Thursday, September 24, 2015

This Year's Andreessen-Horowitz Meeting

Andreessen Horowitz had another Academic Roundtable, which I've written about in previous years (here, here). 

For me, the most exciting session was on Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR).  It made me sit up and take notice. 

Matthew Turk started with an introduction, likening augmented reality systems to giving people superpowers.  Then he discusses his Augmented Reality system for remote communication.  Imagine something wrong with your car;  you call up a repairperson with your phone.  Instead of just sending video, your phone also sends information building up a 3-D model of what's being viewed.  So the repairperson can manipulate that 3-D model, essentially poking around the car looking at things independently, and then sending you annotated information (like "flip this switch", and circling the switch in an image from the model).  It looked pretty useful.

Steven Seitz then talked about Google's Jump and Cardboard projects.  Jump is a relatively cheap circular camera system that lets you take 360 degree "surround-sound" type video.  Cardboard let's you take your phone, put it in an Viewmaster style cardboard box, and view these 360 degree videos.  I got to try it, and it's amazing;  you really feel like you're in the middle of a scene.  It's "immersive", which appears to the one of the buzzwords for VR/AR experiences.  A scene when you're in barn surrounded by horses in their stalls really had the feel of being in a barn surrounded by horses.  You have to be careful -- you tend to turn and walk a bit as you're in the scene, which can be a recipe for trouble (like walking into a pool with your cell phone).   I didn't realize how "soon" this type of VR experience will be mainstream.

Derek Belch of STRIVR talked about his company, which is bringing virtual reality systems to sports training.  So the quarterback can practice passing plays, getting the mental training without having to have a team physically out on the field.  Besides showing off their innovative system, he talked about building a company in this space. 

There were some other great talks -- several others, but to name just a couple, Michael Jordan of Berkeley talked about the theory of combining differential privacy with statistical inference, and Jason Mars of the University of Michigan talked about Sirius, their open-source intelligent personal assistant  

The meeting always makes the whole startup idea seem very exciting.  However, during Marc Andreessen's fireside chat session (no actual fire), they said the dominant failure case for failed startups coming out of universities is where a professor starts a company on an interim basis, and tries to hand it off to others.  There is no substitute for the "core team" being full time devoted to the startup.  (The "core team" doesn't have to include the professor, it could be students, of course.)   

The fireside chat also talked about CS education, and what it meant that CS was becoming mainstream.  How do we design a more open CS education, so people know enough to use and develop/create things on computers without being "computer scientists"?  How should we think of movements like the recent activity in New York, where Mayor de Blasio has said that all the city's public schools will be required to offer computer science to all of their students? 

Overall, again, I'm glad I had the chance to go.

[Note:  Andreessen-Horowitz doesn't pay me anything, or even suggest I blog about their meeting.  But they do pay for expenses for people they invite.]  

Thursday, September 03, 2015

One Lecture Down....

CS125, the "new", "honors-ish" Algorithms and Complexity course, got off to a good start today.  The room was full with not enough seats for people, the students asked good questions and responded well to questions asked, and we got through the amount of material I expected.  It's year 2 of the class, which is easier than year 1 in some ways (lots of material prepared), and possibly harder in others (some thinking about what needs to be tweaked or fixed from year 1).  We'll see how things shake out next week, but I'm expecting we'll be in the 30-40 student range, like last year.  I can never tell if I managed to scare students off or make them want to take it.  (The challenge is that I want to do both;  scare off people without sufficient background, but interest students who do but might not realize it and might not even be Computer Science majors.)  Pleasantly, I felt very excited during and after the lecture, and will try to hold on to that positive energy.  

In other, much much stranger news, Harvard's CS50 appears to have a "backlash" movement, as described in today's Crimson article.  Apparently, according to some, there's intense "social pressure" to take CS50, and students need to be told that it's OK not to take the class.  I find this quite odd and, from my vantage point, misguided.  (Of course, I'm not a college freshman.)  I can't recall any such organized movement against Economics 10 at Harvard, which has been for decades now the most popular class at Harvard, although even when I was a student there was something one could potentially call cult-like about it.  (Cult of Wall Street....)  But that didn't mean people complained;  if you didn't want to take the class, you didn't, not really a thing.  Sure, the CS department here has been actively trying to attract students for decades -- CS50 was a good-sized class even before David Malan took over -- and David has just been very successful at it, with a combination of organization, interesting material, vision, and, yes, good marketing.  Naturally, here in CS, we believe that in our idealized world nearly all undergraduates would have a CS course as part of their liberal arts education, and we provide several other entry courses besides CS50.  I was initially thinking the movement described in the article was just a joke, and maybe I'm being April Fooled, but I'm not sure where those responsible are coming from.

And speaking of bringing in students to CS, Ben Golub and Yaron Singer are doing a new Econ-CS class at Harvard (counts for either;  also good for Applied Math majors) simply entitled Networks.  I'm a bit jealous -- this is a class I've thought about teaching also, but was busy and happy teaching algorithms -- but hopefully now that they've started it up it means I'll get a chance to teach it some year(s) down the line.

More insight into whether our enrollment numbers are still rising (is that still possible?) next week...