Mikerah Quintyne-Collins on forging her own path to the blockchain scene

U of T dropout reflects on getting started with blockchain, formal education, and research

Mikerah Quintyne-Collins on forging her own path to the blockchain scene

Right before Christmas last year, then U of T math and statistics student Mikerah Quintyne-Collins received over $100,000 USD in cryptocurrency from Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin and promptly dropped out of U of T.

In a Twitter thread between cryptocurrency developers in December, Quintyne-Collins tweeted to Buterin, “I will quite literally drop out if we got $100k in ETH.” She asked and she received.

After dropping out, Quintyne-Collins, a programmer, researcher, and blockchain enthusiast, switched to working full-time at ChainSafe, a Toronto-based startup that works on blockchain applications, such as automatically enforced smart contracts. Blockchain is a decentralized method of securely storing data that relies on cryptography, the math behind encoding and decoding messages securely.

Ethereum is the second-largest cryptocurrency by market capital, next to Bitcoin. At the time of the transaction, the 1,000 Ether that Buterin sent Quintyne-Collins had a value of $100,630 USD. Now, that same amount is worth around $174,000 USD.

Buterin is a university dropout himself, having left the University of Waterloo in 2014 to work on Ethereum full-time after receiving $100,000 USD through the Thiel Fellowship, a grant awarded annually to people aged 22 and under to drop out of school and pursue full-time work.

These days, Quintyne-Collins is pretty busy with her job, working to develop a platform that may eventually be a part of a new version of Ethereum.

“The main thing that I miss about university [is] Goldring,” she said.

While her mother had wanted her to return to her studies, Quintyne-Collins does not see the need. “People haven’t asked me about my degree. In fact, every time I tell somebody I dropped out to work on Ethereum, they just say, ‘Congrats.’”

“I know myself well enough to know that this is better for me, rather than taking courses I’m not interested in,” she told BreakerMag.

When I asked about her ambitions and plans, Quintyne-Collins said that she was going to “go with the flow.”

Even before university, much of her efforts had been focused outside of school. She taught herself how to code when she was 13 by borrowing library books. Bitcoin then piqued her interest around 2011 when she was in high school and it first made the news; this prompted her to start reading research papers on cryptography.

She became more involved in blockchain during her second year, when Buterin came to U of T for a talk on crypto-economics. This also brought her in touch with ChainSafe, where she would eventually start working part-time as a project lead while continuing her studies.

Before dropping out, Quintyne-Collins was also President of the U of T Blockchain Group and had co-organized a number of blockchain hackathons. Even after dropping out, she helped host this year’s ETHUofT hackathon alongside the group’s current president. This is where I met Quintyne-Collins, as I was volunteering with registration on a Friday evening in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

She believes that universities are more useful for forming connections than learning. She added that a number of top universities have materials and resources available online for free.

“This last semester, I wasn’t doing… any schoolwork, to be honest. I might have failed some courses,” she told me.

That being said, she would not encourage just anybody to drop out and find work. “If you have nothing else going for you, then your GPA is pretty much all you have.”

Quintyne-Collins was admitted to the first-year computer science stream when she started at U of T but chose not to pursue the program of study. “I wasn’t going to pay the extra tuition… If you can get a degree for 8k a year versus 15k a year and end up with the same job, who’s the idiot? The person who paid more for it.”

She has also co-authored a study published in the STEM Fellowship Journal and is currently conducting research with a fellow U of T dropout working in blockchain. They are not sure about which journals to publish in yet, but it will at least be on arXiv, an open-access digital repository of research papers.

“For computer science, it doesn’t really matter that much,” she said, referring to the publication they will ultimately choose.

When asked how to get involved in the blockchain scene and get one’s foot in the door, Quintyne-Collins said, “Contribute to open source projects and attend events if you’re technical. And if you’re non-technical, you should organize the events.”

