Migratory programmers

I don’t live in the US and nor have I any desire to do so. But Paul Graham has written a piece called “Let the other 95% of Great Programmers In“.

It is another call which can be loosely translated as “Let the Tech Industry Do What it Likes”. The logic on which it is built is, however, questionable. He assumes being a great programmer is an innate talent. It isn’t. It is far more a question of experience, conversation and training than innate talent.

Paul’s logic rests on the fact that the US has ca 5% of the world’s population and therefore must only have 5% of the great programmers in the world. This might be attractive logic if it wasn’t already clear that the tech industry in the US already rules out a lot of programmers by having a very different ethnic demographic break down in the US technology industry compared to the rest of the population as a whole. It’s possible that the US has identified very few of its own great programmers and let their talents go elsewhere in industry.

What the US technology industry appears to be poor at is identifying promising talent and nurturing it if it is not white or Asian male. Possibly they might have an argument about letting in the other 95% of great programmers when their diversity figures match the general population but right now they don’t.

For me, one of the core problems with Graham’s piece is he never really identifies a great programmer and how you’d actually identify getting them into the US technology industry. What if great programmers don’t want to go to the US? This is assuming someone can identify them correctly – but that being said I don’t think that’s guaranteed either.

I’m not sure what a great programmer can easily defined as – which is why I am wary of pieces like Paul’s. Many things are context dependent. It’s entirely possible that the vast majority of great US based programmers aren’t even in California but working somewhere else because they have a different set of priorities to Paul Graham. Being blunt about it, I’ve no desire to go to the US, and certainly not to Silicon Valley. I’m not interested in 2 hour commutes and horrifically high rents. Silicon Valley is all about money, and a lot of people – including great programmers – are all about life.

I think Paul Graham is trying to solve the wrong problem. If he wants access to more talent, he may have to move to it rather than trying to get it to move to him. The US is not the sole target for great programmers after all; great programmers can set up more or less where they want to and often do. It’s what I’d do. The great programmers of the world need the US less than the US needs them; and the US’s ability to identify them is already clearly questionable.

The issue is maybe the technology industry is just not attracting the right people in the US from within the US at the moment. Not everyone wants to cram into California either. Silicon Valley’s issues in attracting talent may have little to do with the lack of immigrants that they are allowed and a lot more to do with Silicon Valley itself.

Women and tokenism

This turned up on my twitter feed this afternoon and I wrote a piece, and then chose not to publish it for various reasons, the primary one being it didn’t really get my message through. It is by Maura, from Clinch, a HR start up.

I did not go to Websummit this year, although arguably, I had the time, if not the money. They got into some discussion immediately prior owing to the usual PR gaffe (not uncommon in this country) of using women as eye-candy for their Night Summit thing. They have a staff member working very hard to deal with their diversity issue, and per Maura’s piece, one of the things they did was invite a whole pile of women for free to come to Web Summit. I knew they were doing this but also, chose not to look into it for a few reasons. I already knew that where the real action was, women were noticeable by their absence, and that was on the stage.

I don’t really think it’s fair to ask Maura if it’s not a bit ick being given a free ticket to something just for being a woman. Sure, there’s a quid pro quo in that Websummit gets to feel a bit fluffier about their diversity figures which are, to be frank, pretty awful (but they are trying. Eamon Leonard wrote this on that subject back in September).  The reasons for which people get free stuff varies and often, men get free stuff because they are men, but the underlying rationale isn’t as obvious. Being invited to play golf at expensive golf courses springs to mind, particularly when deals are being done. I don’t know if Websummit has done this and I’m not implying that they have; only that men receive things for free sometimes too, and very often it is because they are men. But it is unspoken.


The problem for me is that even if you give a couple of hundred tickets to women to go to Websummit, it does the grand total of nothing to deal with the gender diversity issue that the conference has.

The highest profile woman speaker at Websummit in 2014 was Eva Longoria. She was interviewed by Jemima Khan. Eva Longoria was there because she funds start-ups. Jemima Khan was there as a publisher. The interview, or some of it, is to be found on YouTube.

But…and here’s the but…neither of them are women in tech. Yes, Eva Longoria got invited to talk about her philanthropy and how it relates to technology but…it’s entirely likely we would haven’t seen her there doing that if she didn’t happen to star in Desperate Housewives. And to be perfectly honest about it, if I were to have gone to Websummit, I would not have wanted to hear neither Eva Longoria nor Jemima Khan speak.

