The type wheel turns again
What's new for awareness researchers?: an interview
I was interviewed at SASO as part of collecting what people thought were the ways forward and important topics for pervasive systems. The Aware project co-ordinates between a collection of EU projects into self-awareness and adaptive systems. As part of its remit it collects the evolving opinions of the research community to try to decide where the research is leading, and in particular what are the emerging questions that might be supported by future EU initiatives. Interviewing researchers is a new departure that I haven't seen before, and they interviewed several people with diverse backgrounds to get a broad sweep of the area. I focused on how little we understand how to model what people actually do in the course of their lives, and consequently how hard it is to explain these processes to computers and build computer-mediated analysis and support. (Sorry about the noise in the background, we were standing in a corridor....)
Response to Science Foundation Ireland's consultation on its strategic plan
There are however some issues that I think merit further consideration. These include:
the orientation of basic research;
the demands on staff from different phases of the research lifecycle;
the career trajectories of PhD students;
the significance of capacity-building, especially in the area of spin-outs and other indirect benefits; and
the possible extended leveraging of the expertise present in Irish science as part of the organisation.
Orientation of basic research. The orientation of research suggests that one can create a clear vision of what is going to be successful and impactful. This is clearly not the case: many areas that have changed the world in the long term had little or no short-term applicability when they were first investigated (for example lasers and hypermedia). The notion of government funding as “sowing seeds” therefore needs to be regarded with caution, and the history of (for example) Silicon Valley is notable mostly for the lack of directed and co-ordinated government investment and a focus instead on capacity-building (see below).
To maximise the chances of breakthroughs, one must allow experimentation that cannot be justified in terms of its known or predicted impact. One hears a lot about the “impact” and “spillover” of “basic” research into more “applied” areas. It is worth noting that such a hard distinction between “basic” and “applied” research is now largely discredited: a more accurate characterisation might be between “applied” and “not applied (yet)”. This is important, as it implies that any calculation of the value for money of any piece of research is often more a matter of timescale than of any intrinsic property of the work or field. Much of the mathematics that now underlies on-line cryptography, for example, was developed decades before its was practically applied, without such number theory having any obvious applications.
The basic difficulty with orientating basic research is that it is almost always a backward-facing activity, in the sense that one can only generate evidence in support of areas that have already demonstrated relevance and/or which already have a significant local industrial presence. Unless care is taken this can exclude promising areas for which there is currently no market but which have the capacity for enormous impact going forward. (3-D printing is the technology that springs most to mind here.) Setting a limit on the funding that will go to non-prioritised areas seems unlikely to provide for a broad exploration of speculative areas.
Phases and skills. It is important to recognise that excellent research scientists are often not the appropriate individuals to commercialise their own work. When one is speaking of the research lifecycle, it is clearly true that the translation phase is as creative and exciting as the discovery phase. However, it must be recognised that the skills required in these two phases are very different. While some exceptional individuals are able to muster excellence in both discovery and translation, this is extremely rare, as evidenced by the tendency of the founders of research-led start-ups to leave (or be eased out) as their companies grow: most scientists function better in one regime or the other. Put another way, excellent research scientists will be more productive overall if they are not forced into an inappropriate role. It would therefore be appropriate to generate structures whereby research can be ”handed off” between groups, and that recruitment and funding structures be introduced to ensure that scientists in each phase are treated equally and fairly – although not necessarily identically, to reflect their different motivations.
PhD careers. The decision whether to go into industry or academia is a complex one, driven by an individual's temperament and interests. I believe that care is needed in aspiring to move some given percentage of PhD graduates into industry. It would be a mistake to attempt to direct such career decisions, since trained researchers wanting to pursue academic careers that are not available locally will not generally take up industrial posts as an alternative: they will simply move abroad. This cohort of researchers is highly mobile and motivated, and only by providing matching opportunities will their skills be retained.
