Gordon Vreugdenhil ’88 has always loved applying interesting solutions to the challenge of a difficult problem. He serves as a senior engineering manager for NVIDIA, a company leading the way in accelerated computing and artificial intelligence. Vreugdenhil leads a team within the central processing unit (CPU) division developing CPU microcode and participating in safety certification processes for the NVIDIA DRIVE program. “The products I work on are the parts that actually go into cars for both driving assistance and various levels of self-driving,” he explains.
Vreugdenhil says he was a bit of an anomaly as a student. He graduated high school in Trenton, Ontario, a full semester early and enrolled at Calvin that spring. In addition to majoring in computer science and math, he also studied secondary education, philosophy, and theology. He says the liberal arts emphasis at Calvin made this possible.
As a senior, Vreugdenhil took an upper-level course in Marxism—an unusual choice for a computer science major. He still remembers his first day of class. “My classmates looked at me like, ‘Are you lost?’”
He wasn’t, of course. The philosophy department offering had piqued his interest—he realized the Soviet Union’s ideologies didn’t match those of Marx, so the class was “a great way to understand the real background and directions of Marx.” That same drive to know and understand guided him post-Calvin, through eight years of graduate school at the University of Waterloo, where he earned his PhD in computer science. As he approached the end of his studies, he and his wife, Janet Cok ’89, planned their next steps; they chose the Pacific Northwest for its climate and job opportunities and relocated to the Portland, Oregon area, where they still live.
Today, as a people leader in a cutting-edge industry, Vreugdenhil takes his leadership, oversight, and coding roles seriously, applying his Christian worldview in every area. “Our relationships with others, with creation, all need to be informed by faith,” he says.
Vreugdenhil notes that “today’s broad use of technology leads to reductionism.”
“From a Christian perspective, there’s a danger that we’ll communicate attitudes where everything gets reduced to algorithms and numbers and suggest that truth is found that way. But technology is not the god. Technology is not what saves us.”
His words echo those of Henry David Thoreau, the transcendentalist philosopher who, in the mid-19th century, wrote, “Men have become tools of their tools.” Thoreau was describing the newly minted railroads crisscrossing the North American landscape, dramatically altering modern life. But Thoreau’s words hold a concern for the same reductionism Vreugdenhil names: the potential for technology to take priority over the human beings it is designed to serve.
“It’s very easy to lose sight of the fact that, at the end of the day, what we’re doing is providing tools and infrastructure that interact with people’s lives. It’s important to keep that in mind and to be talking about that in ways that reinforce responsibility and respect for people.”
Prioritizing the human lives that interact with NVIDIA’s autonomous self-driving products guides the company’s methodology. “We didn’t just develop the technology, sell it to customers, and say, ‘Here, put it in your own cars.’” Instead, they bought vehicles and did a full systems integration, testing the technology themselves. Vreugdenhil describes a time when one of their cars saved an employee’s life during a test drive. The employee was operating a vehicle in “guardian angel mode,” a situation where the driver drives the car, but if the vehicle senses danger, it responds. “It saved her from getting T-boned by another vehicle in an intersection,” he says.
Vreugdenhil believes transparency about the self-driving technology NVIDIA develops is just as important as safety. “Talking about technology wholistically—asking how we can be responsible in talking to our customers, being clear about the limitations of a technology, and being clear about what we do and do not know about the software—is a fundamental part of acting responsibly as a Christian in a technological area.”
Vreugdenhil is humble, calling his life path “normal,” and “nothing exceptional.” Except it is. His vocation lives at the crossroads of faith, invention, innovation, and change. “It’s extraordinarily complicated work,” Vreugdenhil admits, “but there’s a lot of value in it.”