She emphasized the need for talent in the scene beyond just computer science, but also in communication and outreach. “If you’re good at building communities and bringing people together, that’s just as important as being able to write code.”

“This happened so close to home”: students call on administration to take action on mental health

Protest outside Simcoe Hall comes day after public death by suicide at Bahen

“This happened so close to home”: students call on administration to take action on mental health

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

In the wake of a public death by suicide on campus last night, students are demanding urgent attention to mental health at the University of Toronto. Approximately 100 students gathered outside Simcoe Hall on Monday afternoon, meeting what they perceive as silence from the university administration on mental health with their own solemn silence.

Toronto emergency services were called to the Bahen Centre for Information Technology on Sunday night in response to a medical emergency, after a student fell from high in the building’s atrium. Toronto Police have ruled the death to be non-suspicious and non-criminal. This marks the second death by suicide in the past year at the Bahen Centre, a hub for students studying computer science and engineering at U of T.

Congregating outside Simcoe Hall at 2:00 pm, the protest grew in numbers until shortly after 3:00 pm, when students moved inside to sit on the second floor of the administration building. Students were seen holding signs with slogans including “the university is complicit” and “you can’t ignore us forever.” A number of media outlets, including CBC and CTV, were also present.

By 5:00 pm, students had moved across King’s College Circle to the Medical Sciences Building, where a Governing Council Business Board meeting was taking place. The Business Board meeting was originally scheduled to take place at Simcoe Hall, but the location was changed on short notice.

Padraic Berting, a third-year student, was one of the organizers of the protest. “This is an issue that’s very personal to me,” Berting said, noting that this was the third death by suicide on campus in the past year that he was aware of.

Berting is disappointed that the university administration seems unwilling to recognize what he and many others are calling a “mental health crisis” on campus. “I felt that the only way to actually do something was to try and make it more of a public statement,” he said. “So that they will be publicly compelled to do something.”

Second-year student Sabrina Brathwaite came out to the protest “because there have been a number of deaths on campus” and that “there must be an emphasis on action and policy change.”

“I’m somewhat cynical in terms of student protests and admin changing things, but I think it’s better than nothing, and I think that at the very least it shows that there are people who care,” Brathwaite said. “A protest like this will show admin that people are watching.”

Sana Mohtadi, a second-year student, went to the protest “to see the sheer magnitude of the mental health crisis at U of T.”

“It’s incredible to see such solidarity on a campus that often feels really isolated,” Mohtadi said. “I thought it was a great starting point for renewing a conversation about mental health on campus.”

The two deaths at Bahen are inseparable from the computer science student community. The intense pressure that computer science students are put under, both to be accepted to the subject program of study and succeed in the competitive program, have a number of people questioning how it may contribute to poor mental health.

“I think that there’s ways that the program is more stressful than it has to be,” said Maxwell Garrett, a second-year Computer Science student who was at the protest. Garrett is saddened by the deaths in Bahen, a space in which he and many others in the computer science program spend much of their time. “It’s a little stressful, just knowing that two students have ended their life there,” Garrett said.

Anam Alvi, a fourth-year Computer Science student present at the protest, was studying in Bahen last night when the death occurred. Alvi came out to the protest because she wants to put pressure on the university to recognize that “people aren’t okay with this lack of acknowledgement and lack of action,” even if it means hurting the reputation of the university.

“It’s incredibly hard to realize that this happened so close to home, that this is someone in our community,” Alvi said. “This is a building that so many people in our program commune around, it’s such a safe space for all of us.”

Alvi can’t see herself going back to Bahen anytime soon. “It changes what it means to be there, at least for the time being.”

SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Janine Robb, Executive Director of the Health & Wellness Centre at U of T, said that the centre had been working hard to provide support to students impacted by the recent death, including accepting short-notice appointments and bringing in an outside provider to be on campus today for extra support.

Robb acknowledged the “tragic accident” that occurred at Bahen and reiterated that the university is unable to share any more details at this time because the victim’s family has not provided permission for the university to do so.

