The night of February 15, 2012, was an uncomfortable one for me. Not a natural talker, I was out of my element at a press dinner organized by Yahoo! with journalists from the New York Times, Fast Company, MIT Tech Review, Forbes, SF Chronicle, WIRED, Reuters, and several more [1]. Even worse, the reporters kept leading with, “wow, this must a big night for you, huh? You just called the election.”

We were there to promote The Signal, a partnership between Yahoo! Research and Yahoo! News to put a quantitative lens on the election and beyond. The Signal was our data-driven antidote to two media extremes: the pundits who commit to statements without evidence; and some journalists who, in the name of balance, commit to nothing. As MIT Tech Review billed it, The Signal would be the “mother of all political prediction engines”. We like to joke that that quote undersold us: our aim was to be the mother of all prediction engines, period. The Signal was a broad project with many moving parts, featuring predictions, social media analysis, infographics, interactives, polls, and games. Led by David “Force-of-Nature” Rothschild, myself, and Chris Wilson, the full cast included over 30 researchers, engineers, and news editors [2]. We confirmed quickly that there’s a clear thirst for numeracy in news reporting: The Signal grew in 4 months to 2 million unique users per month [3].

On that night, though, the journalists kept coming back to the Yahoo! PR hook that brought them in the door: our insanely early election “call”. At that time in February, Romney hadn’t even been nominated.

No, we didn’t call the election, we predicted the election. That may sound like the same thing but, in scientific terms, there is a world of difference. We estimated the most likely outcome – Obama would win 303 Electoral College votes, more than enough to return him to the White House — and assigned a probability to it. Of less than one. Implying a probability of more than zero of being wrong. But that nuance is hard to explain to journalists and the public, and not nearly as exciting.

Although most of our predictions were based on markets and polls, the “303″ prediction was not: it was a statistical model trained on historical data of past elections, authored by economists Patrick Hummel and David Rothschild. It doesn’t even care about the identities of the candidates.

I have to give Yahoo! enormous credit. It took a lot of guts to put faith in some number-crunching eggheads in their Research division and go to press with their conclusions. On February 16, Yahoo! went further. They put the 303 prediction front and center, literally, as an “Exclusive” banner item on Yahoo.com, a place that 300 million people call home every month.

The Signal 303 prediction "Exclusive" top banner item on Yahoo.com 2012-02-16

The firestorm was immediate and monstrous. Nearly a million people read the article and almost 40,000 left comments. Writing for Yahoo! News, I had grown used to the barrage of comments and emails, some comic, irrelevant, or snarky; others hateful or alert-the-FBI scary. But nothing could prepare us for that day. Responses ranged from skeptical to utterly outraged, mostly from people who read the headline or reactions but not the article itself. How dare Yahoo! call the election this far out?! (We didn’t.) Yahoo! is a mouthpiece for Obama! (The model is transparent and published: take it for what it’s worth.) Even Yahoo! News editor Chris Suellentrop grew uncomfortable, especially with the spin from Homepage (“Has Obama won?”) and PR (see “call” versus “predict”), keeping a tighter rein on us from then on. Plenty of other outlets “got it” and reported on it for what it was – a prediction with a solid scientific basis, and a margin for error.

This morning, with Florida still undecided, Obama had secured exactly 303 Electoral College votes.

New York Times 2012 election results Big Board 2011-11-07

Just today Obama wrapped up Florida too, giving him 29 more EVs than we predicted. Still, Florida was the closest vote in the nation, and for all 50 other entities — 49 states plus Washington D.C. — we predicted the correct outcome back in February. The model was not 100% confident about every state of course, formally expecting to get 6.8 wrong, and rating Florida the most likely state to flip from red to blue. The Hummel-Rothschild model, based only on a handful of variables like approval rating and second-quarter economic trends, completely ignored everything else of note, including money, debates, bail outs, binders, third-quarter numbers, and more than 47% of all surreptitious recordings. Yet it came within 74,000 votes of sweeping the board. Think about that the next time you hear an “obvious” explanation for why Obama won (his data was biggi-er!) or why Romney failed (too much fundraising!).