The speakers on my wishlist were Rachel Schutt. Padmasree Warrior, Anna Patterson, Tony Fadell, Gavin Andresen, Stefan Weitz, John Foreman, Andra Keay, and Moe Tanabian. You can see the list of speakers here by the way (refers to the 2014 list at the moment, and I’m pretty sure that will change later).

But that’s way of an aside. Women are by and large missing from the stage of Websummit, and where they do turn up on stage, they are journalists, artists, surfers, marketers. Not that many of them are technologists. In fact, quite a lot of the speakers at the Websummit aren’t technologists anyway – seriously, I wouldn’t necessarily go to a tech conference to hear AC Grayling speak, and if I want to hear someone speaking from Aldabaran Robotics, I’d prefer her to be a technology person rather than a marketing person. I recognise that Websummit was pushing Sports and Food Summits as well – I don’t necessarily agree with it to be honest but it’s their business.

There’s a wider, far wider discussion to be had on what constitutes a tech company at the moment because a lot of techpreneurs are running what might best be described as retail companies rather than tech companies. The only reason I consider Amazon a tech company at all is because of AWS. But that’s by way of an aside.

The point I would ask myself, Maura, and people like her, and which I ask myself every day, is would I stand up on that stage or a stage like it to talk about technology. I’m not interested in standing on a stage to talk about women in technology – that’s too meta and it achieves nothing anyway other than to reinforce the problem rather than solve it.

I could take the easy way and say “I’d like Websummit to invite more women technology specialists (as opposed to ancillary support like marketing)”. But there is a hard way too and that is finding out how to be the kind of woman that I’d like to see more frequently on the stages of technology conferences. Talking about technology.

Deep learning – updated research from Microsoft

I mention it below but Microsoft now have a paper relating to Project Adam in the area of deep learning. Taking a look at the abstract, it is worth noting that distributed systems look to be the focus although they claim to have reduced the scale required.

This research, I think, supersedes the Google cat paper.

AI – Pause for thought

In the past week or two, views attributed to both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have been published, both in general questioning the value of major advances in artificial intelligence. Reading accounts of both, it seems to me that the issue is not so much artificial intelligence as artificial sentience.

You could not read this site without using artificial intelligence. It underpins pretty much any decision making software, and for this page to get to your computer, quite a lot of decisions get to be made network related software.

Decision making software decides what books Amazon recommends to you, what search results Google returns to you when you search for something like, for example, artificial intelligence. Ultimately the issue lies in our perception of artificial intelligence; it has moved on a long way from the ideas prevalent when Alan Turing wrote his seminal paper in the 1950s. At that point, I think it is fair to say, we had a vision of artificial humans rather than task driven machines. What we have been able to achieve in the last 60 years is huge in some respects, and relatively limited in many other respects. Ultimately, our successes have been because we have, over time, changed our understanding of what constitutes artificial intelligence.

There are a lot of intelligent systems floating around the world. Google’s driverless cars are amongst them, but even if you skip them, there are a bunch of driverless trams around the world (Lyon and CDG Airport in Paris as two examples). These systems make responsive decisions and not pro-active decisions. You may get up in the morning and decide to get a train to Cork; a train will never make that decision because a human makes the decision about where the train is going. It doesn’t, unless it manages to collude with any automated signalling system somewhere around Portarlington, decide to go to Galway instead.

I think it is fair to say that both Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are far, far brighter than me so normally I would hesitate to suggest that they are perhaps worried about something which is less than likely to happen. Eric Schmidt has also spoken and he has pointed out that we are very far short of systems that match intelligence and he raised the one example that I tend to, although usually when I am talking about something else. Google have a rather infamous piece of research which I search for under the heading of Google cat paper. Google suggests this to me when I start typing it in which suggests I am not the only person to tag it that way. Anyway, from the Wired interview with Eric Schmidt

All that said, Schmidt also confessed that these machines are a lot more primitive than people would like to imagine. For evidence of that fact, he explained an experiment Google conducted a few years back, in which the company’s scientists developed a neural network and fed it 11,000 hours of YouTube videos to see what it could learn, without any training. “It discovered the concept of ‘cat,’” Schmidt said, assuming the tone of a disappointed dad. “I’m not quite sure what to say about that, except that that’s where we are.”