Capacity-building. While there is clearly enormous potential value in direct commercialisation of research products, there is far more value in the ICT space from simply building capacity. I have been struck by the number of start-up companies in Dublin formed by former PhD students (including several of my own) – but I have been further struck by the work these companies are doing, which often does not relate to the research topics of their founders. Indeed, in most cases the companies' work could not have led to a PhD.
This I think underlines the importance of intellectual capacity-building, and a corollary is that what is important is that the system generate researchers, rather than being solely concerned about the actual research done in training these individuals. Brilliant, educated minds will go on to do good work: if attracting the best minds is best accomplished by supporting them in basic research for their PhDs, this will be a good investment. It is noticeable that many staff in Silicon Valley companies have PhDs from local universities in very foundational topics.
Another aspect of capacity-building that often goes unmentioned is the progression of staff in post: the recognition that the excellent researchers need to have their career aspirations met and respected. There is ample evidence that this function is not properly dealt with by many institutions within their current structures: the exclusive focus on importing “iconic” and “prize-winning” staff can be demoralising to local staff, who can then become demotivated or induced to emigrate.
I believe the evidence supports the notion that staff in post will overall be more motivated, and more committed, by promotion than many high-flying individuals who may regard their appointment as a temporary base or a prelude to retirement, and may not continue to do the world-leading work that underpinned their recruitment.
Integrating expertise. SFI aspires to be a “model” department in terms of supporting scientific activity. One approach that might be beneficial is that pursued by the NSF, to second scientists into the organisation as programme officers. This approach – which I believe is currently unique to NSF – seems to deliver very well-managed programmes, gives the organisation access to a range of scientific talent, ensures that the staff in charge of programmes are up-to-date with the latest science, and also immensely benefits the management skills of the scientists involved. It is true that it can be challenging to manage conflicts of interest, but the research community in the US is also “a small country” in this sense, so I am sure that mechanisms can be found. Providing seconded individuals with a funded postdoc ex officio (as we do in St Andrews for Heads of School) might allow their own research to proceed in their absence.
It'll be interesting to see what happens to the strategic plan as a result of the consultation, but whatever the result it's a creative and constructive exercise to test the plan against an outside audience. I'd like to think this can only improve the process of governance for State-supported science.
Distinguished lecture on artificial life
Our most recent distinguished lecture was the best I've heard so far, and on a fascinating topic I'd like to know more about. We run two distinguished lectures each academic year, inviting an academic in to teach a four-hour course on some topic that often we don't really have expertise with in St Andrews. It exposes undergraduates, grad students and staff to new topics and ways of thinking about research. The series goes back to 1969 and includes some of the best-known names in computer science. Last semester's speaker was Larry Yaeger from the University of Indiana (on sabbatical at the University of Hertfordshire), who talked about artificial life: using computers to study the processes of evolution, speciation and adaptation. It's a topic that sits on the boundary between novel computing and theoretical biology. Artificial life sounds too much like science fiction to be "real" computer science: do we understand enough about life to be able to study it in the abstract?, and, if not, can artificial life have any scientific content. If you confine yourself enough, of course, then the answer to both questions is a qualified "yes", but the question then becomes, does it tell you anything meaningful about anything? Larry's talk showed that even quite abstracted artificial life scenarios still give some high-level information about the potential for systems design, especially for very dynamic adaptive systems in changing environments. Larry's work has focused on building multi-agent simulations of processes, seeing how simple rule sets can give rise to complex behaviours. This has culminated in a system called Polyworld, that lets users set up "genetically" based behaviours for agents. (There are some very cool movies of it all working.) The genetic basis -- completely synthetic and higher-level that real genetics -- means that agents can evolve through mutation and cross-over. The part I found most interesting was the way that these systems -- like the natural systems they're abstractions of -- tend not to do optimisation per se. Instead they find, and stick with, solutions that are "good enough". You get to a balance between evolutionary pressure not being strong enough, and the benefits not being great enough, for further changes to take place. The difference with traditional engineering is quite profound, both in this satisfaction with the sub-optimal but also in the