Computer Science, Internet of Things, Privacy, and Advice for Students
I wrote up an article for my old high school's alumni magazine, about my work and advice for the students. Here's the article below.
In the near future, our smart homes, smart cars, and smartphones will essentially know everything about us. In many ways, this will be a good thing, as these devices can help us in terms of healthcare, sustainability, safety, and more. At the same time, these same systems pose many new kinds of privacy challenges. What kind of data is being sensed and collected? How is it used? How can we help people feel like they are in control? How can we create a connected world that we would all want to live in?
After graduating from SCGSSM in 1993, I majored in both computer science and mathematics at Georgia Tech, and then got my PhD at University of California at Berkeley. Since 2004, I’ve been a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the top schools in the world in computer science. It’s a very fun place, with brilliant people looking at how to push the boundaries of what is possible with computing.
Computer science is a bit unusual when compared to natural sciences. In fields like astronomy or biochemistry, there are hard limits dictated by atomic structures or fundamental forces like gravity. In contrast, much of computer science is bounded by perceptual and cognitive psychology. We only need 24-bit color because that’s all the human eye can see. A lot of programming languages are structured to mitigate the limited working memory of our brains. Computer science is also bounded by our imaginations. Things like wearable computers, self-driving cars, and sensor networks only came out because someone dreamt new ways of using computers.
My specific subfield of computer science is known as human-computer interaction (HCI). HCI looks at people and computers together, drawing on ideas from traditional computer science, psychology, and design. The most immediate aspect of HCI is the user interfaces we use. Everyone has experienced some really terrible interfaces and can appreciate the need for good design. But HCI also looks at really big questions too. For example, how can we build intelligent tutoring systems that can adapt to individual students? How can we design robots that people can understand and feel safe around? How can we design better interfaces to help those with physical disabilities?
My particular area of research looks at emerging smart systems, sometimes called Internet of Things, sometimes Ubiquitous Computing. These kinds of sensor-based systems will let us understand human behavior at a fidelity and scale that previously was not possible, but we can only succeed if we can legitimately address people’s privacy concerns.
My current work focuses on privacy and smartphones. Smartphone apps can collect a great deal of sensitive information about people, including location, contact lists, and microphone data. How can we easily understand what these apps are doing? To address this problem, my team developed new ways to analyze and summarize the behaviors of apps, based on the notion of expectations. For example, most people don’t expect a Blackjack game to use location data, but some surprisingly do. In contrast, everybody already knows Google Maps uses location data. Using this approach, we have graded the privacy of a million apps, which you can see at PrivacyGrade.org. We’ve gotten press coverage from CNN, New York Times, Forbes, BBC, as well as interest from the FTC, California Department of Justice, Google, and Consumer Reports.
Now, while this article was supposed to be about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), I’d like to close by reflecting on non-STEM lessons I’ve learned along the way, which I hope can help current students and younger alums. First, raw intellect only gets you so far. Even hard work isn’t enough. While these are pre-requisites for success, you’ll also need ambition, imagination, and some luck. I lucked out in getting admitted to Berkeley for my PhD, and was suddenly surrounded by people who were the best in the world at what they did. It only dawned on me then that I might be able to do the same.
Second, don’t underestimate the social dimension of success. My two years at SCGSSM were harder than my first two years at Georgia Tech, and it only struck me years later why. At SCGSSM, there were so many smart and hard-working people that it forced me to up my game. At Georgia Tech, it wasn’t until my junior year that I found a similar group of people.
Third, it’s not about what you yourself can do, but what you can get a group of people to do. Most big things that are worth doing can’t be done by individuals. So if you want to succeed, you really need to understand how to motivate people, how to work in a team, how to manage conflict, and how to mentor people and help them grow.
Last, there’s a big world stage out there, and it’s waiting for brilliant young people to get up there. The problems we as humanity are facing today are bigger and harder than any we’ve ever faced, and we need all the help we can get. And besides, it will be fun as we help invent the future.