Computing in the 21st…year before Christ

Microsoft Research and Microsoft Research Asia organize every year a conference called “Computing in the 21st century”. The subtitle was “New Horizon of Computing”.

This year’s version had no less than 3 Turing award winners (Turing awards are something like the Nobel Prize of computing), the Senior Vice President of Microsoft, and a Managing Director at Microsoft Research Asia and at the same time IEEE fellow (a very prestigious title of one of the largest and prestigious scientific community in the world).

Shall you have any interest in the future of computing, based on this prestigious casting, common sense would tell anyone to cancel everything and just go get your get enlightened by insightful talks.

After an opening session in which Microsoft Research seemed to re-invent Google Maps and present that as innovation, and a remarkable speech reading at the public from officials at NTU and NUS, speech was given to the first keynote speaker, Turing award winner Raj Reddy. Although I do respect his good intentions on giving the poor a chance of education though e-learning, disappointment settled down when he presented a completely obsolete piece of work running on Internet Explorer 4 or 5 (a 1998-looking online library web page included ASF videos and text on various topics).

Later, Senior Vice President of Microsoft, Rick Rashid, mentioned solving the heat problem in data centers by better distributing spatially the processes in the data center so that the hot machines aren’t close to each other, thus using less air-conditioning.He stressed that fact that this was done to preserve the environment. That’s 50% of the computer energy consumed: Data centers, the other half being computers of people like you and I. It’s better to listen to this when you do not know the meaning of symptom-solving or Microsoft Vista 🙂

Later, Managing Director at Microsoft Research Asia and IEEE fellow Hsiao-Wuen Hon really got us discreetly laugh at Microsoft, presenting totally irrelevant innovations such as :

  • image debluring, a topic fairly obsolete nowadays in digital imaging.
  • a tool that tells you which word is more used than another if you hesitate between the two (that’s what EVERYBODY does using the Google number of results as a metric for word popularity and use, it takes a few hours to program from scratch for a graduate student in computing).
  • Gigapixel images. Again that’s very obsolete. Especially of you do that by stitching (=putting together) images taken at different angles. Guess what? That’s what they do. He showed how cool it is to be able to zoom and (unlike in classic images) be able to still get high definition. They innovate all the more by adding ambient sounds and audio descriptions as you flyover different monuments or locations, it also allows advertising because you would see the stores on the pictures by zooming. Waw! This part may have been of interest to anyone having been in jail for the past 5 years thus never hearing about nor using Google Maps.
  • a bilingual search engine that allows inputs in both Chinese and English. It’s open source since I did very complex reverse engineering and am glad today to share this with you: Take a dictionary, take a search engine, shake well, add decoration ( 2 tbsp. of marketing and a whole fancy logo). Tadaaaaaa !
  • A collaborative travel website based on Google Maps (oops Microsoft Map). I don’t really get how on earth they intend to draw the attention of internet users that are just fed up hearing about new collaborative social networking websites.

Finally, a Microsoft speech on the future could not go without showing how cool Microsoft Surface is. Firstly, this system was invented by Jeff. Han and not by Microsoft Research as they claim. Secondly, the technology is great, but what do you do with it that is useful? Jeff. Han designed various novel uses of a multitouch system that do create an added value to government agencies for example. That’s precisely where Microsoft fails by sticking to obsolete and useless examples of use of the multitouch function. A technology alone is nothing, the added value that it brings to people should be it’s reason to exist. Multitouch interfaces and other gadjets are typical of this gap between technology coolness and real-life usefulness.

The Q&A session was a series of people asking questions that the board would answer right away even if they did not fully understand them. You know…when you hear an answer and you forgot the question. And the one answering usually ends with “I hope that answered your question”, and the guy who asked says Yes just out of politeness… If you never felt that you probably never went to school 🙂

To the computing safety, the answer of Turing award winner Raj Reddy was “Charge Emails one cent or penny to avoid spam”. Mhh Okay..