“We’re really focused more on students who witnessed or who are affected by what happened,” Robb said.

Speaking about the availability of mental health resources on campus, a subject of scrutiny from many of the students at the protest, Robb said that Health & Wellness “provides and allocates counsellors as soon as we are aware of the situation.”

“We take mental health very seriously, and we’re certainly aware of it being a tragic and common problem in our society and in our community,” Robb said. “I would tell you that it’s a public health issue. I think my staff are doing a very good job of responding to the need.”

“To me it seems we’re never seen as supportive enough, despite our best efforts, and I’m just not sure how to change the dialogue on that,” Robb said.

Joshua Grondin, Vice-President University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, said that he raised the issue of emergency mental health supports on campus in a January meeting with the Office of the Vice-Provost Students. Grondin specifically suggested that a safety net or barrier be installed at Bahen and proposed that the university investigate implementing 24-hour counselling services at Robarts Library during the months of March and April.

“I mentioned specifically that I was worried someone would duplicate what was done by a student earlier this year,” Grondin said, and that he told the administration he “thought these barriers could prevent another person from doing the same thing.”

While the protest today was characterized by silence, some students believe that frank words are the way to bring about change. “I think people who were there need to talk about what they heard, what they saw,” Alvi said. “I think it will bring gravity to the situation.”


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

— With files from Josie Kao

Disorder in Computer Science Student Union amid resignations, dissolution of General Council

Unaffiliated system of “committees” also operating parallel to course union

Disorder in Computer Science Student Union amid resignations, dissolution of General Council

In recent months, the Computer Science Student Union (CSSU) has been affected by multiple executive resignations, the dissolution of its General Council due to an alleged lack of involvement and communication, and the creation of an unregulated, loosely-organized system of “committees” operating parallel to the course union.

The CSSU is a course union that represents over 1,200 students who are taking a Computer Science (CS) course or are enrolled in the CS programs of study. Its executives are elected each spring for the next academic year.

Resignations

The first resignation to hit the union came on November 16, when CS student Ignas Panero Armoska left his role as the Director of Social Events.

“I worked really hard on frosh over the summer and then a bunch of social events, but it actually turned out that I was also doing a lot of infrastructure-related tasks that were not under my purview at all,” he said in an interview with The Varsity.

Panero Armoska noted that these tasks included onboarding people to manage office-related assignments and helping run academic events.

Panero Armoska’s departure was followed by that of President David Ansermino, who left his position effective December 21.

Explaining his resignation, Ansermino said that he had to leave since he is working full-time at a startup. “We’ve certainly got a lot on our plates right now, and I’m kind of an integral part of that… Trying to manage my responsibilities became difficult.”

Ansermino was replaced by Vice-President Calvin Luo, who in turn hired Panero Armoska as the Acting Vice-President in order “to provide a more stable leadership team,” given the departures. The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), which oversees course unions such as the CSSU, suggested that the CSSU hold a by-election to replace Ansermino or have Luo take over in an interim capacity.

Treasurer Taylor Stinson also departed in December, according to a statement from Luo.

“[Stinson] and I agreed that at this moment, the Executive Council of the CSSU should be filled with people involved with the community and dedicated to improving it,” Luo wrote.

Stinson was replaced by Borna Salman, the former CSSU community store manager. Stinson could not be reached for comment.

Dissolution of the CSSU General Council

In the same statement announcing Ansermino’s resignation, Luo said that the course union was dissolving its General Council and seeking applications for new members to serve. According to Panero Armoska, members of the council were generally inactive.

Members of the council are appointed by the CSSU executive in the fall and are comprised of people “who want to take an active role in helping make decisions for the CSSU and organizing CSSU initiatives,” according to Panero Armoska.

The reasoning behind the dissolution was to have a smaller team that facilitated better communication.

