Unique to Stanford: Symbolic systems

Jan. 23, 2019, 12:07 a.m.

This article is the first in a series examining unique concentrations at Stanford.

Stanford’s Symbolic Systems Program (SymSys) is “a prototype for what a 21st-century liberal arts education ought to be,” according to program director Kenneth Taylor. SymSys involves a combination of humanities, behavioral and social sciences, and mathematics and computation.

The SymSys major is unique to Stanford and has been popular among “Silicon Valley movers and shakers,” Taylor said, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman ’89, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer ’97 and Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger ’09.

The major was created in 1986 by faculty members at the Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI), but it has grown and evolved as an interdisciplinary program; its majors are required to take courses in the departments of computer science, linguistics, philosophy and psychology. Taylor views SymSys as Stanford’s approach to going beyond the “techie-fuzzy” divide.

“You can’t just be a techie or a fuzzy person,” he said. “You have to have this capacity to look at things and dig deep among multiple perspectives.”

What is symbolic systems?

“[The major is] a combination of studying the human mind … and the intelligence of machines and of the design interaction that happens between them, [as well as] how those things can inform each other,” said symbolic systems associate director Todd Davies ’84 M.S. ’85 Ph.D. ’95 in an interview with The Daily.  

As Taylor puts it, the major focuses more on the “human-facing” side of technology.

“How does human cognition work? How do people interact with machines? If they were more interested in the people side of it, how does the user use this interface?” Taylor said.

Taylor views SymSys as not only an alternative to the computer science major, but also as an alternative to majors in economics, psychology and philosophy. Current SymSys major Angela Luo ’20 said the program’s interdisciplinary nature does not sacrifice the ability of its majors to develop a concentrated focus.

“You can go so broad within SymSys but also so deep within the track that you’re trying to pursue,” Luo said.

SymSys is not interdisciplinary just because it covers courses in different fields; according to Davies, the major is set up so that there are overlaps in course content that complement each other.

Luo said she sees connections between linguistics courses she’s taken in the past and a computer science course she’s now taking on natural language processing.

Although it does seem that SymSys jumps around all over the place,” Luo said, “When you … take all these courses and see how they can intertwine, it really gives you a new perspective [on] what you’re learning.”

Origins of the major

The idea for a SymSys major came initially from faculty at CSLI. According to Davies, CSLI “wanted to have a degree program connected with [their research area] that would train the next generation of scholars” — it was the degree program they wished they had as undergraduates.

The term “symbolic systems” was coined by John Barwise, who felt that it captured that abstraction of the subject matter better than terms like “cognitive science” or “artificial intelligence” — the closest majors other universities have to SymSys at Stanford.

Originally, the major was more heavily weighted toward philosophy and cognitive science, studies of reason and of the mind’s function. Students who wanted to shape the major were inspired by the book Gödel, Escher, Bach, which explores common themes in the lives of a logician, artist and musician.

However, as Silicon Valley grew, the SymSys major grew with it — rapidly. According to Taylor, students were especially interested in SymSys’ potential connection to computer science.

As director of the program, Taylor focused on making symbolic systems appeal to a broader range of students by integrating more interdisciplinary options into the core curriculum. Previously, students were required to take courses such as CS 107: “Computer Organization & Systems” and PHIL 151: “Metalogic.” However, for their technical depth requirement, students can now choose from different courses among areas of concentration such as “Decision Theory” and “Computer Programming.”

Taylor noted that in the past, SymSys has “waxed and waned” as Silicon Valley boomed and busted, but SymSys is now less tied to the Valley’s fluctuations.

According to Taylor, there exist areas for improvement in SymSys, given its interdisciplinary nature. The program lacks a department of faculty dedicated to it and its courses. Still, the SymSys major continues to evolve and attract students.

“Now we’re the fifth largest major in the University,” Taylor said. “And we keep growing.”

Unique to Stanford

Stanford is currently the only college with a SymSys program.

While other universities’ “cognitive science” majors are similar to SymSys, “their focus tends to be on the mind and intelligence as natural occurring phenomena … whereas in Symbolic Systems we have a more coequal focus on natural and artificial systems that use symbols to communicate and to represent information,” Davies said.

SymSys graduates believe the major fosters a unique perspective among students as they enter the next stage of their lives.

“It sets you up to approach the world with an incredibly capable and sharp critical eye,” said Zavain Dar ’10 M.S. ‘12, a lecturer in the program. “[This means] you can be really thoughtful about what you want to do, but you also have the capability to actually go execute what you want to do.”

A SymSys graduate himself, Dar believes the program has given him an advantage over others in the fields of venture capitalism, software engineering and data science.

“As all of these fields evolve and progress, you start to realize just how interdisciplinary they are,” he said. “It is one of the biggest competitive advantages I’ve had — to be able to not only understand the rules of [the industry] but understand the assumptions behind it.”

Taylor sees the SymSys major as one that bridges disciplines that may have been previously isolated from each other.

“We are [focused on] the intersection — we are kind of a de-siloing major,” Taylor said. “And I think lots of people have a hunger for that. And they will always have a hunger for that.”


Contact Jodie Bhattacharya at jodieab ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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