Kudos to Nate Silver, Simon Jackman, Drew Linzer, and Sam Wang for predicting all 51 states correctly on election eve.

As Felix Salmon said, “The dominant narrative, the day after the presidential election, is the triumph of the quants.” Mashable’s Chris Taylor remarked, “here is the absolute, undoubted winner of this election: Nate Silver and his running mate, big data.” ReadWrite declared, “This is about the triumph of machines and software over gut instinct. The age of voodoo is over.” The new news quants “bring their own data” and represent a refreshing trend in media toward accountability at least, if not total objectivity, away from rhetoric and anecdote. We need more people like them. Whether you agree or not, their kind — our kind — will proliferate.

Congrats to David, Patrick, Chris, Yahoo! News, and the entire Signal team for going out on a limb, taking significant heat for it, and correctly predicting 50 out of 51 states and an Obama victory nearly nine months prior to the election.

Footnotes

[1] Here was the day-before guest list for the February 15 Yahoo! press dinner, though one or two didn’t make it:
-  New York Times, John Markoff
-  New York Times, David Corcoran
-  Fast Company, EB Boyd
-  Forbes, Tomio Geron
-  MIT Tech Review, Tom Simonite
-  New Scientist, Jim Giles
-  Scobleizer, Robert Scoble
-  WIRED, Cade Metz
-  Bloomberg/BusinessWeek, Doug MacMillan
-  Reuters, Alexei Oreskovic
-  San Francisco Chronicle, James Temple

[2] The extended Signal cast included Kim Farrell, Kim Capps-Tanaka, Sebastien Lahaie, Miro Dudik, Patrick Hummel, Alex Jaimes, Ingemar Weber, Ana-Maria Popescu, Peter Mika, Rob Barrett, Thomas Kelly, Chris Suellentrop, Hillary Frey, EJ Lao, Steve Enders, Grant Wong, Paula McMahon, Shirish Anand, Laura Davis, Mridul Muralidharan, Navneet Nair, Arun Kumar, Shrikant Naidu, and Sudar Muthu.

[3] Although I continue to be amazed at how greener the grass is at Microsoft compared to Yahoo!, my one significant regret is not being able to see The Signal project through to its natural conclusion. Although The Signal blog was by no means the sole product of the project, it was certainly the hub. In the end, I wrote 22 articles and David Rothschild at least three times that many.

Congratulations to my academic sibling, friend, and Detroit Red Wings fan Pete Wurman, whose company Kiva Systems just became Amazon’s second largest acquisition ever.

In short, Kiva Systems designs, builds, and operates intelligent autonomous robots to pick and stow products in giant distribution centers for companies like Toys R Us, Walgreens, and Zappos. (The latter is an Amazon subsidiary.) The best way to understand Kiva Systems is to watch their robots in action: an amazing sight to see. Here is a clip from IEEE Spectrum:

In 2003, I remember sitting in the back seat of a car with Pete, him excitedly demo-ing the concept to me via an animated simulation on his laptop, little dots representing robots weaving in and out of each on the screen. (Pete’s laptop was a mac. In grad school, Pete was every bit the Apple fan I was and more. He and I programmed HyperCard and Newton together. Pete advocated for simplicity in design before it was cool. When I briefly switched to Windows, he never wavered.)

By 2006, the robots were real. Pete took me and our shared academic parent, Mike Wellman (who I believe also played an early role in the company), on a tour. Dots on a laptop had become squat orange robots receiving orders, fetching products, avoiding each other, seeking power, and otherwise navigating around a complex environment with computational minds of their own. The designs were inspired: for example, to lift a box, the robot spun underneath it to extend a corkscrew so that the product wouldn’t get jarred. They even added noise in the robots’ paths, so their wheels wouldn’t wear grooves in the floor (call it a floorsaver algorithm).

By coincidence, a few weeks ago, I was speaking to someone from Amazon who works on optimizing the way people (ha!) retrieve, store, and pack items in their distribution centers and I mentioned Pete’s company. He said “until that happens” he would focus on optimizing their current systems. Little did we (or at least I) know how quickly “until” would come.

