Tuesday, January 7, 2020
Earlier in November I recorded a podcast for 10web.pt (available here) which focused on AI/ML and its impact in society and organizations.
AI/ML in the last few years has undergone a transformation, with both increasing hype but also increasing problems and doubts being raised. Algorithmic discrimination/bias, problems with "bad data", challenges in going live with ML solutions, incoming regulation, discussions on neural networks/connectionist versus/with symbolic approaches (or "neuro-symbolic"), issues raised by face recognition, autonomous robots/warfare, etc. The field is very much in flux, but it's clear to me there's some backlash and more caution and realism are coming to the field.
The good part in what seems to be happening, is that interesting applications are making their way into our lives and organizations, in many areas from industry to science to medicine, and sometimes in "minor" features in things like development tools (VS Code/Studio comes to mind) or Office. Maybe full level 5 autonomous driving is many years away, but the investment will help it progress and find new solutions. While this happens, the Research field (just see the latest NeurIPS) seems to be diverging from Industry -- the former is now tackling other types of problems that are very technical (not in a CompSci sense only, but also Mathematical/Statistical) and in many cases not related to Deep Neural Networks.
Anyway, all this to say that - when I reviewed the recording - I felt the more pessimistic side of what's happening in the industry took more time than the side of the possibilities/real impact the tech is having, which was annoying and doesn't actually reflect my thoughts.
If you understand Portuguese, hear it and let me know what you think.
To close off, a word of thanks to the 10web.pt team for inviting me and doing great work with the podcast!
Friday, December 6, 2019
After 3 great years with Microsoft UK, I've relocated to Microsoft in Germany and started in a new role. In the UK, I started as a Cloud Solutions Architect in the Finance Industry, and 1,5 yrs later moved to CSA Manager for Data&AI focusing in Retail, Travel and Transport. While in this role, I had the privilege of leading a team of fantastic data architects, of hiring a generation of new Data Architects for the Customer Success Unit, and was also the AI Lead for the CSU. I got much closer to the world of Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence, ranging from the technical to the societal/ethical sides.
Monday, December 17, 2018
How can Society Benefit from AI (cont)
After the discussion on explainability, the discussion went to another hot topic: the concentration of data in a very small number of companies. Some points discussed were:
- "I'm worried about that, but I prefer to have centralization and improved health care, than not having anything"
- "how do I exert the rights over my data, or on AIs targeting me? Do I as an individual have to go for a lawsuit under GDPR? "
- "These companies have the Data, but they also have the Talent and the Infrastructure, and these three imply concentration, not many companies are in the same position."
- "They operate under their own laws, even if they are present in our homes [reference to digital assistants like Alexa]"
- "How do we regulate maths?" -- a rethorical question obviously asked by Prof Saria when talking about reasons for AI/Machine Learning not to be regulated, quickly countered by Prof Donnelly who said that it was all about of the context for its use. 
- Reference to the recent news about Amazon's AI-driven Hiring failure, as an example of how software developed by a big company can still fail in a way that reveals obvious biases. "You have an army of smart, male, young smart people building an hammer, but they have never seen an house" 
- Addressing the ongoing conversation about Neural Networks/current Machine Learning approaches not being enough (see here, here and also here), "You can put a Deep Neural Network listening to the BBC 24 hours a day, it will never wake up, or form an opinion"
- "You don't need Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) to build a killer robot or to keep an autocracy in power"
All in all, an interesting night and conversation, if anything somewhat focused on the risks and failures of AI than the possibilities.
It's probably obvious from my summary that my opinions are very much on the side of Dr. Vivienne Ming.
In my view, we do have to worry about bias, explainability, fairness, regulation, impact on jobs, etc.. Working for one of the companies developing some of the technology mentioned in the panel, I really appreciate that it has a focus on Ethical AI, in some ways that are public and others which I can't share.
I also doubt the current "Artificial Intelligence" techniques will bring us Artificial General Intelligence. Following daily what comes out on Twitter or in blog aggregators, reding about fantastic advances in things like generating realistic faces (impressive and useless at the same time) and many articles describing tiny new advances, it does make me feel - quoting Judea Pearl, that "All the impressive achievements of deep learning amount to just curve fitting". It's probably a mistake to call it "Artificial Intelligence", or even "Machine Learning", when all it is is "Data Science" and crunching abstract numbers until we have models that represent data in a adequate way. 
