As you can probably guess, I'm a proud geek..... and I totally geeked out in college when I learned about control theory.
I go more into this in my later post (Idea Foundry Origin Story), but as a kid, I was inspired by visions of the future I had read about in sci fi books and seen in movies (Star Wars, Bladerunner, Aliens, etc). A future where robots could do our bidding, machines could make nearly anything we wanted, and computers were more than fancy calculators - they could actually help take the heavy lifting out of mental busy work, and free us up for ideation. (Humans are terrible computers, but we're great thinkers).
I also feel that once we (as a species) master three things - better electric batteries, more dexterous robotics systems, and improved artificial intelligence - then we'll have a future in which machines can do our mining, our farming, our manufacturing, our construction... and I believe it's possible to dial-in a social structure (ref Guy Standing) wherein these machines aren't taking our jobs (ref Federico Pistono), they're doing our work for us, freeing us to do more exciting and fun things. (ref Atlantic Monthly). I know it's far fetched, but hey. Let's strive for something cool. Maybe it really is possible to create a world in which we don't need to work as hard as we have been for millenia (ref Jonathon Kolber).. What else is technology good for?
So - back to control theory. As a sophomore engineering student at RPI, I took a class where we had to design and build an "intelligent faucet" that combined hot and cold water to reach and maintain a specified temperature as soon as possible. This was my first introduction to Proportional Integral Derivative (PID) systems, stepper motors, embedded control, building circuits, and designing/programming a system which does something that humans would normally do. This was a great class, and I enjoyed it so much I wound up TA'ing it as an undergrad (first undergrad at RPI to TA an embedded control class :-) ) Below depicts example behavior of such a system. Have too much cold water, add a little hot.... have too much hot, add a little cold... until you're just right.
Behavior of a PID system seeking its target (for example, temperature of water
coming out of a faucet). I feel this is a good analogy for many things in life.
I know it's not artificial intelligence, but introduction to PID control was the first time I could make a machine do something that had a target, sensed the current state, adjusted its performance , and achieved its goal. That's what is depicted above, and on the front page of this site.... By fine-tuning different parameters in the PID equation, you can iterate faster and more efficiently until you hit your target. I like to extrapolate this theory to myself. I have a goal, I want to achieve it, I sense my environment, I react to it, and hopefully, I accomplish what I set out to do, and learn to do it better and faster next time.
I also like the idea of over-reaching, finding the edge of my comfort zone, and then retreating. I often like to push myself to be slightly out of that zone.
That's why (and I feel like such a geek saying this) the shape of that PID curve really appeals to my sensibilities and philosophy. Strive for something, reach, find out you've stretched yourself too thin, or don't like living that way, then adjust. Eventually, if you're learning and responding appropriately, you'll get closer and closer to your target, until you hit it. And along the way, you'll have learned something about yourself - what you like to do, what you don't like to do, what's too hard, what's too easy...
I was also delighted to learn (during research for this post) that PID control theory was first derived by watching helmsmen steer ships. A ship's wheel has always had a symbolic meaning for me (steering one's own fate) and will be the first tattoo I get. :-) I've always enjoyed the culture of adventure, challenge and success associated with the high seas (a team of hard working and technically talented people working together through uncertain hardship to reach a destination). Thus, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that this was also the inspiration behind one of the first control systems, and that my weird and disparate interests are actually rather tightly bound.