Kiva Systems isn’t just an incredibly cool company run by amazing people. It’s a harbinger of things to come as the world moves inexorably toward an Automated Economy.

By the way, if you’re worried that robots will take jobs away from people, don’t. The world is a better place with mechanical devices doing mechanical tasks, leaving people to do more interesting and creative things, for example turning crazy ideas into companies. Remember that the purpose of jobs is to produce valuable things and improve the world. Despite political rhetoric, jobs are not an end to themselves. Otherwise, we should all be happy digging ditches and filling them back up, or pumping gas for people who would rather do it themselves. Think about where society should go in fifty or a hundred years when automation can handle more and more tasks. It would be a real shame if at that time people were still “working for a living” in jobs they don’t enjoy simply for the sake of keeping them occupied.

I am incredibly lucky. Last August, I spent three days straight thinking almost exclusively about one topic: prediction markets, mostly algorithms. Even better, I was in great company: eleven incredible visitors from across the country took time out of their busy schedules to join me at Yahoo! Research NYC in an impromptu “prediction market powwow”: Yiling Chen, Sanmay Das, Lance Fortnow, Nicolas Lambert, Abe Othman, Mike Ruberry, Rahul Sami, Florian Teschner, Jenn Wortman Vaughn, Christof Weinhardt, and Lirong Xia. (Plus fellow Yahoos Miro Dudik, Sebastien Lahaie, and David Rothschild.) It’s amazing to have a job that allows this kind of time for research and blue-sky thinking: thanks Yahoo!. It’s humbling to have such stellar colleagues to work with: thanks everyone who came. It’s also wonderful to see “the kids” (former interns and postdocs) doing so well: Rahul now has tenure at U Michigan, Yiling is a professor at Harvard, Jenn is a professor at UCLA, and Nicolas is a professor at Stanford. (Lirong: You’re next!)

Here are our notes and here is a photo:

Prediction Market Powwow Yahoo! Research Aug 2011

Small Apple tribute logo, created by Mak Long

10 Print "Hello"

That line typed on an Apple II computer in my Dad’s office in the fourth grade got me hooked on computer programming, an addiction I never outgrew.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of owning, using, or programming on many of Steve Jobs’s creations, including Apple II+, Macintosh IIcx, Power Mac 7100, Newton, NeXT, Powerbook, Macbook Pro, and iPhone. I’ve been a consistent Mac in the Mac-vs-PC battle since 1984 (though I admit to a brief affair in 1998: it didn’t mean anything, Steve, I swear!). Jobs himself ignited an us-versus-them fire, which smolders on today in Apple’s John Hodgman-as-PC ads, back in 1985 with one of his best quotes:

Playboy: Are you saying that the people who made PCjr don’t have … pride in [their] product?

[Jobs:] “If they did, they wouldn’t have made the PCjr.” [Playboy, Feb. 1, 1985]

Around that time, my friends and I had a running joke: “I got a PCjr,” one of us would say; “you’re going straight to hell, kid,” the other would shoot back.

Old Apple II and Power Macintosh computers
Buried treasure: Old Apple II and Power Macintosh computers, waiting to be dusted off… someday



My wife and kids (ages 7 and 4) are more recent converts, owning a Duo, an iPhone, an iPad, and two iPod Touches among them.

I’ve owned Apple stock since about 1997, my single best investment, increasing 4,460 percent. (Priceline is my second best, gaining 3,990%.)

Like Lance, I’ll never forget where I was when I learned that Steve Jobs had died. Steven Colbert told me. Live. After a hilarious taping of the Colbert Report and four performances by the artist formerly known as Mos Def (apparently a perfectionist: who knew?), Colbert ended by balancing his iPhone on his desk, letting it fall over, then telling us, “Steve Jobs died. Sorry to be the one to tell you.” To say the mood of the audience changed instantly would be an understatement. Smiling faces turned down. Cries of anguish and “oh no!” rang out from nearly everyone in the audience, a mark of how Jobs’s influence and name recognition has grown from tech hero to global cultural icon. (Colbert gave Jobs a proper tribute the next day.)

