Artificial Intelligence, Speech Technology and Software Development

Category: personal

On classic university education

In the vast Internet one regularly encounters dismissive statements about formal education, dismissing it as useless in the so-called real world. Here I would like to take a different stance and elaborate on the positive aspects of university.

First let’s set the context straight:
I studied at the Vienna University of Technology and Medical University of Vienna with no tuition. I can see that throwing yourself in debt like it’s common in the USA is something you have to carefully consider.
I know that nowadays there are lots of high-quality MOOCs out there. This wasn’t the case when I studied. I think you can get a lot out of them. But a large portion of the best ones out there are created by universities or at least based on university courses (like the infamous Machine Learning course by Andrew Ng). Also you have to be really careful to not become a cherry-picker. I would definitely not spent so much time with Mathematics without being forced to. Now I am glad I did – actually I wished they would have forced me to even more, even though I had to take about 5 statistics-focused and 4 general math courses.

A quite common complaint is that universities teach many esoteric topics or to a degree which you don’t need in your day-to-day life. But in fact, if they would not teach it, who would? Who would work on the foundations of technology if no one taught it?
As an example, when learning 3D graphics at university you usually start with topics like Bresenham’s line drawing algorithm, look at the projection matrices, probably implement that stuff from scratch. Obviously in 99% of the Unity3D-game-dev jobs out there you don’t REALLY need this knowledge. It will help you with the understanding but in fact you can do a lot without even knowing what a matrix is (I’ve worked on 3D viz in Java3D and programmed fixed pipeline OpenGL in C++ using NeHes tutorials in 2000 before knowing what a rotation matrix is). But who will write the next Unreal Engine or develop the latest raytracing techniques if everyone just taught using existing game engines?

But besides this global view on education, why is it interesting for the individual who does not plan to work in research?

Your career will likely last decades. It’s well worth spending a few of them on foundations. This is the kind of knowledge you can’t easily pick up on the job. In my first year I easily spent 15-20 hours a week on Mathematics. If I remember correctly it was one lecture a day where I reviewed the material from the last day in the train commute and afterwards reviewed it again. Then spent about 8 hours every Sunday on the weekly exercises which then have to presented at the blackboard during another weekly unit (where I usually also prepared my self yet again before the unit).
You will never get the chance to dive so deep and use so much time once you are part of the workforce. You can easily learn React on the job, but they probably won’t pay you for solving differential equation exercises during work. And in fact I often wished I put more credits into such courses. Programming exercises were useless for me – I already worked as embedded and network developer part-time and got paid for non-toy exercises. Writing simple FTP clients in Java were a waste of time when I worked on a network monitoring solution in my job. So the courses I did really benefit from were those exotic foundational topics.

That being said, there were also more than enough interesting things I could work on at university that you’ll likely work on in the “real world” afterwards. The real world is often boring in comparison. In university you might deal with surgery robots and then in your job it’s much more likely to fix computers of doctors, maintain a patient database or write format converters in Java.

Let’s look at some of the cooler topics I encountered at university:
– 3D renderer from scratch (Computer Graphics 1)
– Internet security challenges, gaining ranks and titles, with leaderboard and option to join a CTF (Internet Security 1)
– X-Ray segmentation algorithms (Medical Computer Vision)
– Iris recognition systems (Seminar work)
– Played with a cathode ray tube (Physics practicals)
– Knowledge based system for infant ventilation (Knowledge based systems)
– Networked 3D game (Computer Graphics 2)
– Neuroprosthetics (Summer course)
– Developed a SNMP client for some exotic embedded device (Practical)
– Recorded EMG of my face muscles (Clinical signal processing)
– Multimodal image registration of ophthalmologic images (Thesis at General Hospital Vienna)
– Played with Virtual Reality equipment before it was so readily available in the consumer market (Virtual and Augmented Reality)

Enjoy university while it lasts. Having the opportunity for dense learning and working on such a variety of topics in a short time span is rare after graduation. Of course a job will teach you a lot, but not 40h+ a week. It’s not unlikely you spend a large portion of your work week with repetitive and not exactly enlightening tasks. Also: you can still specialize on one topic the subsequent 30-40 years.

A 90s teenage tale of programming and nerd culture

I’ve recently been reading the article “Coding needs a new youth movement” in which the author proposes that beginner programming courses should focus on “frontend” technologies to motivate students. Instead of “backend” technologies like Java, that is. This lead me to take a look back at the time when I wrote my first lines of code, which was more than 20 years ago. I assume that many creators of said programming courses also started at least back then, probably being the reason why the courses are structured in the way the are.

In the beginning of the 90s, there was no notion of “frontend” vs. “backend” developers, only programmers. Of course there was user interface design, but that’s a different beast. Java just crawled out of the womb, same with JavaScript, so programming usually meant picking up e.g. Assembler, C, C++, Pascal or COBOL. Web development also just began to rear its ugly head and usually meant having some CGI producing HTML.  I doubt that seeing some colorful webpages (<blink/>) with some buttons and text fields would have brought me to programming back then. But writing Fibonacci generators most likely neither.

So here I would like to share (the beginning of) my journey from interested kid to CS PhD. This might end up as some sort of boring, archaeological curiosity but I still hope I can share at least some funny stories, pictures and lots of links (you notice all the highlighted words, right?).

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