Admittedly, the panel's discussion was skewed to the side of caution and the problems of AI. There are fantastic possibilities in fields like Health care, Farming, Medical Research, Science, Energy, etc. Again with impacts that we have to worry about, but with clear potential benefits. I try not to blog or post about how "AI will unleash/unlock" whatever it is, but it seems obvious to me that several of these areas will see gains.
A final note to address the "big corporations concentration" part of the discussion -- in October I attended a Instant Expert: Artificial Intelligence panel organized by the New Scientist where I heard a talk by David Runciman ("professor of politics, Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, University of Cambridge. Author of How Democracy Ends"). One of his main points was that the powers that these private companies don't have is a) the power of the law and b) the military. When Zuckerberg repeatedly refuses to come to the UK's House of Commons, the House could legislate to make this illegal, and, as it happened in Brazil with WhatsApp, shut down the social network in the country. If it would or will, and what Facebook would do to fight it, is a different story. But the State has that power, and it could do it.
I know I'll return to these topics, but for now I close with Turing's words: "We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done."
 This made me think of Project Manhattan and the atom bomb in WW2.
 But the attempts will continue. And one of these days you may have to give access to your social network profile in addition to your CV when applying for a job...
 But hey, what do I know?
Friday, December 14, 2018
The most recent debate was hosted by well-known science communicator Professor Brian Cox, and also had as panelists Dr. Vivienne Ming, Prof Peter Donnelly and Prof Suchi Saria. What follows are my comments and personal highlights of the night, very much aligned with the views of Dr. Ming who totally "stole the show" and whose more careful approach towards AI is close to my own.
What is AI?
This was the first topic of the night, and it's a question that has been debated to exhaustion. The two main definitions presented were the general "Autonomous systems who can make decisions under uncertainty" and the Machine Learning-specific "form of AI that learns using examples/by identifying patterns in data". The "under uncertainty" detail is curious -- my reading is that if when is certainty, a simpler deterministic rules-based system could be used.
Something else I found curious was the historical note that "proving theorems automatically (one of the first uses of "AI" in the 1960s) is simpler than determining if people sitting here in the first row are smiling", which has only become feasible to computers in the last 5-6 years. For most of us, the second task is trivial and the first very complex -- and this does seem to imply that current Artificial Intelligence is very different from Human Intelligence.
Who benefits from AI?
Things started to get more interesting from here onwards. Dr. Ming said that typically new technology starts by "benefiting those who need it the least", and relativizing that initial impact. "If you put an app [with AI] in an AppStore, you've solved NOTHING in the world". It's easy to contradict this (just think of Facebook), but what she meant was that you won't solve world hunger, or poverty, or go to Mars, with an app using AI. And in that, she's right.
The discussion then went briefly to the obvious possibilities in terms of healthcare and education, where the potential benefits are huge, but quickly steered into more sensitive topics, namely the impact on jobs. There are several books and frequent studies about this, usually with consulting companies predicting that more jobs will be created (Accenture, Mckinsey), and schollars on the opposite side/predicting the need for deep societal adaptations to cope with the upcoming changes (such as an universal living wage) . One thing is true, "Every CFO tries to reduce costs with wages [and if the opportunity is there to do it / s/he'll take it]".
(By this point in the discussion, it was clear there were two sides on stage: Dr. Ming on the side of need for moderation, and Prof Saria on the side of absolute optimism).
Another interesting point was again made by Dr. Ming: "It's not impossible to create a robot to pick up berries, or to drive a car, but it's much simpler to replace a finantial services analyst" (or a doctor?). The key message here was: AI will probably have more impact on middle-class qualified jobs than lower skilled jobs, just because they are simpler to replace. And in doing that, it will obviously increase social inequality. The argument is just obvious and simple. It's not just the menial/mindless tasks that will be automated, but also many jobs for which people today spend years studying in universities. And this does include software developers, by the way -- how much time is spent writing boilerplate code?
This section ended with something more speculative, "which jobs will be the last to automate?" The suggested answer was - those requiring creativity/creative problem solving (so not only artists, but engineers, etc.) But this may be antropocentric optimism: we see Creativity as being something uniquely human, so naturally we see it as our last bastion "against the machines" - even if animals also have it just to a lesser degree. Today we have AI's winning games like Go or Chess using unique strategies we had never considered, or creating works of art or music. So we shouldn't bet too much on this answer - maybe jobs dealing with the unexpected would be a better answer.
How can Society benefit from AI?
