Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
I stand in the security line at LAX amid a sea of blue TSA agents. Despite the surrounding chaos of rushed passengers, screaming babies, and the fear of abandoned luggage, my mind is at ease: I am intently surveying my environment, my eyes darting between blue-clad agents and shoeless passengers as I analyze the TSA’s security system. Which passengers are pre-checked and can breeze through screening? What determines whether someone goes through the body scanner or the metal detector? How many TSA officers are monitoring passengers post-screening? I’ve spent the last three years studying the algorithms that decide where the checkpoints at LAX are placed, and I’ve even developed some algorithms of my own. As I shuffle forward in line, I consider how the TSA could provide more security with less hassle.
Even before I started designing game theory algorithms, I had a passion for turning my ideas into physical reality, mapping my thoughts onto the world to create something that didn’t exist before. I built all sorts of elaborate contraptions, from enhancements to toy cars to blueprints for flying wooden planes. I dreamed of becoming an inventor like my childhood hero, Thomas Edison. I am most content when immersed in this process of conceiving ideas and then constantly testing and improving them until they become fruitful.
When I was nine, I discovered computer programming – the unlikely result of constantly nagging my father for a Game Boy. He promised me one if I could program a working Markov Decision Process solver for an undergraduate class he was teaching, assuming it would never happen. Determined to earn it, I spent a few hours each day teaching myself to program. At first, no matter how many bugs I found, countless others would keep my program from running. But in hopes that my Game Boy was within reach, I worked nonstop, line-by-line, test after test, until my program began to spit out the right answer. To my dad’s surprise, I successfully built the program and spent the next week glued to my Game Boy, and the next eight years glued to programming.
When I create algorithms today, I tackle problems too mathematically complex for our brains to process alone, but too nuanced for a computer, being a mere automaton. The variables in the security dilemmas I try to solve include a different value for each target, the adversary’s possible attacks, and the range of possible patrol routes. A good defense strategy must account for every scenario, and though this can overwhelm a human mind, it’s much easier with the right computer algorithm. I work at the intersection of these capacities, grappling with problems neither man nor machine can accomplish alone. It’s in the midst of this process, expressing my ideas in the form of code, that I feel perfectly content, because my creativity is truly at work.
Designing algorithms feels like an art to me: my medium, a typewriter-font cursor blinking on an empty Python shell, is a blank canvas, containing no inner meaning of its own, but rather an unlimited number of possibilities. When an elegant program starts working, I feel as accomplished as an artist who has just finished his last brushstroke. I am an artist, and my art can solve problems as mundane as algebra homework or as vital as the security of critical infrastructure. From choreographing the patrol boats that dance around the Staten Island ferry, to protecting foreign aid deliveries from theft, my research has unlimited potential to revitalize the security domain.
When I took up algorithm design, I found a new realm of possibility to channel my creativity and help advance the state of the art in math and computer science. I hope that one day, it will be my algorithms thwarting threats to LAX.