Wednesday, December 11, 2013

NIPS and the Zuckerberg Visit

This past weekend, several hundred researchers, students, and hobbyists streamed into Lake Tahoe to attend a conference called Neural Information Processing Systems. NIPS is one of the two machine learning conferences of note (the other is ICML). Acceptance rates are low; prestige is high. Anyone interested in machine learning, statistics, applied math, or data can come to the conference but do expect to be bombarded by 10,000 terms that you don't know, even if you have a PhD.  

When we arrived and cracked open the workshop schedule, we found something very peculiar: 

3:00pm – 3:30pm: Q&A with Mark Zuckerberg”

What is the CEO of Facebook doing speaking at an academic conference on machine learning (and, nominally, neuroscience)? There's obviously a porous boundary between the corporate and academic worlds, but has it ever been this porous?

Ordinarily, when employees of Google, Microsoft, or Facebook show up at NIPS, they either (a) keep to the recruiting room or (b) are there to discuss & present research. The latter group, though they might be wearing their employer's logo on a t-shirt, engage with the conference as academics. Their status is derived from their research accomplishments. And this status does not shut down discourse: they will still field questions and suggestions in-person from any passing student. These kinds of interactions are encouraged at conferences like NIPS.  As a professor once told me when I was a graduate student “We need you guys, you’re the lifeblood of new ideas.”

In contrast, consider the presence of Mark Zuckerberg.  I'm sure someone saw a legitimate need to encircle his Q&A session with armed guards, but nothing screams hierarchy like police at the door. The tone changed rapidly: accomplished professors became little more than lowly researchers shuffling into the Deep Learning workshop to see a Very Important Person speak. Zuckerberg couldn't help but disrupt the conference; the spectacle drew so many, that an adjacent workshop was paused to make room for the overflow. And equally distasteful is what went on behind the scenes.  The conference was full of whispered rumors of one-on-one meetings and secret acquisitions.  This is the first academic conference I have attended where there was this much talk about getting rich or being bought out, something that is actually happening to a number of researchers that appeal to Facebook’s ambitions. 

As for the content of the Q&A itself?  My distrust of excessive power will show itself here (note: Soviet childhood), but I can think of Mark Zuckerberg only as a tunnel visionary.  He wants Facebook to connect all the people in the world & have a personalized theory of mind for each user.  As far as he sees, this is for the good.  Some of the questions asked by the incisive audience were polite versions of “What are the dangers of having this much data about so many people?” and “What does Facebook as a company do to help society?”  These Zuckerberg dodged so expertly that by the time he was done “answering” (with a hefty & convincing confidence), I had forgotten exactly what the question was.

Facebook could have easily sent some high-ranking folks to give an interesting & technical talk instead of Zuckerberg coming himself.  His presence was jarring because it subverted the spirit of the conference, and injected into it the distinct aroma of big money.  Was it anything more than a glamorous & sanctioned recruiting visit?  I would have expected the NIPS organizers to decline to endorse such industrial overreach.

The barriers between Silicon Valley and academia are blurry and getting blurrier. Maybe this is to be expected in Zuckerberg's "knowledge economy", where the largest data sets and greatest computational resources are destined to be locked behind corporate doors. However, if academia has any hope maintaining an atmosphere of open inquiry (rather than just proprietary R&D), academics have to protect their culture. Otherwise, the resulting decline in high-quality reproducible research will be a loss for everyone involved, and society at large.
In the future, Mark Zuckerberg should be welcome to attend NIPS just like anyone else, assuming he has paid the appropriate registration fee (or obtained a scholarship).  But it is the job of academics (here, the organizers of NIPS) to uphold the necessary boundary between academia and Silicon Valley.  They have failed to do so, and I sincerely hope that this flirtation with Silicon Valley won’t turn into a marriage.
This post was written jointly with Alex Rubinsteyn and a bottle of Scotch.