This seemed to be a simpler part of the panel, but it went straight into the topic of explainability, a complicated if not impossible task for the more complex approaches to AI such as Deep Neural Networks. Prof. Saria said she thought the need to explain should simply be replaced by trust. Prof. Donnelly then raised an interesting dilemma: if you suspected you had a health problem, and you could a) be seen by a doctor who gave you a diagnosis with 85% accuracy, and explain all of it properly; or b) be diagnosed by an AI with 95% accuracy but with no explanation, which would you pick? Most of the audience picked the second, but a better option would be c) have an AI augment the human diagnosis, increasing its accuracy and providing the explainability.
It seemed clear that in many cases we'll need some form of explainability (such as when beeing considered for a job, or getting a loan, or in healthcare -- and GDPR actually mandates it), and in others that's less relevant (like in face recognition or flying an airplane). My view is that if it's something that seriously impacts people's lives, it should be explainable. But there is a contradiction in this position: as the books "Strangers to Ourselves" by Timothy D. Wilson and "Thinking fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman explore, our brains actually make up explanations on the fly, we're less rational than we think. So there's a double standard at stake, when demanding it of machines. It may all come down to familiarity with humans vs AI, or simply to knowing a bit of how it works under the hood, and being umconfortable with the risk of blind delegation of medical diagnoses or trial decisions or on credit ratings to a complex number crunching/statistical process.
This post is already long, so I'll continue in a part 2. On the meantime, the video of the debate is available here.
 Gödel's incompleteness theorems, proving that there are theorems that are true but impossible to prove, were not mentioned, but it doesn't change the argument.
Thursday, December 6, 2018
Two colleagues recently went to Microsoft's internal Machine Learning and Data Science conference, and recommended a tutorial they did on-site, on Quantum Machine Learning. The materials for this lab have just been published on GitHub, and the following are my learnings while doing it.
The lab is implemented with Microsoft's Quantum SDK, using Q# for the Quantum code and C# for the driver code. The goal is to implement a Classifier, a discriminator able to classify a value into one of two classes -- just like a Logistic Regression classifier. Or in other words, a Quantum Perceptron. It is simple to implement if you know the core concepts of Quantum Computing, and most of it is very guided -- you just have to fill in the blanks with the right Quantum primitives, following the instructions in the comments.
Simplifying, what the algorithm does is as follows: imagine you have a pizza cut in two halves at a given angle 𝜃, and the angles higher than that are of class One, and Zero otherwise:
You also have a labeled training data set, specifying for a large number of angle values what the class/label is:
Note that the angles are represented in radians (i.e, the full circle is 0 to 2*PI) instead of 0-360º, but that is a detail. This is equivalent to having normalized data between 0 and 1.
The goal of the lab is first - to implement an algorithm that finds what the separation angle 𝜃, and second - classify new angle values as either class Zero or One. Finding the separation angle (which is equivalent to training a logistic regressor and finding its parameters) is achieved with a mixed of C# and Q# code, while doing the classification is purely Q# quantum code.
Some of the issues that confused me while doing the lab were the following:
Finding the angle - the underlying logic of Quantum Computing features a lof of linear algebra (matrixes) and trigonometry (angles). One important thing to keep in mind is that what the algorithm needs to find is not the separation angle at which the pizza was cut, but an angle perpendicular/90º to it. In the following code snippet, the separation angle is 2.0 (equivalent to 114.6º), but the angle that the algorithm needs to find is "correctAngle". By adding or subtracting PI/2 we get the perpendicular angle:
The reason for this is related to the quantum transformations available to us. The slidedeck in the Github repo talks about this, but it wasn't immediately clear to me when I read it.
Success Rate - the Main() in the provided C# driver relies heavily on a Q# operator called QuantumClassifier_SuccessRate. What this does is find how well the quantum algorithm can classify the data points in the training data, for a given angle it is called with. The Q# operator returns this as a percentage.
The C# code then calls it multiple times with different angles using ternary search (imagine a binary tree search, but with 3 'halves'), until the error rate is low enough. This is the bulk of the training process, and when it ends it has found a good approximation of the "correctAngle" mentioned above (note that it's not looking for the separation angle 𝜃).
The QuantumClassifier_SuccessRate calls two other operators:
- EncodeDataInQubits - as an analogy to "classical" machine learning, this can be seen as a sort of data preparation step, where you initialize the Qubits and generate a sort of "quantum feature", dataQubit. The output label is also encoded in a Qubit.