Always look at the bright side, the snack were good and in spite of a tremendous lack of insight, it was comical. Thank you Microsoft Research 🙂

More seriously. Take home lesson:

  • A very good researcher is generally much less realistic and much less in phase with business than any very bad entrepreneur.
  • When someone has a long list of awards in a specific topic, assuming that these people are well-rounded or pertinent about other topics is generally a wrong assumption.
  • Not because you have a room full with 2000 people should you make no effort to bring insight the attendants, especially if your name is big and your conference is named “Computing in the 21st Century”.
  • Not because you work for Microsoft Research does it mean you will work on innovative or hot or possibly marketable projects. All the “innovations” I saw today were all either obsolete (no or irrelevant market demand or market potential) or just mash-ups of what other companies have done earlier and better. Microsoft apparently can afford investing in such useless projects as most of those presented. Is it just investment in corporate image, or are they really adopting a strategy or exploration and risk? If the latter, their projects should really be shortlisted to try and reach something close to the relevance of Google Labs’ projects. Or is Microsoft Research working on really interesting things yet to be seen and does not want to talk about them yet? If so, they should be aware sometimes better to show nothing rather than low-quality contents because that clearly destroys one’s credibility.

Problem Solving: Problems, Symptoms, and Remedies

When facing what seems to be a problem, we nearly always cure/fix the symptoms and not the core issue itself. Distinguishing symptoms from the problem itself is however quite simple.

Symptoms, a necessary alarm

There is nothing more natural for a person than wait for symptoms to come up so as to identify a given problem. For example, many dentists and doctors will agree that most patients are brought to consult them only after starting to feel pain or see some funny things on them. In the same fashion, you would only fix a car when you get obvious sensible signals that it is not functioning well. On the other hand, how else are we supposed to know? We indeed don’t want to engage in a plethora of preventive actions for everything and that’s completely right. So far waiting for symptoms is fine, but our answer to them gives a lot of room for criticism and questioning.

Symptom-solving, an omnipresent issue

In most cases indeed, the pain, in itself, is not the problem. It is just a symptom of something going wrong in one’s body or mind. More generally, when a problem occurs, what arises to out senses (often unpleasantly) is symptoms. It is necessary to detect the problem. Nonetheless, there is a sad constant in people that is to just get rid of whatever shows there is a problem, regardless of the problem. That is typically symptom-solving, you would be scared to realise how often we do that. Here are a few example of common inadequate problem-solving cases taken in everyday life:

  • Coffee and Energy Drinks
    Symptoms cleared : tiredness
    Real problem : exhaustion, lack of sleep, anxiety…
    Appropriate Problem Solving : Ask yourself why your are tired, get some sleep.
  • Chewing gums and mints
    Symptoms cleared : bad breath
    Real problem : Oral bacteria
    Appropriate Problem Solving : Brush teeth, use tongue cleaner and mouthwash…
  • Face Make up
    Symptoms cleared : visible acne, face scars…
    Appropriate Problem Solving : Cure acne (itself a symptom not a problem !!! the real problem is excessive sebum secretion, which itself could also be a symptom of stress, itself a symptom of your bad relationship with your boss !)
  • Rushing, last minute
    Symptoms cleared : delay
    Real problem : Lack of organisation or motivation
    Appropriate Problem Solving : Question habits, plan, schedule…

It takes one of those unnatural efforts to really wonder what the real problem is when you could actually just fix the symptoms temporarily. It is not to be mistaken with being lazy, but given only symptoms that are annoying, it is very easy for the mind to think of them as problems, “something you don’t want”. Besides this, another reason why it’s particularly hard to get the mindset of appropriate problem solving is that, very often, it is beneficial in the long-term: It’s a long term way of thinking….Unfortunately most people do unconsciously prefer comfort in the present at the price of long but bearable suffering (symptom-solving) rather than big pain and then long-term comfort (problem-solving). Money loans are a typical expression of this human tendency.

