Category: Stanford


Traditional education has as much to fear from the potential of the internet as the worlds of publishing, record shops, book shops, and even now Game shops.  Performing an activity at scale (both volume and geography) reduces the shared cost of any overhead, and a new university called Udacity has sprung out of Stanford to take advantage of this new world.

Udacity presents students with short video lectures interspersed with HTML forms that take in answers to questions.  The focus of the university is programming, and the web application even includes a program interpreter so students need to write code which the servers interpret, test and return marks.  The content of the course is genuinely challenging and allows students to learn in their own time, even though the courses have a fast weekly pace.

The potential of this is quite astonishing – I was part of the beta course in AI (run directly by Stanford).  They had over 85,000 students enroll, and over 23,000 finished the course.  The course was of course globally available and free, so programmers from 57 countries took part, with translations crowd sourced by the students.

I have now recommended the university to at least 10 programmers (from complete beginners to experienced masters) and every single one is coming back with positive feedback.  They are offering courses from the first steps of programming to the details of how to create the brains of a self driving car (which is excellent).  The courses are taught by the absolute cream of the profession (e.g. Sebastian Thrum who pioneered the self driving car in the DARPA grand challenges and now is heading the Google Self Driving Car team).

They are of exceptional quality, and it is hard not to draw a line between the lack of proper ICT training in the UK that is appalling, and the supply provided by off shore web sites and entrepreneurs, and wonder about the state of UK universities in 20 or 30 years time.  My suspicion is they will be a place of networking and research rather than learning.  What is not clear is where the funding will come from for such activities, which in most cases starts with some form of tax or international investment.

This is probably not somewhere for the UK to be left behind – the internet can move the balance of power before most of us have even noticed there was a threat.

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Route Planning: A*

The first week of the Stanford AI Class focused on route planning.  This is a pretty standard problem in computer science, with a number of well known solutions, including depth first and breadth first tree searching (it either means something to you or you really shouldn’t care).  Both of these have the drawback of taking a while to focus on the best route, so by simply applying a heuristic (a guess) to the remaining distance from each tested location, the algorithm should focus on the best path faster.

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Here’s a few screenshots of the A* at work – blue is the starting point, pink the finish, yellow the tiles tested, and white the optimum path.

In this case there is a bug which means something is out of whack.  Unfortunately Processing (the language I’ve been using as a demo tool) doesn’t have much in the way of debugging, so I’m going to have to move to C++ or Java in XCode or Visual Studio.  It’ll take a while to transition this code, so I may as well head down the C++ route (in my opinion more useful as it allows me to easily port code to the iOS devices).