- Validate - again as an analogy, this can be seen as applying the Hypothesis and check if we're doing the right prediction. It can be useful to think of the CNOT "truth table" to understand this code:
Remembering that the CNOT flips the second qubit if the first one is 1 ( |1> really), we have the following "truth table":
CNOT(0,0) -> 0
CNOT(1,0) -> 1
CNOT(0,1) -> 1
CNOT(1,1) -> 0
Or, in other words: we have 0 as an output when the dataQubit == labelQubit, i.e., we have done the right prediction.
a) C# code to generate a new dataset, the test dataset which you will ask your Quantum code to classify;
b) Q# code to actually do the classification. For both parts you can reuse/adapt code you have done before. This is what I ended up with:
This code then does the following correct predictions based on a new data set:
And that's it, your Quantum Perceptron is finished :). Now we only need hardware to run it!
While working on the lab I've gone and looked around on the web and found two articles that seem to be related to the approach followed here: "Quantum Perceptron Network" [paywall] and "Simulating a perceptron on a quantum computer", both possibly worth taking a look.
If you already have some basic knowledge of both Machine Learning and Q#, you should expect to spend maybe 2 hours on it.
Monday, December 3, 2018
Being a fan of Astronomy, I based this off a personal pet project of mine - explore ESA's Gaia satellite data using Spark. A few months back I completed Coursera's Data-driven Astronomy, and felt this was an amazing way of exploring big-data challenges while also learning some Astronomy along the way.
Anyway, I have put the resulting Notebooks and Word document with setup instructions on github. The exercises have the format of a Notebook where you fill in the missing Python code, and I've also included a solutions' notebook. The exercises are mostly introductory and should take max 3 hours to complete. You'll also need access to an Azure subscription, as I'm using Azure Blob Storage to store the data.
PS: it feels good to code once in a while ;-)
Saturday, December 1, 2018
I was curious as to the performance of this new support against regular Parquet, so adapted the notebook Databricks supported to include a test versus this format, spun up my Azure Databricks cluster (running two Standard_DS3_v2 VMs with 14.0 GB Memory, 4 Cores, 0.75 DBUs each) using Databricks Runtime 5.0.
The notebook with the Scala code is available here, and the results I got were:
|Read time (ms)||28061||18131||65%|
|Write time (ms)||41342||33904||82%|
|Disk space (mb)||2138||2037||95%|
Friday, May 25, 2018
A few days ago I wrote about going to the AI Talks meetup and disagreed with the view that humans should always have the last word. I just read “Should algorithms be in the driver's seat?” on Daniel Kahneman’s opinion on the subject, and we share the same views regarding biases affecting humans (in truth, my own view was probably heavily influenced by his book):
“The big advantage that algorithms have over humans is that they don’t have noise,” Kahneman said. “You present them the same problem twice, and you get the same output. That’s just not true of people.”
A human can still provide valuable inputs that a machine can’t — impressions, judgments — but they’re not particularly good at integrating information in a reliable and robust way, Kahneman said. The primary function of a person in a human-machine relationship should be to provide a fail-safe in an emergency situation. […]
“You can combine humans and machines, provided that machines have the last word,” Kahneman said. He added: “In general, if you allow people to override algorithms you lose validity, because they override too often and they override on the basis of their impressions, which are biased and inaccurate and noisy.”
I do think Kahneman here is talking about Narrow AI (*) and not the General AI about which concerns have been raised, but it’s good to read someone actually remind us that, Wait a minute, we’re not perfect, maybe lets turn the priorities around.
The article above includes the full video of a conversation at the 2018 Digital Economy Conference in April this year in NYC, where he made these coments.
(*) Saying Artificial Narrow Intelligence, although correct, just sounds awkward to me.
Sunday, May 20, 2018
“[…] as Pearl sees it, the field of AI got mired in probabilistic associations. These days, headlines tout the latest breakthroughs in machine learning and neural networks. We read about computers that can master ancient games and drive cars. Pearl is underwhelmed. As he sees it, the state of the art in artificial intelligence today is merely a souped-up version of what machines could already do a generation ago: find hidden regularities in a large set of data. “All the impressive achievements of deep learning amount to just curve fitting,” he said recently.”It is true that the hype around ML/DS is at a peak. The stream of new posts on Twitter and LinkedIn on algorithms like Gradient Descent or their applications/pitfalls give me new things to read every day. I have downloaded a few free Machine Learning books a couple of weeks ago, and what is notorious is that they jump very quickly into math and statistics, from linear algebra to derivatives and calculus. A few days ago my partner was doing something with Deep Neural Networks, and I suddenly saw her get paper and pencil and start solving derivatives. “What are you doing?” “Oh, I have to solve this to implement back propagation”…
I had one class of Artificial Intelligence when I did my Computer Science degree way back then. We studied things like A* (the algorithm used to explore and rank alternatives in games like checkers), Expert Systems to help diagnose health problems, SNePS for knowledge representation and talked about Neural Networks briefly. There was no complex maths or statistics. Now, I’m not saying that “those were the good old days” - as the area was having one of its “AI Winters” and finding limited success, but stating that today’s conversation is dominated by a relatively narrow set of Narrow AI techniques, heavily based in statistics and focused on training models with very high volumes of data. These are proving successful and having a major impact in many areas, with more to come. But is this it? Will this be what leads us to AI, is this THE critical approach that will crack [General] AI, or will we bump into a “local maximum”?
