One Step Forward: an interview with Mitchell Scholar Adedolapo Adedokun
Adedolapo Adedokun has a lot to look forward to in 2023. After completing his degree in electrical engineering and computer science next spring, he will travel to Ireland to undertake a MSc in intelligent systems at Trinity College Dublin as MIT’s fourth student to receive the prestigious George J. Mitchell Scholarship. But there’s more to Adedokun, who goes by Dolapo, than just academic achievement. Besides being a talented computer scientist, the senior is an accomplished musician, an influential member of student government–and an anime fan. We sat down with him to learn more.
First off, congratulations on this fantastic honor! What excites you the most about going to Ireland to study for a year? Have you already started making plans for the things you want to see and experience? What’s on the top of your Ireland list?
One of the reasons I was interested in Ireland was when I learned about Music Generation, a national music education initiative in Ireland, with the goal of giving every child in Ireland access to the arts through access to music tuition, performance opportunities, and music education in and outside of the classroom. It made me think, “Wow, this is a country that recognizes the importance of arts and music education and has invested to make it accessible for people of all backgrounds”. I am inspired by this initiative and wish it was something I could have had growing up.
I am also really inspired by the work of Louis Stewart, an amazing jazz guitarist who was born and raised in Dublin. I am excited to explore his musical influences and to dive into the rich musical community of Dublin. I hope to join a jazz band, maybe a trio or a quartet, and perform all around the city, immersing myself in the rich Irish musical scene but also sharing my own styles and musical influences with the community there.
Of course, while you’re there, you’ll be working on your MSc in Intelligent Systems. I am probably not the only one who read the announcement of your win and was particularly intrigued by your invention of a “smart-home system that allowed users to anonymously layer different melodies as they entered and left a building, which created a unique and rich soundtrack for each day”. Tell us a little more about that system: how it works, how you envision users interacting with it and experiencing it, and what you learned from developing it.
Funny enough, it actually started as a system I worked on in my freshman year in 6.08 – Introduction to Embedded Systems with a few classmates. We called it Smart HOMiE, an IoT Arduino smart-home device that gathered basic information like location, weather and interfaced with Amazon Alexa. I had forgotten about having worked on it until I took 21M.080 and 6.033 Computer System Engineering in my junior year, and began to learn about the creative applications of machine learning and computer science in areas like audio synthesis and digital instrument design. I learned about amazing projects like Google Magenta’s Tone Transfer ML–models that use machine learning models to transform sounds into legitimate musical instruments. Learning about this unique intersection combining music and technology, I began to think about bigger questions, like, “What kind of creative future can technology create? How can technology enable anyone to be expressive?”
When I had some downtime while being at home for a year, I wanted to play around with some of the audio synthesis tools I had learned about. I took Smart HOMiE and upgraded it a bit––made it a bit more musical. It worked in three main steps. First, multiple people could sing and record melodies that the device would save and store. Then, using a few pitch correction and audio synthesis python libraries, Smart HOMiE corrected the recorded melodies until they fit together, or generally fit inside the same key, in music terms. Lastly, it then would combine the melodies, add some harmony or layer the track over a backing track, and by the end, you’ve made something really unique and expressive. It was definitely a bit scrappy, but it was one of my first times messing around and exploring all the work that has already been done by amazing people in this space. Technology has this incredible potential to make anyone a creator––I’d like to build the tools to make it happen.
What kind of creative future can technology create? How can technology enable anyone to be expressive?Dolapo Adedokun
You’re a jazz instrumentalist yourself—tell us a little about your chosen instrument, how you developed that skill, and what practicing and performing have taught you.
I’ve always had an affinity for music, but haven’t always felt like I could become a musician. I had played saxophone in middle school but it never really stuck. When I got to MIT, I was fortunate enough to take 21M.051 – Fundamentals of Music and dive into proper music theory for the first time. It was in that class that I was exposed to jazz and completely fell in love. I’ll never forget walking back to New House from Barker Library in my freshman year and stumbling upon Undercurrent by Bill Evans and Jim Hall––I think that was when I decided I wanted to learn jazz guitar.
Jazz, and in particular, improvisation has taught me so much about what it means to be creative: to be willing to experiment, take risks, build upon the work of others, and accept failure––all skills that I wholeheartedly believe have made me a better technologist and leader. Most importantly though I think music and jazz have taught me patience and discipline, and that mastery of a skill takes a lifetime. I’d be lying if I said I was satisfied with where I am currently at, but each day, I’m eager to take one step forward towards my goals.
You’ve focused in on music and arts education, and the potential of technology to bolster both. Do you have a particularly influential class, technology, or teacher in your past that you can point to as a change-maker in your life?
Wow, tough question! I think there are a few inflection points that have really been change-makers for me. The first was in high school when I first learned about Guitar Hero, the music rhythm video game that started as a project in the MIT Media Lab attempting to bring the joy of music-making to people of all backgrounds. It was then that I was able to see the multi-disciplinary outreach of technology in service of others.
The next I would say was taking 6.033 – Computer System Engineering at MIT. From the first day of class, Professor LaCurts emphasized understanding the people we design for. That we ought to see system design as inherently people-oriented–– before we think of designing a system, we must first consider the people that will be using them. We must consider their goals, their personas, their backgrounds, the barriers that they face, and most importantly, the consequences of our design and implementation choices. I envision a future where music, arts, and the creative process are accessible to everyone, and I believe 6.033 has given me the foundation to build the technology to reach that goal.
You’ve also developed a passion for broadband infrastructure, which at first glance, people might not connect with music and education, your other two focuses. Tell us a little about why broadband is such an important factor.
Before we can think about the potential of technology to democratize accessibility to music and the arts, we first have to take a step back and think about accessibility. What communities have more and less access to the proper technology that we often take for granted? I think broadband is just one factor in the realm of the bigger problem which is accessibility, particularly in minority and low-income communities. I see technology as being the key to democratizing access to music and the arts for people of all background–but that technology can only be the key if the foundational infrastructure is in place for all people to take advantage of it. Just like I learned in 6.033, that means understanding the barriers of the people and communities with the least access and investing in crucial, basic technological resources like equitable broadband internet access.
Between your work on the Undergraduate Student Advisory Group in EECS, the Harvard/MIT Cooperative Society, the MIT Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, and of course all your research and many academic interests, many readers must wonder if you ever eat or sleep! Tell me a little about how you’ve balanced out your busy MIT life and maintained a sense of self while accomplishing so much in undergrad.
Great question! I’ll start by saying it took me a while to figure out. There were semesters where I had to drop classes and or drop extra-curricular commitments to find some sense of balance. It’s always difficult, being surrounded by the world’s brightest students who are all doing incredible and amazing things, to not feel like you should add one more class or an extra UROP.
I think the most important thing though is to stay true to you––figuring out the things that bring you joy, that excite you, and how much of those commitments is reasonable to take on each semester. I’m not a student who can take a million and one classes, research, internships, and clubs all at the same time––but that’s totally okay. It took me a while, to find the things I enjoyed, and understand the academic load that’s appropriate for me each semester, but once I did, I was happier than ever before. I realized things like playing tennis and basketball, jamming with friends, and even sneaking in a few episodes of anime here and there are really important to me. As long as I can look back each week, month, semester, and year and say I’ve taken a step forward towards my academic, social, and music goals, even just the tiniest amount, then I think I am taking steps in the right direction.
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