For me, the issue isn’t so much that the system limited itself to cat. If you know anything at all about YouTube, it’s almost a safe bet that after “human” the next thing any image recognition system is likely to pick up is “cat” purely by force of frequency. What matters is the sheer amount of work taken to get as far as learning “cat”. Schmidt does not mention this.

What the experiment actually did was obtain 10 million still images from YouTube videos and ran them through a nine layer neural network which ran on a cluster including 1000 machines (so 16,000 cores) for three days. According to their abstract, this is what they achieved:

Starting with these learned features, we trained our network to obtain 15.8% accuracy in recognizing 22,000 object categories
from ImageNet, a leap of 70% relative improvement over the previous state-of-the-art.

Now, ultimately, core piece of information here is that a) it was a huge effort distributed across 1000 machines b) took a long time and c) resulted in an ability to correctly identify 22,000 object categories from a big database in 15.8% of cases.

When Eric Schmidt suggests this is relatively primitive, he is right. Now compare it to how fast you can generalise the concept of a cat, or, for example, a new device (I like to use drones here). It is worth noting that Google specifically used unlabelled data here which is akin to a child wandering around a new world with no one telling him what anything is. Learning by experience if you like. Facebook is trying to do the same with labelled data however. They have a significantly greater success rate.

However, again it used large scale effort:

Thus we trained it on the largest facial dataset to-date, an identity labeled dataset of four million facial images belonging to more than 4,000 identities.

Microsoft, incidentally have some more research here. I haven’t read it in detail (yet) so am not going to comment on it. But they have made a lot of promises prior to publication, particularly with respect to accuracy in classifying animals, for example.

On the wider question of whether we should be worrying in much the same way as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are worrying; I am not sure the answer to that question is yes. Not at this point anyway.

One of my interests is in the area of natural language processing, and specifically language acquisition. We are miles short of generally usable systems here. As far as consumer systems are concerned, if you try to get Google to search for something which features a non-English name (ie, Phone, please play Alexandre Tharaud for me), you can forget about it. It does not work. My phone plays music by English rock bands but not French concert pianists if I try to use voice operation.

Yes, I can get my phone to list my appointments for the next few days simply by talking to it, but if you have spent any time using the Google Now at all, you will have run into some of the core issues with it: 1) your voice instructions are not locally processed and 2) your voice instructions are not guaranteed to be correctly processed either. Put simply, interaction is still limited. I still type search functions because it is faster.

Anyway, I wanted to pick up something Elon Musk said.

Musk is one of the high-profile investors, alongside Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and the actor Ashton Kutcher, in Vicarious, a company aiming to build a computer that can think like a person, with a neural network capable of replicating the part of the brain that controls vision, body movement and language.

It is worth noting, by the way that this is Vicarious. In certain respects, it is worth a look to see where they are at at present.

Put simply, there are a bunch of problems there and none of them are fully clear to being sorted. Arguably, we are reasonably close to building reasonable systems for handling motion related tasks – otherwise we would not be in the zone of having driverless cars. However, there is still a massive amount of work to be done in the area of vision, and above all else, language and then, a core issue will be getting systems handling these tasks to communicate effectively. We are a way from fully sentient artificial intelligences, for all the people who are working on them. Where we have had artificial intelligence successes, they have generally been task specific and those tasks have tended to be limited in some respect. We are a long way from building a truly sentient humanoid robot. When we build a self driving car, that is a monumental achievement in artificial intelligence. Said self driving car will never learn to come in and make tea. Artificial intelligence as it exists at present is pretty much scope limited.

However, there is a much wider debate to be had in terms of identifying what is practical and possible within a reasonable time frame, and what we want to achieve with artificial intelligence. This debate is not facilitated by Elon Musk suggesting that it is our greatest existential threat. It is entirely possible that in practical terms, it isn’t. Climate change is an issue. Resource misuse is another major problem. Inequality. Historically, every single major civilisation which has preceded ours has come one hell of a cropper at some point and left interesting looking landmarks behind for us to ponder and in no case was artificial intelligence the problem. It is entirely possible that before we ever get sentient robots we will run into problems. Even in itself, research into artificial intelligence has come a cropper in terms of obtaining funding.