“I can give you an example. All the machine-learning work that we see today is conducted in diagnostic mode — say, labelling objects as “cat” or “tiger.” They don’t care about intervention; they just want to recognize an object and to predict how it’s going to evolve in time.This seems to be a powerful argument. But where Judea Pearl gets really challenging is with the following:
I felt an apostate when I developed powerful tools for prediction and diagnosis knowing already that this is merely the tip of human intelligence. If we want machines to reason about interventions (“What if we ban cigarettes?”) and introspection (“What if I had finished high school?”), we must invoke causal models. Associations are not enough […]”
“As much as I look into what’s being done with deep learning, I see they’re all stuck there on the level of associations. Curve fitting. That sounds like sacrilege, to say that all the impressive achievements of deep learning amount to just fitting a curve to data. From the point of view of the mathematical hierarchy, no matter how skillfully you manipulate the data and what you read into the data when you manipulate it, it’s still a curve-fitting exercise, albeit complex and nontrivial. […]The first part of this will no doubt create aversion in most people – myself included – who are passionate about where tech is going, but it’s hard to shake off the feeling – especially with the second part – that he probably has a point here. It may not matter for the people and companies, as the achievements are indeed impressive, and all across areas like healthcare, retail, autonomous driving, finance – or anywhere with data to process – there is a wealth of data to process and new automation/personalization to do. The impact in our lives will continue to happen. But what we’re doing at the moment is likely not enough.
I’m very impressed, because we did not expect that so many problems could be solved by pure curve fitting. It turns out they can. But I’m asking about the future — what next? Can you have a robot scientist that would plan an experiment and find new answers to pending scientific questions?”
And just one more quote from this interview.
“AI is currently split. First, there are those who are intoxicated by the success of machine learning and deep learning and neural nets. They don’t understand what I’m talking about. They want to continue to fit curves. But when you talk to people who have done any work in AI outside statistical learning, they get it immediately. I have read several papers written in the past two months about the limitations of machine learning.Maybe the momentum, the exponential speed of development in the field, will make this question moot. Something will will come up – or many somethings - that will allow the tech companies to go on. Or maybe we just set a bar so high that, even though these data-based approaches can perform better than humans in more and more areas, we deem them insufficient because “self-driving cars using similar technology run into pedestrians and posts and we wonder whether they can ever be trustworthy.“ (WSJ, paywall, article on the same topic)
[…] a serious soul-searching effort [is developing] that involves asking: Where are we going? What’s the next step?”
Thursday, May 17, 2018
Yesterday I attended the first edition of the AITalks meetup (also here), a panel focused on AI and the impact for our digital self. The panel included the CEO of Echobox, a company who specializes in using AI tech to manage the social media profiles of companies like the Financial Times, Guardian or the New Scientist – impressive stuff, the CEO of Lobster, the “the Uber of Independent Stock Photography” (who use for example image processing to auto-tag photos or target ads) and the Director of Social Media at Motaword (couldn’t understand what the company does, but the representative was very strongly affiliated with Google).
It was in interesting night and conversation, but I have to admit I felt disappointed with what I felt were at times simplistic ways of addressing some of the topics.
On GDPR, Privacy and Personalization
One of the topics discussed was that of GDPR, and the feeling towards the regulation seemed to be of cautious resistance – to be expected from the point of view of businesses that rely on personal data to do personalization or content targeting. The CEO of Lobster said they lost 500k photos from their catalogue (if I’m not mistaken) that had been made available by theirs authors on Instagram because Facebook cut access suddenly recently and without warning, and an estimate of 60% of companies – especial smaller ones – are not ready for the regulation, a number which doesn’t surprise me.
