Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Foo: exuberant geeks

Making the future.

CTOs and CEOs and Founders and Inventors and Creators.

Never before have the economic and creative prospects been so good for a young person with quantitative or technical abilities. In my generation we had fewer options: defense, academia or big stodgy corporations. Today you can code or analyze data or build mathematical models for a hedge fund, a bank, a social networking startup, a web publisher, an e-commerce site, a video game company, Google, etc., etc. If you can manage a team and communicate your vision to investors and partners, all the better. The sky is the limit.

"The Times gets a billion impressions a day. How do they optimize their ad revenue? To get real-time or nearly real-time analysis of, say, how many people in Wisconsin who were on Zappos within the last hour also viewed a Style section article, we need a big hadoop deployment and in-memory database that let's the user slice through a 100 dimensional parameter space. It's business intelligence on a supercomputer. Remnant ad space is auctioned on AdSense to competing bots, with the whole thing -- cookie analysis, automated bidding, ad fetching and placement -- taking place over 500 milliseconds."

"We're empowering people in rural India by giving them access to piece-rate work over the internet."

"90% of mechanical turk work is web spam." :-)

"They tried to buy us with shares priced on a secondary market, but I wouldn't trade my execution risk against that valuation risk."

"Yes, it's a flashlight but it's LED with a lithium ion battery. 3000 lumens shined into a burglar's eyes will blind them for 20 minutes. Those fins are for heat dissipation; the tip reaches 180 degrees."

"Computer vision is next. Much easier than NLP, but it'll be hacks strung together like everything else."

A few more Foo Camp 2011 photos here. Scott Berkun shares his insights here.


MtMoru said...

Mass media, FOO, and Steve seem to privielge the geeks of software. It's something new and the barriers to entry are so low that it has many young tycoons. But there are just as many geeks of capital intensive huge-barriers-to-entry fields. Were there any bridge building geeks at FOO? Any prescription drug geeks? Maybe. But few?

steve hsu said...

Software and internet geeks get most of the attention because of the low barrier to entry and the recent explosion of opportunities. But the real engine powering all of this is applied physicists working to keep Moore's Law going. Software has improved by factors of 2 or (maybe) 10, but we got a factor of a million in processing power, memory and bandwidth thanks to semiconductors over the last 30 years or so.

David Coughlin said...

"... the real engine powering all of this is applied physicists who keep Moore's Law going."

Yes, that.

"... but it'll be hacks strung together like everything else."

This is because you have to pick a niche to make a technology play [no?].  The market segments into components [organically from the bottom up;for better or worse].  For the most part, big top-down integrators only care about the quality of their components in terms of RMAs.

steve hsu said...

I interpret that as when we finally "solve" computer vision so that computers can process visual information as well as humans it will turn out that rather than some super algorithm providing the capability it will turn out to be an amalgam of hacks. That's actually how evolution worked in all likelihood -- hacks on hacks on hacks = intelligence. There will not turn out to be a grand unified theory of intelligence.

dabacon said...

An interesting tidbit about Moore's law versus software.  On page 71 of this report http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-nitrd-report-2010.pdf there is a description of a case where Moore's law gave a factor of 1000 speedup, but algorithm advances improved the running time by a factor of 43000 (this is for linear programming, so not an obscure irrelevant problem!)  I think you're right that Moore's law (and its memory and bandwidth friends) is a major engine (and what the hell will we do when it finally stops?!?!), but depending on the application software has been equally important.  On the other hand the software advances I can think of off the top of my head seem to have unquantifiable benefits because they are more along the lines of "holy crap you can do what with a computer?"  Starting next week I'll get a good front seat on this question at Google...too bad I won't be able to talk about it :)

steve hsu said...

Congrats on your move to Google! (I think you are a good case study for the point made in my post, since someone with your background in theoretical physics would have had much different career opportunities 20 years ago.)

Re: software vs hardware, you kind find point cases where software breakthroughs give you a big speedup, but the hardware advances over the last 30 years can be applied to *any* computational problem. I'd rather live in a world with 80's software and 2011 hardware than vice versa :-) For example, I could still do command line unix stuff and email just fine...

David Coughlin said...

I agree!  Also,wrongly apparently, I thought computer vision was solved for the most part.  The hard part isn't so much the 'seeing'  as closing the control loop with an action.  Maybe this is just a shiny bit in the distance, afield of the stuff that I spend my time reading about.  OK, now I want to go build something.

dabacon said...

I think I'm a good example, though my experience has been that theoretical physicists coming from the top schools have always had lots of opportunities, especially if they can code :)  But then again I've only ever watched the job market post dot-com boom!

steve hsu said...

This is ancient history, but theorists leaving the field in the 1980s or even 1990s had far fewer opportunities. It was basically finance, defense or fairly boring tech companies. Whole sectors that hire the same type of person today didn't exist then.

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