Following the dissolution of the old council, the current executive interviewed new applicants and hired six people, including some who were re-hired from the previous council.

According to ASSU President Haseeb Hassaan, ASSU did not know about the dissolution of the council until reached by The Varsity in early February.

Since then, ASSU has spoken with the CSSU and was “informed that the Council was not active,” wrote Hassaan. He added, “This council is appointed/hired by the Executive as per their Constitution so it is up to them to make that decision.”

A system of “committees”

Aside from the wave of resignations and the dissolution of General Council, the CSSU has also been affected by the appearance of a system of loosely-organized “committees.” Unaffiliated with the union, they were started independently by CS student Aniket Sengupta-Kali early last semester and “formally launched” in January.

The committees are meant to be “a very simple way of getting involved” with the community because there hasn’t historically been a way to do that, said Sengupta-Kali.

“It’s kind of a loose organization,” he said. “We’re not trying to formalize too too much because we’re still trying to work things out with the CSSU, because most of the people involved do want this to be officialized as part of the union.”

He added, “It’s just that it has to be on terms that everyone finds reasonable and that will facilitate more involvement in the future.”

The committees are organized through Slack, a professional messaging platform, and cover topics such as coding events, mental health, and socials.

Despite not formally being part of the CSSU and operating in parallel to it, Panero Armoska said the committees organized by Sengupta-Kali were trying to advertise at U of T Hacks, an annual hackathon where Panero Armoska was serving as an executive.

He also said that the committees “were communicating with the department” on behalf of the CSSU, despite not being an official representative of the CSSU.

“We’re not opposed to them — like 100 per cent student involvement is great and in fact we’re going to be working on making more opportunities available within the CSSU,” Panero Armoska remarked. “But… we literally are trying to get the CSSU more organized and have a better structure and stability right now and we can’t endorse events that we literally did not organize or are at or anything like that because it can really poorly reflect on us.”

According to him, the CSSU has met with representatives of the committees, including Sengupta-Kali.

However, Sengupta-Kali denied claims that the committees were passing themselves off as representatives of the CSSU.

“Constantly, we’ve been trying to assert that no, we’re not trying to be a rival CSSU or usurp the CSSU,” he said, “but we do want to see CSSU change a bit in terms of how it accepts community involvement and how can get involved.”

Despite these leadership shuffles, Panero Armoska noted that the CSSU is continuing to operate and hold events.

Student-led petition calls for separate Computer Science convocation

Petition had over 800 signatures

Student-led petition calls for separate Computer Science convocation

Computer Science (CS) students started an online petition calling for a review to hold a separate convocation for the department. The petition, titled “Let CS Graduate Together!” proposed that students be given the option to graduate with other students from their department. Currently, CS students graduate with other students from the college to which they belong.

After three months of petitioning, the student-led petition received 809 signatures.

Professional faculties and Rotman Commerce are the only undergraduate divisions with their own ceremonies.

“Members of the committee are aware of the petition and are considering and taking concerns from Computer Science students,” said Elizabeth Church, Interim Director of U of T Media Relations.

“The review is also including a survey of graduates at this year’s spring and fall convocations,” said Church, adding that they also contacted recent alumni and five student governments for comment.

Lana El Sanyoura, a fourth-year CS student and organizer of the petition, spoke with The Varsity regarding her concerns about current convocation procedures and what led her to creating the petition page.

“As Computer Science students, we spend so much of our time working together, so many of our courses are group-based, and we spend hours, even go past midnight, working in the Computer Labs at the Bahen Centre. We also take a majority of Computer Science courses, and have a strong, thriving, localized community that lies within the Bahen Centre, with the student union office, study lounges, computer labs, classes, and professor offices all in one place,” said El Sanyoura in an email.

“However, on the most important day of our academic careers, we are not there for each other at Convocation, because we are graduating with our Colleges.”