Later in the conversation, I heard things like “I don’t see a threat in [people] sharing any data. We have to trust legal mechanisms to go after bad guys if there’s abuse” and “I think that’s a price we have to accept [the loss of privacy] in return for better and personalized services”. This worldview makes me feel extremely uncomfortable, but the CEO of Echobox did add words of caution: “If you share something on a social network, you should assume it’s now public. And you can be impersonated, someone can go and create a profile with your name, your photo, and start adding your friends. You have to be aware of that.” More a topic about privacy than AI, but without data to process there is no personalization, right? And considering the recent scandals with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, I have to admit I didn’t like this way of seeing things.
On jobs/societal impact
Another topic I felt was addressed lightly/dismissively was the impact of AI on jobs and society, especially in the first part of the conversation before Q&A was opened.
I’ve been reading a lot of the topic, and I’m still unable to understand how can increased automation lead to MORE jobs being created by the wider adoption of AI, like Gartner is saying will happen by 2020. If 1.2 million people in the transport industry in the US alone go unemployed because of Autonomous Driving, what “meaningful and creative” jobs are they going to find? especially if AI is also starting to show up in the creative industries? I don’t see this nirvana of optimism coming to happen, and I do anticipate the need for profound Societal change especially in the “developed world”. Not tomorrow, but in time. How can a world based on Consumption be sustainable if the ones who Consume don’t have the financial means to do so? Maybe we’ll just cope and find creative ways to create meaning for ourselves, but not sure how we’ll manage the transition.
I do like the idea of “Human Augmentation” (i.e., Human + AI assisting), which was also mentioned and is easier to implement/coming sooner.
Anyway, on this topic, I think change is inevitable and it will happen (almost) inevitably, I’m hoping we’ll find ways to make it work for people and discuss it properly.
On healthcare or hiring
This was discussed more briefly, but the gist of it was that a lot of value was put in “human intuition” or “gut feeling” or “Humans having the last word”, and I personally think that both Healthcare and Hiring are precisely areas where there is more space for objectivity, especially considering the sheer quantity of cognitive biases that affect us.
Dr. House was a terrific TV Series, but he worked by trial&error – and I’d prefer not to be experimented on until suddenly (if I’m lucky) my doctor has an epiphany and finds the root cause of a problem. Or if s/he had a rough night and didn’t remember an important side-effect. And on hiring, it is known that the best predictor of future performance is past performance, and there are specific techniques that try to remove bias from interviews, such as always asking the same questions and rating candidates comparatively on them – but here I see AI’s having a harder job to help in this area (apart from ranking CVs and Linkedin profiles, maybe).
Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” is mandatory reading for those interested in this kind of human cognitive topics.
One of the replies to a question on Airplane Autopilot Systems (which reportedly have control of 97-99% of the flight time in modern commercial airplanes) was that “they aren’t AI”, which made me think of Tesler’s Theorem: ”AI is whatever hasn't been done yet.” I understood what he meant – I don’t think airplanes run neural networks, but it *IS* Artificial Intelligence. Unless, of course, flying an airplane plane doesn’t require some for of Intelligence. .
I joined as a Cloud Solution Architect in May/2016 working with customers in Financial Services, then transitioned to Cloud Applications Solution Architect, a similar role but more focused on AppDev/PaaS services. Did the role well and got good results, and since January/2018 I eventually moved [back] to a managerial role and started as a Cloud Solution Architect Manager. I also changed industry vertical to focus now on the more dynamic Retail,Travel & Transport – where I have done more work in the totality of my career – and the new technology area of Data&AI, which actually covers a broad spectrum covering Big Data, Data Lake, Data Warehousing, Machine Learning/Data Science, cognitive services, and even IoT. It’s not an area where I have historically a lot of experience, but I’m both learning fast and lucky to be working with an absolutely awesome team doing amazing work in some of the most important Azure customers.
One of the threads I’ve picked up recently in the Customer Success Unit is that of Artificial Intelligence, where I’m leading conversations and coordinating local investments. A fascinating area where not only Microsoft but all the big players are investing massively – Facebook and Google are names who tend to show up a lot (I’m still trying to understand what IBM Watson actually *does*, and AWS seems slightly less visible).
With Microsoft being a platform company and not focused on the delivery of services to consumers like some of the others, we tend perhaps not to be as visible or have the the same “coolness” factor, but that also frees us to focus our own investments in ethical AI and doing the right thing for our customers, under the leadership of Satya Nadella. And in the products we do deliver to consumers, like Office or Windows, you can see some of the investments in AI coming to very large numbers of people, all at once – the accessibility or translation features in PowerPoint or Skype being good examples. Together with Quantum Computing it's what interests me more in what the company is doing.
