Sunday, 14 August 2011

Robot Monster

I had finished my undergraduate degree and I didn't know what the hell to do. I knew I wasn't ready to join the workforce. So I started looking at post graduate programs.

One of the universities was offering a postgraduate diploma in Robotics. Anybody with a comp sci or an engineering degree could apply for it. So I collected up my transcripts and sent them in. I received an acceptance letter in fairly short order... followed by a second letter informing me that the course had been cancelled, because there was only one person enrolled in it.

My dreams of robotic world domination dashed, I went an enrolled in a one year arts program at a different University. It was fantastic. Lots of great subjects, and not a career in sight. I asked if I could overload my course and do some extra units, but the course coordinator adviser refused: these were Arts subjects an it was  unthinkable that a student should want extra work. I went from having 28 hours of classes a week to eight, with no big assignments and no exams. It was easy and rewarding. At the end of the year, my supervisor asked me where I was going to have the work I'd done for his class published.  It didn't have robots in it, but it did have space ships and quantum physics.

Once I had graduated, I needed to get a job. This wasn't so easy: most of the companies I talked to were confused by the fact I had qualifications in Computer Science, Psychology and English, and I wasn't getting very far. My old university asked me to show up and enrol in subjects for my deferred honours year, and even though I'd had never intended to go back there I went and did it. I had nothing else to do.

We had to choose a thesis topic before the year began, but I was so disinterested in it that I did nothing about it. At the last minute I went through the handbook advertising which topics were being offered by the various faculty members, and I found one professor who had five topics I liked. I went to talk to him.

It turned out that Professor Gupta was the head of the department. I had no idea, even though I'd been in the department for three years already. He looked at my background, raised an eyebrow at the second major in psychology, and agreed to let me do one of the thesis topics I was interested in. He chose the topic. And he told me to write a much more general topic heading on the form than the one we discussed. I should have known that something was awry.

At the start of the year we were told that honours level subjects would be much more difficult than undergraduate subjects, but I found the opposite to be true. The classes were easy, the assignments were easy, the exams were easy. I wondered what I was supposed to be learning. How was this preparing me for the real world?

My thesis was another matter altogether.

The first thing that Professor Gupta did was tell me that I would be co-supervised by another lecturer, Dr Victoria  Wong. This, I was later informed, meant that Gupta wanted me out of his hair unless I produced something worth publishing, so that he could take the credit. Vicky was kind and supportive, so I didn't care. I did care that Gupta had decided to change my topic. He had some students building a piece of software for him that would measure certain aspects of human behaviour and he needed somebody with a psychology background to develop an experiment around that. I was unhappy, but it was easier than the thesis I had planned. I was given an alpha of the software to play with and told to begin my literature review.

The lit. review was easy. I read all of the research and found it patchy, unscientific and generally a load of hot air. Being the angry young man that I was, I proceeded to tear it apart. This actually impressed both Gupta and Vicky: they were unused to seeing students who were a/ critical, and b/ able to frame a coherent argument. They rewarded me with good marks and told me I was PhD material.

The alpha software I was supposed to be testing, however, was a problem. It did work... sometimes... but it failed to harvest the data correctly, and it would freeze or crash frequently. There was no way I could use it in the state it was. I was not allowed access to the codebase or the team of students who were developing it for Professor Gupta, but he assured me that it would be ready.

I went away and designed the experiments I would perform with the software. I framed my argument, developed my hypothesis, worked out the metrics I would use. I got the whole thing ready to go.  Eventually Gupta took an interest, and invited me to a few meetings in his office. During those meetings he'd make me sit while he read what I'd written. Then e'd explain my ideas back to me as if they were his own... and I was a turnip. I just nodded my head and agreed with whatever he said. After every meeting I'd ask "How is the software coming, Professor?"
"It will be ready. Don't worry about it."
After a few weeks Vicky called me into her office.
"The software is broken. The students who are writing it have gone on holiday. Professor Gupta says you won't be able to use it."
"But... my whole thesis is about this software." Gupta had forced the topic on me to begin with. It wasn't Vicky's fault. "What does Professor Gupta say?"
"Professor Gupta says that you should just do some manual testing instead."
"My thesis topic is 'automated testing'."
"Not any more."

Vicky was sympathetic, but she couldn't do anything... or say anything. The faculty, I had discovered, were paranoid about Professor Gupta finding out that they'd said anything bad about him. The ears had walls.

"I'm going to go and speak to the Professor."

"Um... Professor Gupta is actually at a conference overseas for the next month."

My thesis was gutted. I performed some manual tests and collected some results, but I had nothing to write about anymore and I had to pad to reach the wordcount. I thought I would bring some of the scientific rigour to my thesis that the studies I had criticized had not: I would perform some statistical analysis on my data to see if it was any good or not. When Professor Gupta returned from his junket and I told him about this, his face darkened. "No statistics," he said.
"This is computer science. We don't do statistics."

I did the analysis anyway. That was as close as I came to expressing my frustration at the way the thesis had turned out.  My marks fell from an A to a C, but I didn't care. I was glad to be out of there. I was glad to be leaving this hell of Academia, where everybody was paranoid that their seniors were out to get them; where incompetence was rewarded, innovation was stifled, promises were broken, and ideas were stolen. Out in the Real World,  I reasoned, when there was money on the line, none of that would be permitted to happen.

Yeah, I know. You can stop laughing now.

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