May 31, 2016

An Original Work

For the last couple of years I’ve been curious on the nature of original work, or invention, in so far as software is concerned. I’ve had the fortune of speaking with inventors, patent holders, fresh PhD graduates, and entrepreneurs. Each time I meet these people, I feel engaged. Engagement is that notion of true interest and focus that I’ve lost perspective on over the years. Work turns into momentum and somewhere along the way I lost my engagement. I can't remember meeting someone who holds a PhD that wasn’t engaging. Perhaps for 2 reasons: first at some point they opted out of the comfortable, but traditional path of private industry and, second, they’ve spent considerable time devoted to more graduated and critical thinking. More than once I’ve considered going back to school. I even took the GRE last fall. Ultimately, I couldn’t settle on a field of study that I was excited enough about to devote a period of my life to. My favorite summary of why to get a PhD: "Pursuing a Ph.D. is the only way to spend 4 to 8 years being paid to work on something that the market does not directly value in the short term." I haven't found anything yet that I'd like to make that long of a bet on, but there are a few questions that could be good canidates: how can machines interface directly with the physical brain to expand cognition, can machines ask good questions, can nuclear energy be safe and affordable. I believe all of these to be in the realm of could be now or in 50 years. I’ve had some conversations with PhD students, over many beers, who were disillusioned with the process of choosing a focus for their studies. My limited impression is that you apply to school thinking you’d love to study X. But then you realize that there are only Y professors taking on new candidates, even fewer with whom you have a chemistry, and even fewer who have funding to support your work. A lot of work to not be doing what you’d like to be doing. Additionally, you have to enjoy the process, and having been a pragmatist most of my working life, the idea of research is much different than engineering/development: your work is not a means to a specific end.

For now I’ve put my academic ambitions on hold. I've turned my attention towards inventors and/or entrepreneurs. I believe there are 2 broad notions of producing an original work: academic or hacking. I’ve been a hack for sometime. Make it work, make it right, make it fast. The lack of discipline in that approach can have it’s own pernicious effects. In fact, if you watch this fantastic talk on the background behind the recent resurgence in neural networks, you can draw a line to Geoffery Hinton who can draw a line to many other researchers going back to the 70’s. Geoffery makes a strong argument for the case of pure research. But the very nature of how he came up on this discovery proves that his research could easily have not produced something so applicable outside academia. For decades neural networks were a mostly academic exercise until he found a couple of key revelations. The previously mentioned article on research vs tinkering strikes a chord and makes me want to be more disciplined in my hackery. Not to long ago I did some of my own hackery on LDA as it relates to travel blogs. Likely, somebody has already done similar work, but I did little research to build on previous work. I also was quite sloppy in execution. However, my aim was to address a basic premise: was this problem solvable? To that end, I enjoyed the process very much. A personal challenge of sorts, similar to the reason do long distance triathlon, speak publicly, or venture into surf outside my comfort zone: I aim to push myself and grow.

There are innumerable ways for me to produce an original work. I've decided to focus on 3 tenants: the work should be applicable at some point in the near future (less than 2 years), that work must be distinct enough from other works which can include how that work was executed, and, finally, I’d prefer to leverage my existing talents that exploit knowledge across unique domains. My current expression of that original work is through a new startup that aims to disintermediate traditional retailers and advertising by connecting brands more directly with consumers. If you are one of the 2 followers of my blog, you'll note this is a departure from my consulting adventures. With good reason, I need to scratch an itch to create something from nothing. There are many interesting machine learning challenges to tackle in this new startup adventure: recommendation systems, identifying unique products and their variations, and reinforcement learning. Within that space, I aim to do some exciting work that will, no doubt, leverage lots of other’s work. Perhaps I might be able to leverage the work of an academic whose efforts haven't yet seen production. A marriage of academic and entrepreneurial endeavors seems a fitting compromise.