Lecture notes1

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A Class About Ideas

[Zhiqiang Gao]

Jan 22, 2007

This is a class about ideas and there is a reason for it. The emphasis in engineering education has long been on “fundamentals”. Students first spend as much as two years horning the fundamentals in basic sciences and mathematics, before they move on to yet more classes on fundamentals in engineering. Make no mistake about it, being fundamentally sound in basic science and engineering principles and skills is paramount for future scientists and engineers. But what about creativity? The advance of science and engineering relies, after all, on the creative minds. But where and how exactly are they cultivated in all the educational experience students have, if they are cultivated at all?

To some critics, myself included, the process that we call education actually suffocates the minds with “dead” knowledge, that is the knowledge taken out of the creative process it originated from and given the reign of authority. Students would typically memorize the laws, rules and formulas and mentally, sometimes literally, copy-paste them in a sequence of examples, exercises and exams. Needless to say little is retained, or really understood, in such a process. A. I. Bezzerides, left University of California, Berkeley, once he realized that the engineers he worked with at a night job all forgot their studies [1] , three months short of graduation. Of course he later went on to become a renowned writer for his masterful depictions of ordinary people. I hope not all my students in this class follow his foot steps.

Together in this class we’ll discover and appreciate great ideas in the history of feedback control. In each strand of control theory, we will start with trying to understand the problems that triggered the inquisitive minds, the motivation and the pressing needs. As we shall see, the history of feedback goes back no less than two thousand years. There were many well known feedback devices, mechanisms and ideas created throughout history, even before the term feedback was conceptualized in 1920s, each a result of human beings coping with problems in their existence. Understanding these problems bring us back in time to face the same dilemma of the early pioneers’, which is the key, in my opinion, to understand the creative thought process.

Once the problems are understood, we will then look for the methodologies employed in the investigations. Is it something like new theorems in geometry, where new findings are arrived at deductively from the known axioms and theorems? Or did the ideas arise from experimentations and observations? What role does previous knowledge play? Is it purely intuition?

Finally we look at the result of each investigation. What was the scope of the problems it addresses? Was it a solution for a particular problem or for a class of problems? How effective was it? What were the significance and impacts? What were the limitations of the solution? What were the problems, if any, that were unresolved and left to future generations?

In the sequence of understanding problems-methodology-results, in this particular order, we attempt to tune-in the great minds in history, draw inspirations, and, ultimately, cultivate the intellectual curiosity and creativity in ourselves. Of course this mentality, this way of knowing or inquisition, is not limited to the study of feedback control. To bring the point home let’s think of a familiar contemporary innovator who changed the way we live. How about Steve Jobs of Apple Computer Inc., now just simply Apple Inc. I have been always been intrigued by not only what he and his company have produced, from Apple II, Macintosh, the iPod, to the iPhone announced last week, but also the way they did it. What were the problems he perceived and what was the thought process that led to the inventions? Was there a strategy/methodology behind all these great? To answer these questions, let’s take a close look at the latest phenomena, iPhone.

In the cluttered market of multifunction cellphones, what Jobs sees, in his words, is “Everybody hates their phone”[2]. Text messaging, Web browsing, contact management, music, audio/video play, etc., the cellphones do them all, albeit badly. The user interface simply doesn’t work: tiny buttons, miniature screens, poor screen display and configurations etc. Jobs noticed the broken products, fixed the problems and the result is yet another cool innovation. But what makes Apple capable of fixing the broken cellphone designs that no one else could? Because it recognized that the problem is interface and Apple excels at interface design, going back to the first ever graphical computer user interface in Apple II. Cellphones, after all, are mere tiny computers and just like any computers, as Apple realized some twenty years ago, they live or die by how well the user interface works. Furthermore, Apple interface is unmatched as it is the only major computer maker that has hardware, software, and industrial designs all under one roof. Perhaps it is this synergetic design methodology that sets Apple apart from its imitators.

With the above discussion and the iPhone example, I hope you are ready to do some explorations yourself. Here is our first assignment: Write an essay on a great idea/invention in the history of feedback control. Discuss the problems, the methodology and the significance of the idea/invention. Explain the thought process of the inventor, if it is at all possible. Roughly, the page limit for undergraduate students is five, ten for graduate students, double space. I would like to see the title, outline and references of the paper by Jan. 31. In these two weeks, you should have sufficient time to decide possible topics of your paper and obtain, from our library or via Ohiolink, the necessary books and articles. The complete paper is due Feb. 14. Finally, each person will make a presentation, on the web and wikipedia-like. I’ll explore the means to do so and get to you shortly.

To conclude this first lecture note on ideas we now turn to the brilliant mind of Nobert Wiener: “Perhaps I may clarify the historical background of the present situation if I say that the first industrial revolution, the revolution of the “dark satanic mills,” was the devaluation of the human arm by the competition of machinery. . . . The modern industrial revolution [i.e., the computer and information revolution] is similarly bound to devalue the human brain. . . . The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying and selling. To arrive at this society, we need a good deal of planning and a good deal of struggle, which, if the best comes to the best, may be on the plane of ideas . . . . (Wiener, 1965, pp.27-28, bracketed words and italic added)

The devaluation of human brain predicted by Wiener some sixty years ago is, sadly, the state of affair in this age of information. As people glued to the computer or TV screens hours on end, googling and receiving information, do their brains act as an active agent of thinking or a passive receptor? There is no escape for engineering education from the society at large. But young, impressionable, minds should not be reduced to mere data-formula robots for the promise of steady paychecks down the road. Deeply ingrained work ethics, disciplined training in the elements of knowledge, and strong foundational skills are not, hopefully, attained at the cost of ingenuity, initiative, independence, resourcefulness and collaboration. To right what went awry in engineering education, let us, teacher and students, fix it one course at a time, starting with this class.


[1] Douglas Martin, Obituary, New York Times, Jan. 14, 2007.

[2] Lev Grossman Cupertino, “The Apple of Your Ear”, Time Magazine, Jan. 22, 2007.

[3] Nobert Wiener, Cybernetics, 2nd Ed., The MIT Press, 1965.

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