Friday, July 21, 2017

Academic versus industry research

Apple just launched the Machine Learning Journal for Apple researchers to release their work to the broader public. They've published one write-up on improving synthetic images for supervised training of neural nets. This comes after Apple has started allowing researchers to publish academic papers. (The write-up on seems to be the same submitted academic paper, only written for a wider audience.)

As an Apple fan with a Ph.D. in the sciences, I'm excited for the glimpse into what Apple is pursuing in artificial intelligence and machine learning. However, after a decade working in the software industry, I'm reminded that industry research and academic research are related, but not the same.

Industry is driven to create value for a few different individual stakeholders, including customers and shareholders. Because those groups are fickle, industry needs to continue innovating, or they risk not getting the next paycheck (or investment). The companies that don't worry about customers and shareholders aren't around anymore. But as described in The Innovator's Dilemma, industry is often incremental, and has trouble making huge leaps.

Whereas academics favor knowledge over delivering value. Individual academics choose autonomy and intellectual curiosity over compensation. (Take a look at salaries in academics versus industry, for positions with roughly the same skill sets, for this stark difference.) To go further, I would posit that academic research is successful specifically because it doesn't have such a focused pursuit as industry.  Research is often a random walk, and to keep it open allows more unexpected results. However, academic research sucks at delivering actual value to the masses. Putting a paper on arXiv so that 17 people can read it is not changing the world.

What I love is seeing industry work in tandem with academic research. So that we can have the momentous discoveries that only come from the random walk of academic research, with the specific payout to customers that only comes from industry. Maxwell discovers the equations of electromagnetism, and Apple uses them to make sure I can watch cat videos on a train.

Apple, unlike most companies, has the scale to support a fully academic research team. (It could fund the entirety of MIT for ~96 years.) Other companies in the past have also supported academic research teams (IBM and AT&T come to mind, with spectacular results.) So, Apple probably doesn't have to worry so much about this dichotomy between academic and industry research. It seems like everyone will be a little happier, though, if they recognize (and capitalize on) the different motivations of different researchers. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

HomePod: Why I'll be buying one in December

The most exciting announcement in last Monday's keynote of WWDC was the introduction of HomePod, Apple's new home speaker with integrated Siri.

For a little while, I've been considering a new voice device, a la Amazon Echo, or Google Home. I do a lot of cooking, so setting timers easily will be great. And checking on the weather. And how traffic is looking on the way into the city. Also, since I have young kids, I want need to interact without using my hands. Voice interaction isn't everything, but for some subset of computing tasks, it is easily the quickest form of input. (See the number of times the crew of the Enterprise says "Computer, ...")

However, I'm a little paranoid about the security and privacy of my personal data, including what is said in my house. That has prevented me from getting a Google Home or an Amazon Echo. The "always listening" aspect of the devices—integral to functionality—is terrifying for privacy.

Google especially has a business model that benefits from leaking personal data, in a way that supports their advertising products. I'm not saying that I won't use any Google products. I love their search and their e-mail and I'm comfortable with the trade-off of privacy versus functionality, in those products, but I don't want to go so far as putting an always-listening Google device in my home.

Amazon is a little better, and has fought the release of an echo recording in an Arkansas murder case, but I don't trust that Amazon will protect my privacy at the expense of their business. (As a short aside, as an Arkansawyer, can't we aim a little higher when it comes to articles about technology in Arkansas? A murder case [or a neo-nazi hacker] shouldn't be the only time I see Arkansas show up on ArsTechnica.)

In contrast to Google and Amazon, Apple has specifically made privacy a centerpiece of their business, even in a way that negatively affects it. They fought very publicly with the FBI so that they wouldn't need to unlock an encrypted iPhone, and internally they safeguard customer data in a way that makes it difficult to use it for internal data analysis. The privacy stance that the company takes internally is probably one of the reasons why Siri hasn't kept pace with other voice assistants.

However, this is the perfect trade-off for me, since I am paranoid about my data, and about what is said in my house.

One small blemish on the HomePod (for me, at least) is the focus on music. I know that music is important to lots of people, and that online services (like Apple Music) are growing significantly for the company, so it makes a lot of sense to make music a centerpiece of the HomePod. However, music is not important to me: I don't care to listen to it. I'm counting on the fact that the HomePod will be good at everything else (including audiobooks.)

