focus on creating new features instead of being the customer service for every additional user the signed up, allowing for exponential scaling growth.

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For this reason, computer science is an attractive field for making a difference. Each person’s contributions can affect thousands if not hundreds of thousands. Even if they’re not the next Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, every person’s effort is immensely valuable.

Personally, this low technological marginal cost matters a lot to me just as much as the number of people I can reach. With the low costs of production, these technology companies can provide scalable useful services for free. As someone that was raised in a lower middle-class family, I understand the difficulties that come with spending money for tutoring versus buying food and milk for the children. The fact that these new digital services are almost free have opened new doors for those going through economical difficulties. Instead of paying for tutoring or taking formal classes, students can instead take online courses on websites like Coursera, or even just watch others teach on Youtube, both free to learn and distribute.

I used to think that “changing the world” was just a figure of speech, but the scaling possibilities of digital technology create opportunities to level the economic playing field in education, healthcare and many more industries. The harder choice is to choose which one to dedicate my life to.

Freedom of Choice

Nowadays, nearly every industry uses technology, and if it doesn’t, it will soon. Machines have even started learning how to draw! Here are some fields that I might find myself contributing to in a decade.

Healthcare

With the population growing at its current rate and the life expectancy so high, society is aging very rapidly. This creates both a financial strain on countries and a labor strain on families.

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Japan is one of the countries most at risk with a projected dangerous 2:1 rate in 2025

To solve this problem, robots are being developed around the world to care for the elderly. Driven by artificial intelligence to create conversational responses, these robots can care for the aging both physically and emotionally. In fact, emotion detection is one of the leading areas of research in machine learning right now.

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Cute teddy bear robots from Singapore are strong enough to support you

There are so many other problems in healthcare that are easily solved with current advances in pattern recognition machine learning like in patient diagnostics. The important part is that each requires a more human touch, so it often requires other skills as well.

Education

One common use for technology is personalization. When your Spotify playlist plays just the songs you like, or Facebook knows exactly which articles to show you, content is being customized to your tastes. The same is needed for education.

Everyone learns differently. Some may learn the best on their own, scanning through a textbook and solving practice problems. Others may learn better in groups, collaborating and sharing ideas with peers. There are many more dimensions, like the size of the group, the difficulty of the material, the pacing of the class that may differ for every student. Right now, the only solution is using school placement as a means to determine ability.

There’s a clear issue here. Just moving to a certain school district doesn’t make you smarter than other peers or prefer one learning style to another just as your music preferences wouldn’t change if you suddenly moved to another state. However, it’s not feasible to solve the problem using the current resources we have. School districts are already strapped for funds, and teachers are often giving up their own time to run clubs and activities.

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Here’s where the technology opportunities come in. Just as an algorithm to evaluate your preferences have been used for music, I see the same happening in the future of education. Online or virtual reality classrooms can place students with similar learning styles together regardless of physical location. In a more distant future, even the teachers could be artificial intelligence learning algorithms themselves. There is definitely more work to be done before either of these dreams can be realized, but I’m hopeful that our children will face a different learning environment than the ones we went through.

War

Admittedly, I don’t see myself ever going into cyber warfare, but I do think it’ll be an important issue in the next few decades. As countries’ hidden cyber attacks hit the news year after year, it’s clear that a new form of warfare has already begun. Just looking at Stuxnet, the Sony hack, the Russian election ‘hacks’, many of these attacks have been dangerous to our way of life even if they doesn’t threaten it with conventional guns and weapons. It scares me to think of all the attacks that haven’t yet been discovered or released to the public. As our dependency on technology grows, our vulnerabilities will grow as well.

Whether it’s in healthcare, education, war or another field entirely, I believe that technology has a part to play in improving each of these industries. While technology may create problems of its own, it is an cost and labor efficient way to raise people’s quality of life no matter which industry you’re working in.

Stability

When I was growing up, my mother always wanted me to be either a doctor or a lawyer. Among other jobs, those were the ones that were the most stable. People will never stop getting sick, and people will never stop getting into arguments with each other. However, today, the one thing people usually can’t live without is their smartphone, their connection to the world of technology.

Studying computer science now leads to a pretty stable comfortable life. Most university graduates in computer science will make over six figures for their first year of full-time work. It’s hard to say the same for most professions as a college graduate. Admittedly, I do not believe the work really justifies the salaries or that salaries matter most at the end of the day. However, it does provide the stability to focus on learning and personal goals.

My Plan

And so, I study computer science to find ways to make a difference, explore industries instead of locking myself in, and give myself a safety net in case things do fall through. With those three in mind, I resolved to give myself three years from graduation to learn the skills I’ll need. To learn about technology, but also about product and also adapt myself to the ever changing problems. Then after those three years, I’ll reevaluate, check my progress, and continue on from there.

SWE @ Nuro | Formerly Facebook/Google | Yale ’18 | alanliu.dev

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