Missing the trend

I have been fortunate to have been born at a time when I had the opportunity to witness the birth of several of the major innovations that shape our world today.  I have also managed to miss out on capitalizing on every single one of them. You might make a lot of money betting against what I think.

I was a postdoctoral fellow in Boulder, Colorado in 1993 when my very tech savvy advisor John Cary introduced me and his research group to the first web browser Mosaic shortly after it was released. The web was the wild west in those days with just a smattering of primitive personal sites authored by early adopters. The business world had not discovered the internet yet. It was an unexplored world and people were still figuring out how to utilize it. I started to make a list of useful sites but unlike Jerry Yang and David Filo, who immediately thought of doing the same thing and forming a company, it did not remotely occur to me that this activity could be monetized. Even though I struggled to find a job in 1994, was fairly adept at programming, watched the rise of Yahoo! and the rest of the internet startups, and had friends at Stanford and Silicon Valley, it still did not occur to me that perhaps I could join in too.

Just months before impending unemployment, I managed to talk my way into being the first post doc of Jim Collins, who just started as a non-tenure track research assistant professor at Boston University.  Midway through my time with Jim, we had a meeting with Charles Cantor, who was a professor at BU then, about creating engineered organisms that could eat oil. Jim subsequently recruited graduate student Tim Gardner, now CEO of Riffyn, to work on this idea. I thought we should create a genetic Hopfield network and I showed Tim how to use XPP to simulate the various models we came up with. However, my idea seemed too complicated to implement biologically so when I went to Switzerland to visit Wulfram Gerstner at the end of 1997,  Tim and Jim, freed from my meddling influence, were able create the genetic toggle switch and the field of synthetic biology was born.

I first learned about Bitcoin in 2009 and had even thought about mining some. However, I then heard an interview with one of the early developers, Gavin Andresen, and he failed to understand that because the supply of Bitcoins is finite, prices denominated in it would necessarily deflate over time. I was flabbergasted that he didn’t comprehend the basics of economics and was convinced that Bitcoin would eventually fail. Still, I could have mined thousands of Bitcoins on a laptop back then, which would be worth tens of millions today.  I do think blockchains are an important innovation and my former post-bac fellow Wally Xie is even the CEO of the blockchain startup QChain. Although I do not know where cryptocurrencies and blockchains will be in a decade, I do know that I most likely won’t have a role.

I was in Pittsburgh during the late nineties/early 2000’s in one of the few places where neural networks/deep learning, still called connectionism, was king. Geoff Hinton had already left Carnegie Mellon for London by the time I arrived at Pitt but he was still revered in Pittsburgh and I met him in London when I visited UCL. I actually thought the field had great promise and even tried to lobby our math department to hire someone in machine learning for which I was summarily dismissed and mocked. I recruited Michael Buice to work on the path integral formulation for neural networks because I wanted to write down a neural network model that carried both rate and correlation information so I could implement a correlation based learning rule. Michael even proposed that we work on an algorithm to play Go but obviously I demurred. Although, I missed out on this current wave of AI hype, and probably wouldn’t have made an impact anyway, this is the one area where I may get a second chance in the future.



2 thoughts on “Missing the trend

  1. Hinton, Rumelhart and others at CMU (connectionists–they also operate at Cornell and UCSD and elsewhere —and long before that H Simon in economics/psychology–one of inventros of behavioral economics before it was called that) sort of had a split with with the Chomsky MIT school ( ‘innatists’). I side with connectionists. I was told by someone who worked at AAAS that they had to seperate the connectionists from the Chomkyites at AAAS linguistics meetings–too hostile. (In later stuff Chomsky basically claims he invented connectionism too–do you discover something or invent it–chomsky did both–he discovered connectionist papers and claimed them as his invention . He among others is one reason i stopped identifying as an anarchist– i swithced to anti-authoritianism but i may give that label up too. )

    My parents had a subscription to Scientific American which i never read until i had graduated college–they had saved all these issues from way back. Thats where I saw a pop sci article by Hopfield connecting neural nets to spin glass physics. Made very good sense

    I dont understand bitcoin or blockchain but there is a physics model of blockchain—-my (probably or not even wrong) intuition is blockchain is unneccesary–you dont need alot of energy use to make a crypto or alternative currency using algorithms, You might be able to that by pencil and paper. . Most likely these cryptos will be around–although current world has self-driving cars and computers, it still has trees and rocks from the past. One could probably write a whole theory of money—(i’ve tried to but may not finish it) –govt $, alternative currencies, cryptos….