There’s a thread in our office about the extent to which perceived success or failure at the CEO level is a fooled-by-randomness trick of the mind. But there are some examples where even the strongest skeptic must admit that an organization’s success is almost surely owed to the exceptional greatness of a single individual. Warren Buffet and Coach K come to (my) mind. But Steve Jobs must be the prime example. As if ushering in the era of personal computing and computer-animated movies was not enough, Jobs continued to outdo himself year after year, with iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and, barely a year ago, iPad. Sadly, or maybe purposefully, Jobs seemed to hit his stride just as he died. As a long-time disciple of Jobs, I’m amazed at the amount of focus in his obituaries spent on gadgets he created in the last ten years.

Jobs famously advised not to spend too much time celebrating success.

I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.
—NBC Nightly News, 2006

Those were not empty words for Jobs: it’s how he lived his own life and how he squeezed so much out of the 56 short years he was given. The early storyline of Apple pegged Steve Wozniak as the brains and Jobs as the lucky business-minded sidekick. It turns out that Jobs was way more exceptional than the 1990s nerderati — who like me relate more to Woz — gave him credit for. Jobs had the brains, the vision, and the charisma in a combination so rare I’m not the only one who can’t think of another human alive who compares. To get a taste, read or watch Jobs’s Stanford commencement speech: it’s truly brilliant, inspiring, and one of the best ways you can spend the next few minutes of your time.

To the ultimate hacker painter, the first last analog, the nerdiest salesman, the studliest genius, the most productive perfectionist, the most detail-oriented visionary, and a personal hero:

20 Print "Goodbye"

My geek CEO was fired. If you’re wondering whether she deserved it, or Yahoo! is better off for it, or Roy Bostock is a doofus or dorfus, I don’t really know.* But I do have a personal story about Carol Bartz that’s indicative of the kind of CEO she was and the kind of person she is, perfect for Ada Lovelace day, a day to blog about women in science and technology who inspire you.

In May 2010, my wife Lauren was diagnosed with breast cancer. On Sunday, May 9, 2010—Mother’s Day no less—I received a phone call. “Hello?,” I said. “Hi, this is Carol Bartz,” she said. “Wow!,” I couldn’t help saying. I had never spoken to her before. She proceeded to say how sorry she was for me and Lauren, to reassure us, to ask me questions, and to answer mine.

More than a year, multiple surgeries, and six chemo sessions later, I’m happy to say that Lauren is past the worst part of the treatment and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, cancer free. At the time, we were frightened, bewildered, and angry. To me, the most overwhelming feeling was disbelief. Was this really happening to us? It was surreal. Lauren’s strength and sheer will to keep our home life as normal as possible, and her ability to turn the ordeal into a positive is amazing and helped me cope. That my mom and Lauren’s mom went through the same thing also helped. The more we looked into it the more we realized breast cancer was everywhere—shockingly common even at Lauren’s age. (Especially in New Jersey, one of only five states in the top tier for both incidence of and mortality from breast cancer.) The calls to increase the age of first mammogram border on criminal. One silver lining for Lauren has been meeting the amazing support community of breast cancer sufferers, survivors, and their friends. They have inspired her to give back in many ways. My mom, a radiologist and ACR fellow, was herself inspired to specialize in mammography and pursue breast cancer research.

It turns out, Carol Bartz is a survivor herself and, in addition to being one of the fifty most powerful women in business, is just another member of the breast cancer support community who cares deeply. Carol had over twelve thousand employees. To take the time to call one of them on a holiday weekend to address personal problems and pain shows the kind of leader she is. (And shows the kind of bosses Preston and Prabhakar are, who thought enough to bring it to her attention.) It’s a “Yahoo! moment” and a Carol moment that I remember vividly and continues to stick out in my mind. I suspect most stereotypes of corporate and public leaders as conniving powermad ladder climbers are just that: stereotypes. But still, I’m convinced that not all—probably few—CEOs would do what Carol Bartz did. Goodbye, good luck, and, most of all: Thanks, Carol.