fact that the selection is dynamic, so if the chosen approach ceases to be "good enough" as the environmental pressures change it will shift to another process as a matter of course. You get this dynamism all over chemistry, too, where chemical equilibrium remains a dynamic process with lots of reactions going on all the time without changing the macroscopic concentrations of the reagents involved. It's easy to mistake this for a static system, which it most definitely isn't: I think this is a mistake a lot of scientists and engineers make, though, and it's something we probably need to address when designing adaptive systems or sensor networks that need to operate against or within a complex environment. To do this we'd need to give up a lot of intuitions we have about design, and the possibility of a single "correct" solution to a problem, and think instead of a design space in which the system is (to some extent) free to explore -- and make this design space, and the exploration of it, concepts that are propagated to run-time. I think this kind of approach makes sense even if you don't embrace the genetic algorithms style view of the world (which in the main I don't). In some ways this is a measure of the success of artificial life research: it's illuminating concepts that are of general utility outside the context from which they're being drawn, that can be used to influence other approaches to systems design without our having to junk everything we already know, which we're clearly not going to do. These sorts of incremental changes are far more useful than revolutions, in many ways, but they come about from thinking that's more-or-less divorced from mainstream thinking. It's a good illustration of why blue-skies research is important, and that knowledge really is all one piece with interconnections and interactions that we can't predict.
Forth, 2^5 years ago
2^5 years ago this month, Byte magazine devoted an issue to the Forth language. Byte ("the small systems journal") volume 5 number 8, August 1980, was largely devoted to Forth. I only discovered this by accident, researching some background for a paper I'm writing on extensible virtual machines. What's even more remarkable is that you can download the issue -- along with a lot of others -- as a PDF. That the premier hobbyist/hacker magazine of its day would give over most of an entire issue to one language tells you something about the way people thought about programming their machines back then. There was a premium on compactness: one of the first adverts in this issue of Byte is for a Cromenco Z-2H with 64Kb of RAM and 11Mb of hard disc, and proudly claiming that it "is under $10K". One article is a history of Forth, one is a tutorial, and two are deeply technical programming pieces aimed at people comfortable with the idea of writing their own software pretty much from scratch -- and indeed, keen to get on with it. What's more, they could write software as good or better as that which they could buy (to the extent that there was any hobbyist software to buy). That's not something we've been able to say for at least the last 2^4 years: hobbyist software hasn't competed with commercial offerings in most domains for a long time. I think there were a number of things going on. The simplicity of the machines was obviously a bonus: one could understand the hardware and software of a personal computer in its entirety, and contemplate re-writing it from the ground up as an individual or small group. Expectations were lower, but that works both ways: low expectations coupled with low-performance hardware can still lead to some impressive software. But it's certainly the case that one of the main barriers to software development from-the-ground-up these days is the need to interface with so many devices and processes in order to do anything of interest: any new system would need to talk to flash drives and the web, which probably means writing device drivers and a filing system. You can get round this using hardware packages, of course: Zigbee radios have simple programmer interfaces and encapsulate the software stack inside them. Another factor, though, was a difference in ambition. A hobbyist in the 1980's only had herself and her friends to impress (and be impressed by): the horizon was closer. I'm sure that led to a lot of re-definition and duplication that the internet would allow one to avoid somewhat, but in some senses it provided a better learning environment in which a sequence of problems needed solution from a programmer's own creativity and resources. That's a significantly different skill set than what's required today, where we place a value on compliance, compatibility and re-use at least as high as we place on creativity and innovation. I'm not advocating a return to the past -- although programming in Forth for sensor networks does give me a tremendous sense of pleasure that I haven't felt in programming for a long time, at least partially derived from the old-school nature of it all. However, I would say that there's also value in this old-school style even today. The hackers who read Byte wouldn't settle for sub-standard tools: they wouldn't think twice about re-coding their compilers and operating systems (as well as their applications) if they were sub-standard. That power brings on a sense of power -- the ability to change what's perceived to be wrong in something-- that's to be celebrated and encouraged even today, amongst programmers who sometimes seem to be constrained by their toolchains rather than freed by them.