Anyway, since picking up the AI flag I’ve been posting interesting things I read on both Twitter and Linkedin (not just Microsoft contents…), so follow me if you have an interest in knowing what I’m chasing: Twitter / Linkedin.
Saturday, May 20, 2017
I completed my first year at Microsoft UK earlier this month. The fact that I haven’t been blogging is probably the best evidence for the best summary I can give: it’s been busy!
I work in a team dedicated to help some of our larger customers go to the cloud, giving guidance and architectural support across almost the entire range of Azure Services. I have retained one of my focuses from before joining Microsoft, on Azure Service Fabric, and have effectively become the go-to person in the team for this technology.
Working for a large American company – in the largest subsidiary after the US - with a deep hierarchy, moving from a small and agile company, was a big change. One thing I have found curious is that I have more autonomy and freedom in the way I approach each customer engagement or manage my time and where I work than I ever had at my own company. The culture of autonomy and collaboration runs deep, with everybody being encouraged to grow, rely and help others, and the fact that I’m working in what is by far the most interesting area of what the company is doing – Microsoft Azure – is a large part of what makes the challenge interesting. I have to admit I miss some things: working in close knit teams, having more technical depth with concrete problems, and having more participation in decisions that affect me personally.
I not only changed company, but also countries. I quickly noticed some differences between Portugal and the UK:
- I have spent more time on the phone and conference calls in this last year than in the entirety of my career! The headset is always with me. Most of the meetings, either with colleagues or customers, happen over Skype. Even if f2f is important, traveling is expensive and time consuming.
- The meetings start on time and very rarely overrun;
- No “solutionizing” in meetings – most of the meetings I attend are either to communicate or to make decisions. Work is done offline. Most of the meetings, either with colleagues or customers, happen over Skype. Even if f2f is important, traveling is expensive and time consuming.
- A lot can be achieved with 20 or 30 minute calls, if people are disciplined and focused. This was unheard of, back in Portugal.
- When I came, my lunch slot was almost always hijacked by meetings. Days where I have 6 calls back to back are common, and if I want to protect my time (and sanity!) I have refuse meetings at lunch time, and make sure I reserve time for things like travel [to London or other places] or to do self-training.
- A lot of work is done remotely, and the company doesn’t really care where I am physically as long as I am working towards reaching my targets and goals.
Regarding being in the UK in an extra professional environment, I do feel a big difference in scale and challenge, but not everything is positive: Brexit affected me (personally) a lot and hurt my image of the country massively – even if London is a world apart. Also, this country has a serious problem with infrastructure, from telecoms (e.g., GSM or 3G coverage) to public transportation with constant delays, problems and strikes. Comparatively, in Portugal there is a a service to be proud of!
I had been lacking the inspiration and time to look back at this past year, but today I had by evaluation meeting, and thought it appropriate to retrospect. So there.
Saturday, May 14, 2016
This blog will continue existing, hopefully with more frequent posts and how more focused on Azure Architecture. One disclaimer I must do is that the opinions and views expressed in this blog are mine and do not necessarily state or reflect those of Microsoft. Just so you know :-).
Wish me luck!
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
One of ideas I thought was most relevant was that you WILL do bad hires, and that you should face the idea of letting people go as naturally as possible: “It’s your job as a manager”. I’ve had to do it in the past, and it’s not easy, but he’s right. “What are you afraid of when hiring someone? that he’ll bring down the company?” These questions frame the process in a “lighter way”: you don’t have to get it right at first, and should accept that you'll make mistakes. I guess most of us are so cautious when hiring because of the effort/time associated, but also because of the failure itself and being associated with it. I’ve both done bad hires in the past, and also seen the “stigma” associated with it in a colleague, so accepting that mistakes will inevitably happen should be in our minds to avoid this - no mistakes, no learning.
Another relevant insight from the session was the difference between Positive and Negative hiring. In Negative hiring, you try to find problems, reasons NOT to hire. In Positive hiring, you try to find out how awesome someone can be, what are his strong points, how he can make a difference. I bet most of us that hire follow the first approach (me included). He says that he used to follow the “Veto Rule”, whereby if anyone on the team wasn’t convinced the interviewee was awesome, they wouldn’t hire. This is exactly what I did for most of my career, on the footsteps of “Peopleware”’s recommendation to involve the team in the hiring process. An alternative approach, he mentions, is the “Believer Rule”, whereby if anyone on the team is really convinced someone would be awesome, he should be hired. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but this a great idea.