El Sanyoura also pointed out that the CS department shares similar features with Rotman Commerce, namely deregulated fees, a grade-based admission process, and a Professional Experience Year Co-op Program, which grants students the option of interning for 12–16 months after their second or third year. Rotman Commerce, unlike CS, has its own convocation.

“This petition could give students the chance to celebrate their undergraduate experience with the community of students and faculty that they had been working along-side of through it all,” continued El Sanyoura.

Ignas Panero Armoska, a second-year CS student, shared the same community sentiment as Sanyoura, expressing a closer connection to classmates in the department.

“I believe that I identify with the CS community so much more than my [college’s], to the point where when people describe how they feel connected to or are vested in their college, I realize that is a space I hold for my computer science community, much like the engineers do.”

Review process

The petition comes after the university announced a review for all upcoming convocations. U of T officials looked at current procedures such as venue size, number of guest tickets, diploma procedures, and whether or not each student should receive their diploma from the chancellor individually. The review also took into account the size of the university.

An advisory committee consisting of both academic staff and administrators from across all three campuses has been created. Among the committee members are Don MacMillan, Registrar at the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering; Silvia Rosatone, Director at the Office of Convocation; Sheree Drummond, Secretary of Governing Council; and Bryn MacPherson, Assistant Vice-President of the Office of the President & Chief of Protocol.

The committee will be looking at the factors and implications associated with the venue and ceremony procedures, such as accessibility services, budgeting, and inclusion of Indigenous culture.

The committee will be consulting with the 2018 spring and fall graduating classes, principals and deans, divisional faculty and staff, and the alumni community regarding final decisions.

Students and staff can submit comments or suggestions to the advisory committee through an online form by November 30. An interim report will be presented in December and a final report is expected to be delivered early next year.

Editor’s note (25/10): This article has been corrected to clarify that the petition did not have a target number of signatures.

U of T Blockchain Group presents Blockfest

Students will explore applications of new technology through workshops and talks

U of T Blockchain Group presents Blockfest

U of T Blockfest, a student-run hackathon focusing on blockchain ecosystems, will be held October 12–14 in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

The 36-hour hackathon will introduce students to blockchain technology and its applications.

Blockchain is the technology behind cryptocurrency and it functions as a decentralized ledger of encrypted records — ‘blocks’ — connected chronologically in a series — a ‘chain’ — that cannot be easily tampered with by any one entity. Among other potential applications, it could be used to track goods in a complex supply chain.

The Varsity sat down with Stephanie Zhang, Vice-President of the U of T Blockchain Group and co-organizer of the event, to discuss the importance of hackathons, blockchain, and how students can get involved.

“We’re trying to foster a friendly environment where students are helping students, mentors are helping students, and students are given the resources that they need so that they are able to make sense of… things that they might not be able to make sense of on their own,” said Zhang. “We just want people to collaborate.”

When asked about the value of blockchain, Zhang answered, “Toronto is actually a really, really bustling place in the blockchain industry,” noting that Vitalik Buterin, the creator of cryptocurrency Ethereum, is from Toronto.

“Toronto actually has a lot of growing companies,” continued Zhang, “and they’re all looking for student developer talent.”

“What we want to do is to better prepare our students to be able to take the jobs that are openly available for them, and maybe even get them interested in developing on blockchain, so that they are able to then continually develop better and better infrastructure for these platforms,” she added.

This kind of focus and student direction, according to Zhang, is what distinguishes U of T Blockfest from other, larger hackathons.

Blockfest will host workshops to help participants find ideas that interest them. Participants will be able to form groups of up to four, and mentors will be on hand to support them through the completion of their projects until the end of the hackathon.

“We’re also going to be posting resources on the Slack before the event, so students can start messing around with it themselves before they come into the hackathon,” she added.

Zhang fondly remembered a story from EthUofT, a hackathon that she had helped organize in March.

“Last year, we had a first-year student walk onto the hackathon, [and] ask what was going on.”

