The founder of a startup at the cutting edge of computer science and cloud computing, Ryan Robinson ’17 says his MIT 21E joint degree in the humanities and engineering has helped him understand the human dimensions of the world’s greatest challenges.
“My MIT education has shown me that in a world so filled with technology, we have to make sure that we make room for humanity," says Robinson. "From science to humanities, technology to business, and invention to exposure, every human action has a human effect. Technology — at its greatest — begins and ends at our common humanity.”
Like many MIT students, Robinson arrived on campus ready to dive into mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, material science, quantum physics, computer engineering, and systems design.
“In other words,” he says, “I wanted to do everything.”
He didn’t realize at the time that “everything” would include poetry.
As a sophomore, Robinson marveled while Professor Howard Eiland analyzed Shakespeare’s Sonnet 121 in 21L.004 (Reading Poetry). Methodically, expertly, Eiland examined each line of the classic poem for historical resonance, allusions to other works, and etymological significance. Exposure to such mastery was inspiring, Robinson says.
“I realized that the world is more complex than I had ever imagined and there’s a beauty behind that complexity if you are willing to look for it,” he says, “It was at that moment that I saw myself as an MIT literature major.”
Later that semester, Daria Johnson, the academic administrator for MIT Literature, stopped by 21L.004 to present different options for studying literature and the humanities in more depth. “She mentioned something called 21E,” Robinson remembers. “You combine humanities and engineering in a way that fit your passions — all of your passions. I switched majors the following semester.”
For the rest of his time at MIT, Robinson would move among engineering, physics, and humanities coursework — quantum computing theory and black feminism, structural design and Arthurian legend, information theory and romantic poetry. This dynamic, he says, brought “a new cadence of thought and understanding,” and ultimately strengthened his grasp of the multifaceted challenges of the modern world.
Since graduating from MIT, Robinson has launched Conduit, the company that he first conceived as an undergraduate. His startup, featured recently in Forbes magazine, is developing more efficient methods of producing blockchain, the complex secure technology behind Bitcoin. “Robinson wondered whether quantum computing could help drive down the costs of cloud computing, and help democratize resources” for problem solving, the Forbes article states. With Conduit, Forbes says, Robinson aims to “make affordable, distributed computation a reality.”
Robinson himself says: “I use the skills I learned as a humanities and engineering major every day to move between the worlds of business and technology.”
Studying engineering, physics, and the humanities, Robinson reflects, has helped him better understand the complexity of the world’s problems. In his literature courses, for example, Robinson says he learned how to share information in a way that connects with the audience. Computer code may structure data well, but communicating information well requires an understanding of the human context.
“Pursuing my interests in both engineering and humanities offered me perspectives and insights beyond formulas or words on a page,” he says. “It's that level of understanding that we'll need to make a responsible impact in the world.”
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Daniel Evans Pritchard