* I will say that I respect Carol’s willingness give her blunt assessment of the board, possibly risking $10 million to do so, and to come right out and say “I was fired” rather than hide behind “more time with family” cliches. I’m not surprised that the board gave their full confidence to her in public just two months before firing her—of course a board always has to say that they have confidence in their current CEO. I am surprised and dismayed that, at least judging by her reaction, it seems the board was also giving their confidence to her in private. That’s HR 101: No one who’s fired should be surprised.

A few words on the tragic death last May of John Delaney, the founder and CEO of prediction market company Intrade. John died near the peak of Mount Everest, climbing toward one of his life’s dreams and leaving behind a wife and three children, including one born only days before he died that he never met.

John founded Tradesports, a pre-cursor to Intrade, in 2000. Eventually, the non-sports contracts on Tradesports where spun off as Intrade, and Tradesports was shut down in 2008, in hopes of obtaining U.S. regulatory approval. I remember marveling at the technology, featuring ajax-ian magic like push updates — new bids appeared and filled bids disappeared live in a flash of color — well before its time, before we even knew what to call it.

The prediction market community embraced John, and John them. John was happy to take academics’ quixotic market ideas — like combinatorial markets, decision markets, merger markets, tax markets, or search engine markets — and float them on Tradesports or Intrade, and share back data for academic studies. I remember when we learned a Director at Intrade would speak at the first Prediction Markets Summit in 2005, we were thrilled to hear from a pioneer and innovator: one of the “big guns”. Chris Hibbert asked, “isn’t Tradesports the largest prediction market in the world?” It was hard to say: in a way, yes, it was and still is the largest market widely identified with the adjective ‘prediction’, but of course it depends how you define it: does Betfair count? Vegas? Stock options? If I recall, John himself spoke remotely at the second PM summit in New York.

Intrade became the prototypical example of a prediction market, mentioned in almost every academic paper on the subject. In 2008, Betfair, a goliath to Intrade’s David in terms of revenue and profit, got so annoyed they lashed out and sent the following attack on Intrade and defense of their own service dubbed Betfair Predicts (now shuttered):

InTrade’s election charts are republished frequently—despite continuing
problems with market manipulation.

Betfair is the world’s largest commercial prediction market with $33
Billion per year flowing through its exchange and is well known for
integrity and advanced technology…

I don’t believe I met John in person, but he and I emailed a bit, and beyond being whip smart and a fantastic entrepreneur, John was simply an incredibly nice guy. He kept repeating, at the end of nearly every email, that I must come to London so we could meet and have a beer. Talking to others, it seems I am far from alone in this standing offer from John. On the original prediction market mailing list, John Delaney was always the peacemaker: always diplomatic and rising about some surprisingly testy exchanges. He always spoke to raise the prominence of the field as a whole, ahead of his own interests with Intrade, not only believing but acting on his belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

John didn’t seem like the type to seek out risk for the simple thrill of it; rather, he took calculated risks in business and life to progress. His success at work and at home attest to this. In hindsight, it’s easy to say he calculated wrong in attempting to climb Everest, but especially among prediction market proponents we know that decisions cannot be evaluated in hindsight. Decisions must be judged based on the information available at the time the decision is made. My guess is that John knew the risks and felt the climb was a gamble worth taking in an effort to achieve a long-standing goal and to accomplish a feat few others on the planet can claim.

John, you will be sorely missed, but your legacy lives on at Intrade, in the prediction market community, among your family and friends, and in the business world, sadly and suddenly now missing one of it’s great entrepreneurs with a spirit of adventure.

HP research scientist Vinay Deolalikar has constructed the most credible proof yet of the most important open question in computer science. If his proof is validated (and there are extremely confident skeptics as you’ll see) he proved that P≠NP, or loosely speaking that some of the most widespread computational problems — everything from finding a good layout of circuits on a chip to solving Sudoku puzzles to computing LMSR prices in a combinatorial market — cannot be solved efficiently. Most computer scientists believe that P≠NP, but after decades of some of the smartest people in the world trying, and despite the promise of worldwide accolades and a cool $1 million from the Clay Mathematics Institute, no one has been able to prove it, until possibly now.