Catlin also advocates that you should hire mostly depending on someone's ability to work as a team/collaborate, and not only technical skills – “It’s easier to teach code than it is to teach empathy”. This is true, but I’d say there must also be a technical baseline.
Another idea, and this was to me the most interesting one, was the suggestion that candidates themselves should design their own hiring process, giving them a chance to show off and see their best side. What the candidate chooses is obviously a clue into what his strong and weak points are. I find this idea brilliant, and will keep this in mind for the future.
Another suggestion that he gives is that just discussing technology with candidates is a very effective way of assessing the person, and his/her passion, interest and skill in technology. Asking about some specific project, what they think of Azure vs AWS, or of C# vs Python, etc.
Finally, during the Q&A there was another interesting insight, or framing of the hiring process overall. Some companies (I think I’ve read about Google doing this) try to hire people that are better than the average of the company, constantly “raising the bar”. The insight is this: if you keep doing this, at some moment in time you yourself should NOT be employed at the company! :)
Anyway, lots of good ideas in the session, to keep in mind for the future.
Thursday, February 11, 2016
What is SIGFOX? To be honest, I didn’t exactly know, when I got the Meetup email from Productized about the event. SIGFOX is an telecom operator, exploring a range of radio frequencies and a kind of modulation (UNB – Ultra-Narrow Band) that makes it especially interesting for the IoT world.
Up until today, my only experience with IoT was with the Raspberry Pi, and the code to handle the wifi connectivity in case of failures has given me several headaches. It seems bluetooth, which is more widely used with Arduinos, is also not a simple process, due to the need to pair, for example. SIGFOX’s network promises several advantages in this area: simplicity in sending (and receving messages) from the network is a question of doing a send call – no need to pair, connect, authenticate, etc. There are base stations (much like in GSM) that get the message, de-duplicate it, make it reach SIGFOX’s infrastructure, and either process it there or route it to our own application server via an HTTP call. Another major selling point is the low power usage: the protocol used is designed to maximize energy efficiency and use energy only when needed - essentially, it uses 20-35mA when sending messages, and the chip is supposed to be in standby most of the time, when not communicating – the communications pattern assumes the device polls for incoming commands when required/regularly. A solution using this approach is supposed to have up to have several years of autonomy, supposedly.
This simplicity and low power consumption, clearly major selling points, are offset by some limitations in the range of applications: messages have a payload of 12 bytes (xml and json are out, as are applications regarding media transmission) – this means you’ll be optimizing messages on the bit level; additionally, to comply with european regulations in the usage of the spectrum, you can only send up to 140 messages per day (about one message every 10 minutes), and finally the transmission rate is pretty low: 100 bits/sec – so it pays to keep messages as small as possible. Even with these limitations, it’s pretty clear there is a wide range of applications for this approach – my Raspberry Pi temperature setup uses Wifi and is constantly plugged in, a SIGFOX+Arduino solution would probably just require batteries.
Interestingly, there is already network coverage in Portugal (an in the Netherlands, France and Spain – as well as several other major cities worldwide), and prices are supposed to be very affordable (2€ to 25€/year, if I understood correctly), depending on factors such as usage. In one of the demos, a message sent by the board was picked up by 4 base stations – the workshop was in the city’s downtown.
The platform has mechanisms (callbacks) that can handle requests from the devices, either semi-automatically by parametrizing preset responses (ex: return the current time), or by making HTTP calls to a configured application server on our end. Interestingly, Azure Event Hubs (which I also use in the Raspberry Pi tests) are also natively supported, with the network automatically posting incoming messages from devices into a configured event hub – and the Azure IoT Suite will also be supported.
I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon in the workshop, and was surprised at how easy it was to use the network and the Arduino. I’d seen demos of Arduino before, and to be honest was not looking forward to be back in coding C, but it was easier than it thought (I still have this book around, from when I learned the language in high school).
As to doubts and issues: IoT security seems to be in the news every day, so this is obviously a concern. I don’t know much on the topic, but device authentication, server authorization, and server authentication in the device seem obvious concerns. The trainer, Nicolas (great job!), didn’t have much time so he didn’t expand on the topic (and I still don’t have the slides with me), but it is a concern I’ll have to explore.
The SIGFOX demos done in the workshop are available on GitHub. The board provided can read the temperature (with a degree resolution), so I might do the exercise of converting my C# code from the Raspberry to run on the Arduino.
PS: I have very basic electricity/electronics know-how, and somehow see myself with a couple of Raspberry’s, now an Arduino, and several sensors, cables and breadboards on the way from AliExpress. What is happening to me? :-)