I recently learned that drivers for UPS make 90 percent of their turns to the right. Since 2004, the package delivery company has had a policy to avoid left turns. They save millions of gallons of fuel and dollars each year because there’s less idling.
While I applaud the UPS effort to save gas and reduce emissions, there’s still something adventurous about the left turn, the unexpected veer in a new direction. We often refer to a left turn as a complete shift in our lives. Some of us even change our entire careers, such as Washington State University alumni Berenice Burdet, Richard Larsen, and Robb Zimmel, who all shifted from other work into winemaking. The allure of the grape, its cultivation, and its fermented result drew them from such disparate occupations as neuroscientist, plant pathologist, and an Army field medic. They couldn’t be happier.
Another happy group around Pullman are the butterfly fans. Monarch butterflies took their own left turn last summer and visited the campus’s arboretum for the first time in 25 years. Wildlife ecologist and WSU professor Rod Sayler, who planted milkweed to attract the iconic orange-winged insects, hopes the monarchs return again this summer. Visitors are invited to look for themselves, since the pollinator gardens are open to the public in the expanded arboretum.
Whether one takes a left or a right turn, a decision must be made. That’s the crux of programming computers, and specifically artificial intelligence, for computer scientist Matt Taylor, director of WSU’s Intelligent Robot Learning Laboratory. He’s researching how computers can teach each other, learn, and adapt to make complex decisions. A more capable AI could help the elderly remain in their own homes longer or protect apple orchards from crafty birds.
Another example is UPS, which benefits from the AI in their custom GPS called Orion. It’s used to calculate the most efficient route for drivers. Even though the computer favors right turns when planning, UPS manager Jack Levis told CNN that, “The hardest part was making it think more like a driver and less like a computer.”
Of course, every computer decision has consequences, and this issue’s story on AI takes a dive into the possibilities and risks of smarter computers.
Humans, too, make choices in their lives that can have a profound effect. First-generation students face an uphill battle to get into college, even more so to graduate, but the rewards can be significant when they succeed. So when those 30 percent of WSU students, first in their family to go to college, take a left (or right) turn onto a WSU campus, they’re choosing a path that fits exactly with our mission of access.