Scott Aaronson is a skeptic, to say the least. He made an amazing public bet to demonstrate his confidence. He pledged that if Deolalikar wins the $1 million prize, Aaronson will top it off with $200,000 of own money. Even more amazing: Aaronson made the bet without even reading the proof. [Update: I should have said "without reading the proof in detail": see comments] (Perhaps more amazing still: a PC World journalist characterized Aaronson’s stance as “noncommittal” without a drip of sarcasm.) [Hat tip to Dan Reeves.]

As Aaronson explains:

The point is this: I really, really doubt that Deolalikar’s proof will stand. And while I haven’t studied his long, interesting paper and pinpointed the irreparable flaw… I have a way of stating my prediction that no reasonable person could hold against me: I’ve literally bet my house on it.

Aaronson is effectively offering infinite odds [Update: actually more like 2000/1 odds: see comments] that the question “P=NP?” will not be resolved in the near future. Kevin McCurley and Ron Fagin made a different (conditional) bet: Fagin offered 5/1 odds (at much lower stakes) that if the question is resolved in 2010, the answer will be P≠NP. Bill Gasarch says that he, like Aaronson, would bet that the proof is wrong… if only he were a betting man. Richard Lipton recounts a discussion about the odds of P=NP with Ken Steiglitz.

But beyond a few one-off bets and declarations, where is the central market where I can bet on P=NP? I don’t even necessarily want in on the action, I just want the odds. (Really!)

My first thought was the Foresight Exchange. It does list one related contract — Good 3SAT Algorithm by 2020 — which should presumably go to zero if Deolalikar’s proof is correct. It hasn’t budged much, consistent with skepticism (or with apathy). My second thought was the PopSci Predictions Exchange (PPX), though sadly it has retired. InklingMarkets has a poll about whether P=NP will be resolved before the other Clay Institute prize questions, but not about how it will be resolved or the odds of it happening. (The poll is one of several markets sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program — hat tip to Vince Conitzer.) I don’t see anything at longbets, and anyway longbets doesn’t provide odds despite it’s name.

In 1990 Robin Hanson provocatively asked: Could gambling save science?. That question and his thoughtful answers inspired a number of people, including me, to study prediction markets. Indeed, the Foresight Exchange was built largely in his image. P=NP seems one of the most natural claims for any scitech prediction market.

All these years later, when I really need my fix, I can’t seem to get it!


2010/08/14 Update: Smarkets comes the closest: they have real-money betting on whether P=NP will be resolved before the other Clay Institute prize questions. They report a 53% chance as of 2010/08/14 (for the record, I would bet against that). What’s missing is when the award might happen and how the question might be resolved, P=NP or P≠NP. I also don’t see a graph to check whether Deolalikar’s proof had any effect.

If it wasn’t clear in my original post, I found Aaronson’s bet incredibly useful and I am thrilled he did it. I believe he should be commended: his bet was exactly what more scientists should do. Scientists should express their opinion, and betting is a clear, credible, and quantitative way to express it. It would be as shame if some of the negative reactions caused him or others not to make similar bets in the future.

I just wish there were a central place to make bets on scientific claims and follow the odds in the vision of Robin Hanson, rather than every scientist having to declare their bet on their own individual blogs.

Back in 2004, who could have imagined Apple’s astonishing rise to overtake Microsoft as the most valuable tech company in the world?

At least one person.

Paul Graham wins the award for the most prescient parenthetical statement inside a footnote ever.

In footnote 14 of Chapter 5 (p. 228) of Graham’s classic Hackers and Painters, published in 2004, Graham asks “If the the Mac was so great why did it lose?”. His explanation ends with this caveat, in parentheses:

And it hasn’t lost yet. If Apple were to grow the iPod into a cell phone with a web browser, Microsoft would be in big trouble.

Wow. Count me impressed.

To find this quote, search inside the book for “ipod cell”.

To get into a 2004 midset, look here and here.

Well, geeks are certainly inheriting my earth.