“He was like, ‘What’s going on here? Oh, it’s a hackathon. What’s a hackathon about? Oh, can I join?’”

He was added to a team and, according to Zhang, the student learned to program through workshops and talks, and executed a project with the help of teammates within 36 hours. 

Zhang encourages interested students to participate, and to not be concerned if they are unfamiliar with blockchain technology.

“It’s okay if you don’t build anything as long as you’re there to learn, because the whole goal of our hackathon is for you to learn something,” said Zhang.

Students can now register at uoftblockfest.com to participate in the hackathon, which will be held at Bahen from October 12–14. Those interested in volunteering at Blockfest or helping out with future hackathons can email contact@uoftbg.ca.

Computer Science departments welcome five new faculty members

U of T hopes to advance robotics research

Computer Science departments welcome five new faculty members

Five new faculty members were appointed to U of T’s Computer Science departments for the 2018–2019 academic year, as the university moves to increase its commitment to computer science research, particularly in robotics.

The researchers come from a variety of backgrounds and have diverse research interests that encompass fields like robotics, machine learning, human-robot interaction, and parallel algorithms.

Dr. Animesh Garg, one of the new Assistant Professors in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM, was previously a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.

In an email interview with The Varsity, Garg wrote that he chose to accept a position at U of T in part because of collaborations with industry leaders such as Google, NVIDIA, and Uber.

“The opportunity to work in such a dynamic environment composed of academic leaders, industrial partners and most of all inspiring students made for a great combination for a young academic such as myself to establish a thriving research lab,” continued Garg.

His research focuses on the fields of generalizable autonomy for robotics and “involves an integration of perception, machine learning and control in the real world.”

Dr. Maryam Mehri Dehnavi, a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science hailing from Rutgers University, wrote in an email to The Varsity that she was drawn to U of T because of its stellar academic environment and the city.

Dehnavi also pointed to the department’s focus beyond “just current trendy areas” and its investment in long-term research.

“We aim to significantly improve the performance of large-scale data-intensive problems on parallel and cloud computing platforms by building high-performance frameworks,: said Dehnavi on her research. “To build these frameworks we formulate scalable mathematical methods and develop domain-specific compilers and programming languages.”

Dr. Joseph Jay Williams is also a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science, previously from the National University of Singapore.

In an interview with The Varsity, he said that he is excited to join U of T due to the unique position he was offered in doing research that “applies computer science techniques to educational research.” In particular, Williams is excited to work on cross-disciplinary collaborations, such as with the Department of Psychology and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Williams’ research focuses on creating “intelligent self-improving systems that conduct dynamic experiments to discover how to optimize and personalize technology, helping people learn new concepts and change habitual behavior.”

In the future, Williams hopes to conduct randomized A/B experiments with practical applications in health and education.

Dr. Florian Shkurti will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM coming from McGill University. Shkurti was drawn to U of T due to its “longstanding tradition of excellence” in areas like robotics, machine learning, computer vision, and various engineering subfields.

One of Shkurti’s research projects works on robot control systems that enable robots to work alongside scientists to explore underwater environments.

“In the future, I am planning to dedicate my research efforts to creating algorithms that learn useful abstractions and representations from large sources of unsupervised visual data,” said Shkurti.

Dr. Jessica Burgner-Kahrs from Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany will join the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM as an Associate Professor.

According to Burgner-Kahrs, her research interests are in robotics, particularly in small-scale continuum robotics and human-robot interactions. She will be joining the faculty in Spring 2019.

Through its appointment of research-focused faculty, the university hopes to expand its research frontiers in computer science beyond traditional areas.

U of T student part of winning Microsoft Imagine Cup team

Samin Khan and Hamayal Choudhry were among 49 teams to advance to the World Finals in Seattle

U of T student part of winning Microsoft Imagine Cup team

Microsoft hosted its first Imagine Cup in 2003. The international competition, now in its 16th year, challenges student tech developers to use Microsoft’s cloud-based technologies to address global problems.