Problem-solving and Innovation

The everyday process of entrepreneurs, researchers, consultants and the alike basically boils down to facing problems and having to solve them. The ability to solve a problem is particularly vital in this field because symptom-solving often results in costly expenses. Let’s say you are a major web-based company and your website is running particularly slowly. You either don’t care what’s the reason and spend twice as much in a more powerful hosting solution, or you fix what was making the website slow and eventually move to a cheaper hosting solution because you don’t need much performance any longer.

Besides cost, another focus should be time efficiency and scalability. Fixing symptoms is an eternal process, especially when your hack introduces new symptoms. Also, symptom fixing prevents scalability in that whatever transformation you make of your system will have to include the fix. Worse, it may require to adapt the fix as well… Such a waste of time and resources.

Human Body : How The Pharmaceutics Industry shortcuts Natural Body Control System

Our lack of lucidity in problem-solving is the gold-mine of the pharmaceutical industry, although a branch of it tries to tackle the problems at the very root instead of old school symptom-curing.

The human body has this very peculiar ability to send alerts to itself. These are receivable through the senses for (I like to believe) you to be aware of the problem and of course do something about it. Most engineers know this functioning as control. When having a precise objective, control is the mere ability to monitor the outcome (output) in real time correct the action (input) based on observation (the difference between objective and observation). A typical control system could be an elevator for example. The speed of the motor (input) could be proportional to the number of stairs to go (difference between objective: desired stair, and action observed: where is the lift now?).
You do control all the time without realising. When you drink your orange juice in the morning: the reason why you get some and without spilling it over is because you do control: the angle of your hand and cup is the input, and the flow of beverage is the output.

Look at the body as a control system now. Most of the time when you don’t feel good or have a big big headache, the core origin is very likely to be psychological, and if not many cases are found to be curable using the power of your mind over yourself. Doing the contrary, if you just ask yourself what’s wrong and focus on good things it doesn’t generate any profit. So instead the industry likes to sell you their complete collection of pain-killers. The pain-killer for colds, the pain-killer for migraines, the pain-killer for when you feel sad, the pain-killer for when you have a headache after reading your pain-killer bill… the stomach pain-killer to ease the stomach-ache caused by the tons of pain-killers you just absorbed, plus the 10 extra drugs to cover the side effects of each type of pain-killer… You see what I mean ? That’s big money ! One typical issue in symptom solving, is that by introducing a solution to a symptom, you introduce other problems, or side effects in the case of drugs. And it sometimes it gets to the ridiculous point where people choose to do nothing about their given problem because each solutions brought more trouble overall than if they do nothing.

More powerful than problem solving, problem avoidance

  • Isn’t back care the best medicine for back problems ?
  • Isn’t sleep the best remedy for tiredness ?
  • Isn’t protection the best cure for AIDS ?
  • Isn’t correct nutrition the best supplement for fat management ?
  • Isn’t good diplomatic relationships and constructive discussion and compromise the best remedy for wars ?and so forth…

Are we truly dumb enough to learn things the hard way when generations and generations have done it before ?

When it comes to personal health, today’s society just does not want to bother about being careful on what they expose themselves to. Look at the proportion of smokers, look at the sports people engaging in extreme activities with little knowledge and preparation, look at the massive amount of commonly tolerated junk foods and beverages…Once more, all this is a direct consequence of our inability to weight to harmfulness of things when they don’t impact us in the short-term. The underlying thinking process being that whatever happens (shall they believe that something bad will happen), they’ll just have to take the appropriate pain-killer…

Knowledge Management: The Knowledge Iceberg

Research papers often present interesting results to the community, by describing in extended detail the conditions under which they obtained some sort of interesting result.

However, it is not generally advised to say anything up about the thousands of tries (failures). Yet, any researcher does has the same story:  a long list of changes of parameter, in order to obtain incrementally something successful.