On January 13, my company named Carol Bartz, a self-avowed math nerd and former punch-card carrying member of her college computer club, as its CEO. In her own words:

I was a real nerd. I love, love, love, love math. Back in the late ’60s, math meant being a teacher if you were a woman. I wasn’t interested in teaching. Then I took my first computer course. It was crazy. It was like math, only more fun. I switched to computer science.

Exactly one week later, on January 20, my country turned over executive control to Barack Obama, a CrackBerry addicted comic book geek. In his inauguration speech, Obama vowed to “restore science to its rightful place”, “wield technology’s wonders”, and even addressed “non-believers” — wording that in any sane universe should be entirely unremarkable, yet in ours appears to represent an unprecedented milestone.

I can’t recall a two-week span filled with so much geek pride and cautious optimism.

Back to the Carol Bartz quote. Reading it brings a smile to my face. It also reminds me of my mom, who, convinced it was her only option, taught middle school for a few years before returning to medical school to pursue her passion, enjoying a successful career as one of the first women radiologists.

I highly recommend Bartz’s essay, which mixes biography with prescience and insight. Bartz describes how technology and the Internet are transforming collaboration and improving productivity, at the same time ushering in an era of information overload, email bankruptcy, and misuse of the extra time technology affords. Remarkably, she wrote about these things in 1997!

It’s amazing to think how things have changed since 1997. My own first web experience, courtesy Mosaic, came in 1994, the same year Yahoo! was founded. In 1996, PayPal predecessor and public company First Virtual wrote their own keystroke-sniffing malware as a stunt to bolster their urgent call to “NEVER TYPE YOUR CREDIT CARD NUMBER INTO A COMPUTER”. Ebay was founded in 1995, PayPal in 1998. In 1997, Friendster had neither come nor gone, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was 13.

Yet Bartz’s words seem more relevant than ever today.

Until just reading about it in Wired, I knew little1 of the apparent suicide of Push Singh, a rising star in the field of artificial intelligence.

Singh seemed to have everything going for him: brilliant and driven, he became the protégé of his childhood hero Marvin Minsky, eventually earning a faculty position alongside him at MIT. Professionally, Singh earned praise from everyone from IEEE Intelligent Systems, who named Singh one of AI’s Ten to Watch (apparently revised), to Bill Gates, who asked Singh to keep him appraised of his latest publications. Singh’s social life seemed healthy and happy. The article struggles to uncover a hint of why Singh would take his own life, mentioning his excruciating chronic back pain (and linking it to a passage on the evolutionary explanation of pain as “programming bug” in Minsky’s new book, a book partly inspired by Singh).

The article weaves Push’s story with the remarkable parallel life and death of Chris McKinstry, a man with similar lofty goals of solving general AI, and even a similar approach of eliciting common sense facts from the public. (McKinstry’s Mindpixel predated Singh’s OpenMind initiative.) McKinstry’s path was less socially revered, and he seemed on a never ending and aching quest for credibility. The article muses whether there might be some direct or indirect correlation between the eerily similar suicides of the two men, even down to their methods.

For me, the story felt especially poignant, as growing up I was nourished on nearly the same computer geek diet as Singh: Vic 20, Apple II, Star Trek, D&D, HAL 9000, etc. In Singh I saw a smarter and more determined version of myself. Like many, I dreamt of solved AI, and of solving AI, even at one point wondering if a neural network trained on yes/no questions might suffice, the framework proposed by McKinstry. My Ph.D. is in artificial intelligence, though like most AI researchers my work is far removed from the quest for general AI. Over the years, I’ve become at once disillusioned with the dream2 and, hypocritically, upset that so many in the field have abandoned the dream in pursuit of a fractured set of niche problems with questionable relevance to whole.

Increasingly, researchers are calling for a return to the grand challenge of general AI. It’s sad that Singh, one of the few people with a legitimate shot at leading the way, is now gone.

Push Singh Memorial Fund

1Apparently details about Singh’s death have been slow to emerge, with MIT staying mostly quiet, for example not discussing the cause of death and taking down a memorial wiki built for Singh.
1 My colleague Fei Sha, a new father, put it nicely, saying he is “constantly amazed by the abilities of children to learn and adapt and is losing bit by bit his confidence in the romantic notion of artificial intelligence”.

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