Another small thing is the price. I wish Apple would work a little harder to pull the HomePod down under $300. Ideally, it would be around $199 or maybe $249. However, the $349 won't stop me. That is why come December, I'll be ordering a HomePod. 

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Ridiculous parents don't vaccinate children

(I found this draft post from 2008 in my blogger account, and decided to go ahead and post it because of the recent measles outbreaks.)

I can barely contain my vitriol for parents who don't vaccinate their children despite all scientific evidence that vaccines save lives. I was frankly surprised when parents voluntarily discussed their choice to not vaccinate in a recent article in the New York Times outlining parents who don't vaccinate their children. Such stupid and selfish decisions should be met with derision. 

Friday, February 27, 2015


Today we lost Spock.

Spock was a hero. Maybe to every scientist/engineer, but certainly to me. He represented logic and reason and rationality, in an increasingly irrational world.

A child of the 80s, I never really loved the original series, preferring the refined Picard to the gregarious Kirk. But I loved Spock the most of all characters. His appearance in Unification made me ecstatic, as well as seeing him in the new movies.

Quinto, you've big shoes to fill. 

Monday, May 05, 2008

Turkmenistan on the way up?

So, articles about Turkmenistan always catch my eye. It is such a fascinating place, what with the previous ruler and all. So, I was really pleased to see an article on Turkmenistan hit the front page of the New York Times. I was especially pleased to see that a friend of mine, Prof. Eric McGlinchey, was interviewed for the article! However, contrary to Eric's suggestion, I think I will pop the cork on the champaign. I am ecstatic that the new ruler has been dismantling the vestiges of the Turkmenbashi, and I hope his more moderate reforms (such as allowing internet access and upping the amount of schooling for children) mark a turning point for this nation.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Rising prices pushes people towards genetically modified foods

There is nothing like cash to help focus the mind.

While in Britain, I saw first hand the public distrust of Frankenfoods, or genetically modified crops. The continent was much more suspicious than Britain about the foods, but there were some outspoken critics (like Prince Charles) in Britain as well. I was doubly mortified when some African countries started to reject genetically modified donations, because they reasonably assumed that what was bad for Europeans is bad for Africans. However, there is no indication that genetically modified foods are harmful, and while Europe is rich enough to reject genetically modified crops, Africa is not, and rejection of the crops yields starvation.

Fast forward to the food crisis of today, and an article in the New York Times shows that with grain prices doubling and tripling, the less expensive genetically modified grains are gaining in popularity, or at least objections to them are declining. I am pleased to see that irrational fears fall away when cash is at stake.

The key word there is irrational. No one has shown popular genetically modified organisms to be harmful, and they can help feed multitudes more. To the people who object because we are "playing god," that ship has sailed. Wheat is the most crossbred organism in existence, not because we've turned our microscopes at it (indeed, it is one of the more difficult crops in a lab), but because we've been manipulating it for the last six thousand years. We've been doing the same with cattle. Ever seen a cow on a hike in the forest? That isn't natural.

I do hope that this allows people to get past their reservations for the "new."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Rocking through Easter

So, Courtney and I headed down to Arkansas for the Easter weekend, both to see my family and to attend my nephew's baptism. While we were there, we stayed with my brother, who has a wii and a playstation 3. After a Friday night of playing Guitar Hero, he headed to Sam's on Saturday and bought Rock Band. I learned two things over the weekend: 1) this game is incredibly fun, and 2) I am incredibly talented.

For the uninitiated, Rock Band is an extension of the performance games such as Guitar Hero or Karaoke Revolution, where in a person plays on a play guitar or sings into a microphone and is measured on hitting notes or playing combinations. Rock Band takes it one step further and has a guitar, a microphone and a drum set in one game, and all three are played in concert to complete a popular song.

With the entire family there, it was great fun. Trulie singing, Andrea on guitar, Kin on drums; fantastic. I didn't know many of the songs (I am not much of a music person), but I still had a great time. It seems like the game sort of transcends the normal limitations of video games, and so reaches a much larger audience (much like the wii console). It makes me think that maybe we should buy the game, just for parties and such.

Even if we don't, I'll remember singing Black Hole Sun. I think everyone will remember. Even the neighbors. (If you can't sing well, sing loud.)