Some of those changes yield improvement, other changes don’t. In fact, most of the time, the experiments you carry out either provide chaotic results you can’t reproduce, nothing like what you’re trying to achieve or if you’re lucky  funny things like massive bacteria, pollen or even microscopic insects on a contaminated sample in my case. It was fun because I spent a lot of time with a EBM, those microscopes that are used to show you what eye cells of a fly look like. I liked pollen more than bacteria, the shapes are fun…Anyway! So yeah, most of the time, you change your parameters, and you get different things, but not what you want.

These useless cause-consequence facts are useless and useful at the same time. They could be used to save other people’s time and maybe direct them on new unexplored tracks. One thing is for sure, these cause-consequence facts (micro-failures, micro-improvements, or accidents) are generally not documented in papers, and end up stored in individual souls, deep in the rubbish knowledge department…re-discovered on and on everyday by other people who replicate the same useless experiments, and whom won’t share that either…and so on.

success-failure

You see coming the idea that some people’s rubbish is other people’s gold. History of innovation is full of such stories. What is not useful to you maybe to another with other objectives. But instead, research papers barely present the log of their scientific journey. It is just not in the current trend to do so. But would it be against any of the aims of research? Think about it, and find me ONE reason why it cannot become a requirement of research papers. Why do we only require success experimental conditions and not failure experimental conditions? To me one or the other provides just as much wonder, but effort is only made on explaining why things work. Wouldn’t we be stuck if a naive seven year old genuinely asked “But WHY, WHY does it not work?”. There are more failures in this world than there are successes. Because our emotional response differs when exposed to each, we are biased to (mistakenly) grant more importance to explaining why things work.  I strongly believe that we are missing out by not documenting and explaining with the same passion when things don’t work.

Ego. It seems indeed that authors and publishing authorities may hold too much pride in accepting to show the world their numerous ridiculous tries and the epic failures. “It would be masochism” some may say.

We do learn from our mistakes. But in innovation and research, where everyone is dedicated to contributing to science, wouldn’t be a good thing to learn from the mistakes of each other as well?

In innovation class, I was taught that failure is OK as long as you learn from it. Once the lesson learnt it becomes knowledge. That’s how we grow up since birth, we try a whole lot of things with no limits, and we complement that with a  long list of “don’t do this, don’t do that”. These conditions us to do the right things for the purpose we want to achieve : i.e. living in a community and in harmony with others. Therefore if mistakes are knowledge, how come it is not shared? I was also taught in that class the importance of recycling knowledge, but it was about your own knowledge. How about the communities start to recycle their knowledge, but literally : take the dump knowledge and let someone else do something out of it.

How many researchers, at some point of time, are doing for their first time a process that is well known by another?
How many entrepreneurs in the world are re-creating a business based on ideas and business models (and other identical conditions) that have been proofed to NOT work?

Quite many, yes. What is the point in doing the exact same mistakes to reach the exact same conclusions?

The purpose we are born with as a species involves at the core : Transcending the existent. So let’s not waste our time learning that fire burns.

Of course a good literature review may provide you with documentation on what has been done so far. But let’s say you’re doing exploratory research, the way to achieve your goal will by definition not be documented. Nonetheless, you could get elements that help you reach them, had they been documented when “uselessly” found by others…

In a nutshell, the useless knowledge of others, if shared, may be very useful for you, if not be a pillar of your experimentation conditions.

In this fashion, had there been widespread tools of Knowledge Management, it would be interesting to ask researchers, FOR THEIR OWN BENEFIT, to contribute by documenting all their processes no matter what they yield. Thus, cause-consequence phenomenons would be stored and will benefit the community. This hidden part of the iceberg should be considered just as much as we consider the importance of the research papers themselves.

Such a tool would be a great assistant for innovation. Innovation is the result of a certain sort of intelligence, and intelligence is defined as the ability to make links between things. This process of linking things can be aided by computers to a large extent. All it takes is someone to develop the tools to insert and extract on-demand knowledge, more specifically the cause-consequence facts in technological processes.