This year, two Canadians won the Cup: Samin Khan, a fourth-year at University College pursuing a double major in Computer Science and Cognitive Science with a minor in Psychology, and Hamayal Choudhry, a third-year at University of Ontario Institute of Technology studying Mechatronics Engineering. In July, Khan and Choudhry were one of 49 teams to advance to the 2018 Imagine Cup World Finals in Seattle.

The pair’s winning project was smartARM, a 3D-printed robotic prosthetic hand designed to be highly functional and affordable at an estimated cost of $100. smartARM operates in a three-step process: First, a camera embedded in the palm of smartARM senses the shape of an unfamiliar object. A Raspberry Pi analyzes the shape’s data and calculates the kind of grip required to grasp it. Second, a machine learning algorithm powered by Microsoft Azure improves the grip each time the device is used. Last, this information is stored on the Microsoft cloud so the user can switch to another smartARM and retain functionality.

Khan and Choudhry won a mentoring session with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, a $50,000 Microsoft Azure grant, and $85,000 in cash prizes.

The Varsity had the opportunity to sit down with Khan and talk about his team’s win.

The Varsity: How did you hear about the Imagine Cup?

Samin Khan: I heard about it at UofTHacks it’s a hackathon run by U of T and there were sponsors there for each of the companies. So, Microsoft actually had a few sponsors… and after we won the Microsoft API award, they told us about the Imagine Cup.

TV: How did you meet your partner Hamayal Choudhry?

SK: We actually met in middle school. He was a year younger than me; we didn’t know each other too well. We split off into different high schools we hadn’t seen each other in four, five, six years. We just happened to run into each other at UofTHacks… We started exchanging philosophies that we had for the tech industry. We were tired of seeing innovation that was so focused on making the next cell phone slimmer or the next car more sleek we were thinking that this is not really focusing on impacting the lives of people… Neither of us came into the competition with an idea nor a team, and based on that conversation, I think we realized we had to put something together. And it was all history from there.

TV: What is it that makes smartARM so novel as a prosthetic?

SK: What we noticed is that within the prosthetics industry, there’s a big divide between the products. On one hand you have ‘cosmetic’ prosthetics: these are going to be pretty cheap, they’re affordable, they’re [less than] $1,000. However, they don’t provide much motor functionality, like fingers, so you can’t actually grasp objects.

On the other hand, you’re going to have these very complex robotic arms. You’ll find that these arms all immediately go up to tens of thousands of dollars. The main reason for that is they are striving for that functionality, and what that requires is a lot of complex neuro-muscular interfacing with the myoelectric sensors.

What smartARM leverages is that, by using computer vision to automate some of that grasping processing, it limits the amount of myoelectric sensor usage. The costs are under $100 and all we have are these very simple motors and this onboard Raspberry Pi. We’re able to get a good bit of functionality.

TV: Were there any experiences at U of T that helped you design smartARM?

SK: Definitely. I mean I started programming not so long ago; I only really started in second year. I really feel that once you know the fundamentals of programming, there’s a lot you can do. Based on just those introductory courses like Intro to [Computer] Programming where you first learn Python, for instance just having the basics of being able to manipulate integers and strings, this basic kind of algorithmic way of thinking. Honestly, that got us started when we were using object recognition to turn images into strings and those into grips.

What also really helped was that I volunteered for some computer science research opportunities within U of T. Last semester, I was working with Professor Yang Xu he’s in the Department of Computer Science and also Cognitive Science, which is what I’m in. I started to get comfortable learning some of the basics of machine learning libraries.

TV: What advice do you have for anyone who might be interested in pursuing a similar tech venture such as yourself, but is unsure of where to start?