    Land is finite, life is finite, bitcoin is finite (only a certain number), gold and oil are semi-finite—people don’t know exactly how much gold or oil exists. All these are ‘Poincare conventions’. Speed of light is a convention too. Occam’s razor says speed of light is c–a finite number.

    https://arxiv.org/abs/1506.08663 (Thats from the Chomskyite MIT school but actually doesnt support their case–the math looks correct, but the interpretation wrong. They conclude all of math and physics is dervied from Chomskyian lingustics ‘minimalist program’.Thats second time Chomsky has derived that. I agree with some of his political views but not all–he spends half of his time explaining why all his critics are wrong.I have dealt with him personally 2 times at linguistics lectures –i asked a question. Both times heanswered my question b y saying his grad student had solved and answered my question, and shown it was a nonsense question.I dont think he could even understand my question. )


  2. Heh, thanks for the shoutout. During my time at the NIH, I had actually mined a good amount of random coins, but sold them for essentially nothing before the epic bull run on crypto began in 2016. The past several months have taught me a lot blockchains and blockchain companies, but perhaps more importantly, I have learned about how treacherous, illusory, and half-baked the business of tech can be.

    Blockchains are going to be used in the future, I think particularly in the domains of supply chain and resource management, but I’m not sure you missed out on too much there. For all the hype of “decentralization” and “transparency,” those two words have really become meaningless buzzwords. The blockchain and cryptocurrency scene is extremely centralized. A handful of opaquely managed exchanges are gatekeepers that determine which coins and tokens actually make it into the trading ecosystem. A few of these blockchains, such as NEO, are powered on a backbone of less than 30 nodes. Most blockchains are outright scams that have had no tech development in months and instead survive by distracting desperate investors with regular doses of sketchy and exaggerated news. A small amount of these blockchains will survive over the next couple of years — Ethereum for sure, perhaps Cardano, NEM, some others. But the surviving ones may still not survive in the long decadal term, if say, AmazonChain and GoogleChain explode onto the scene.

    A lot of “blockchains” corporations are using are not even true blockchains, but are rather more minimal ledgers that keep less information. This is due to energy and performance reasons. And frankly, I’ve learned the hard way that corporations are not truly into transparency for obvious reasons. Chase recently patented an editable, private blockchain. Why would these big guys want to air their dirty laundry on publicly searchable interfaces?

    For an example more relevant to Qchain’s advertising and marketing angle, it became clear to me that players involved in display advertising talk the transparency talk, but do not actually want transparency either. Content publishers do not want advertisers to easily determine how much of advertisers’ spend is being siphoned away due to click fraud and botnets. The various other middlemen in the display advertising ecosystem also do not want advertisers to know what percent of their spend is being lost to click arbitrage. For this reason, we eventually decided to pivot away from attempting to build a blockchain-based display ad marketplace and focus instead on building a marketplace geared towards branded content, which is less driven by clicks and impressions.

    A lot of rhetoric in the blockchain scene hyperbolically claims the invention of blockchain will have a greater impact than the invention of the Internet, but I feel that blockchains will be a far less important technology eventually than the Internet (and machine learning).

    I think your thorough thinking and caution prevented you from diving into a private sector venture, and it may have been for the better. On the positive side, you did not go wrong on any big bets with associated opportunity cost and financial losses. And others may disagree, but I feel that the day-to-day tactical drudgery and human management involved in building a startup as a founder definitely hinders intellectually rewarding thinking. The time constraints and unpredictable deadlines mean a lot of decisions have to be made viscerally without careful consideration. The past few months have been the most stressful and exhausting of my life. Was it worth it to start Qchain? I’m not sure, we’ll see. At the very least, I can say it has been an adventure and a tough character builder. It takes quite a bit of naivete to cast one’s lot in a startup, and I definitely was foolhardy to co-found a company with the lack of connections that I and my co-founders started with.


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