But this shouldn’t preclude us considering what we want to enable and what we want to prevent. And in practical terms, how we ensure that bad things are never developed given that we have so far failed to prevent bad things being developed from useful technology. These are not, however, artificial intelligence questions. They are human questions.

The value of full time education

Brian Mulligan has a piece in today’s Irish Times, or at least, it has appeared online overnight anyway, questioning whether we can afford to send all our young people into full time education. It is worth noting that he is pushing online and distance options as a replacement for same, and that he is a lecturer and program manager in the Centre for Online Learning at the Institute of Technology in Sligo.

I wish to address a number of points he raises, but, in the interests of transparency, I will outline my own experience in this matter before proceeding: 1) I have studied full time in DCU for four years. 2) I have studied full time and worked part time at the University of Westminster for one year; 3) I have studied part time at DCU and worked full time for 2 years 4) I have worked full time and studied via distance learning with the Open University for 2 years and I studied full time at UCD, including 2 modules which were delivered online. I may not be a program manager for an organisation which is selling distance services but I have been a user of education services in most forms at this stage.

There is a trope in existence that when a story regarding some form of science opens with a question, the answer is usually No.

Brian Mulligan opens with a question.

Could it be that sending our children to college is an extravagance?

I think it is fair to say the answer to this question is actually No. No it is not an extravagance. In fact, if I had to say anything, the ongoing debate about the cost of education and what it brings is evidence, perhaps of knowing the price of things but not the value. Sending people to college is only an extravagance if you have an extremely narrow view of what education should be about.

The vision which Brian Mulligan sets out of young people going into menial jobs – as he calls them – and obtaining an education via some distance form enabling them to stay at home – is evidence of someone focusing on price rather than value.

As learners are mostly working and do not need to live away from home, they can more easily afford the fees, often with assistance from employers and with less subsidy from the State.


There is no doubt that changes in technology may bring about changes in how education can be delivered, but this is no argument in favour of making full time education the privilege of the wealthy only, not if you want a healthy and reasonably equal society. One of the core values in enabling youngsters to leave home and go to college is that they learn to stand on their own two feet more quickly, and they meet a greater social mix; something which is a good thing, and highly important for an integrated society. It is no harm that people get to mix outside their own social circle; for society as a whole it is massively important. This is not a method of qualifying people as socially confident or not; what matters is ensuring that people are not constantly reinforced in narrow views in a homogenous conversation.

Should individuals and the State be spending or borrowing so much for what now could be seen as a pleasant rite of passage for privileged people? An extravagance?

Brian Mulligan is at liberty to consider his own education a pleasant rite of passage. He would make it a pleasant rite of passage for privileged people purely by removing from unprivileged people the right to and support for time to dedicate themselves to education. He wants to use modern technology to set society and education back 50-60 years again purely by allowing privilege to define your right to study full time. And he does this to support his organisation’s business case.

The trouble for me is this: I do think that it is not a rite of passage to go through some specialised education. I think it is highly suitable for some people, and less suitable for others. I honestly believe that we should have a decent and recognisably standardised apprentice system. I also believe that for young people who choose not to travel the academic route, we should have methods of enabling them to access what training they require. But I do also believe that money should not be the defining method by which we choose who gets a full time education in UCD and who does not. In a decent society, the marker should be ability and will.

That being said, I honestly believe that distance and on-demand education is something which is poorly provided and basically lopsided in this country. I mentioned above that I had done distance education via the Open University. I did this because at the time, there was no obvious way of studying for a mathematics degree part time from any university in this country. If you are looking for arts based degrees part time via distance, the provision is very poor. Most of what Brian Mulligan’s organisation offers is skills specific based rather falling under the broader term of education. Training rather than learning, if you like

I am not in favour of seeing distance and online education being sold as a replacement for letting our young people go to college. However, that is not to argue against it having a value for enabling all of society to have a continued access to education for the sake of education

Ireland has a serious need for a wider debate on education and training and the value we attribute to both. I have seen the opportunity cost to the country of economics dictating who gets to college and who does not. We also need to understand that sometimes, there is an argument in favour of education for education’s sake; for enabling people to access knowledge on an ongoing basis. Education does not end at the age of 21, 23 or 25 depending on how far you get through third levels into academia. Its value is not solely linked to your salary out of university because it also has a monumental impact on how you look at the world.