SK: Just starting conversations with people in computer science, or people who have some programming experience, or who have worked in industry, or research, or started their own company. And having that vision for yourself, and not being afraid of working with programmers, and trying to get any experience, even if you haven’t had any it would be great to just get a footing in it. I would highly recommend learning the fundamentals of Python, for instance, or learning the fundamentals of some machine learning library.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Khan has offered to speak to anyone who may be interested in pursuing a tech venture. He can be reached at samin.khan@mail.utoronto.ca.

The dysfunctional Computer Science Student Union suffers from institutional failure

With constitutional bylaws ignored and events not hosted, the union is in grave need of improvement

The dysfunctional Computer Science Student Union suffers from institutional failure

The Computer Science Student Union (CSSU) has failed in its duty to adequately represent students in the Computer Science program. Like other course unions and student organizations, the CSSU is responsible for organizing events and providing services to its members. However, this year the CSSU has been complacent in its duties, and has demonstrated gross negligence in following proper rules and regulations.

Events originally proposed by the CSSU, like careers fairs, academic seminars, and tea time with professors never happened. Only six out of 18 events listed on the budget proposal from the beginning of the year occurred. Fortunately, other campus Computer Science groups, like Undergraduate Women in Computer Science, were able to fill the role of hosting tea time with professors and weekly technical interview preps throughout the year.

But it wasn’t always like this. Just last year, the CSSU gained positive attention for hosting a successful first Hack Night at the beginning of the school year with generous sponsorship from both Google and the Department of Computer Science. The CSSU would go on to host four Hack Night events in total that year. Only one was hosted this year.

The CSSU also has trouble following its own rules. The CSSU Constitution mandates that at least one General Meeting must be held per academic semester while classes are in session, with at least two weeks notice given prior to each meeting. This year, no such meetings have been called in either semester. With fewer than two weeks of classes left, there won’t be enough time to host a meeting, and Computer Science students won’t have the chance to voice their opinions.

Disregarding rules and procedures comes with consequences. In the upcoming CSSU election, procedures were initially ignored. According to the Chief Returning Officer (CRO), Christina Chen, the current CSSU president, Hanchen Wang, changed elections procedures in order to permit an online voting system in lieu of a physical ballot system.

Yet, the executives are not allowed to unilaterally make changes to the election process without amending the constitution first — which is impossible at the moment, as no general meetings have been held. After a complaint was filed to the Arts & Science Students’ Union, the CRO corrected the election process so that it followed previous procedures.

This kind of behaviour is not surprising from the CSSU. Already, some Computer Science students see the CSSU as an exclusionary group, or clique consisting of select upper-year students. Students, intimidated by this behaviour, hesitate to hang out in the CSSU student lounge, and conversations within the lounge often consist of language that can be off-putting or uncomfortable for others. The CSSU’s lack of female representation is especially concerning, as there are virtually no women within the group who regularly use the space.

Past and present members alike are unhappy with the current state of the CSSU, with many fearing its demise. Such concerns are not unjustified, as the CSSU has not appointed any first-year representatives this year; these positions are informally used to ensure the continuation of student organizations for future students.

Former CSSU president Jonathan Webb is especially frustrated, saying “The CSSU is actively failing and is not doing its job at all and hasn’t even pretended to try all year.”

Responsible CSSU executives are becoming increasingly necessary since Computer Science is becoming a more popular subject at U of T and elsewhere. The university’s Department of Computer Science is presently experiencing a significant increase in enrolment for both computer science courses and programs. Historically, similar enrolment booms occurred during the late 1980s and the dot-com boom — and with each boom, the percentage of women and minority representation in the field decreased.

In light of the contemporary enrolment boom in Computer Science and its current issues, it is extremely important that the CSSU properly dedicate its efforts and resources to promoting inclusivity and diversity, actually hosting events, and making the CSSU student lounge an environment that is less unwelcoming for students that do not regularly use the space.

 

Charles Huang is a third-year student at University College studying Computer Science and Mathematics. He is running for president of the Computer Science Student Union.