Sweet freedom

The Midsummer celebrations are over, and the main holiday season is upon us. This is the first time since 2017 that I’m spending the whole summer in Finland, and I have to say it feels pretty sweet so far – they call Ireland the Emerald Isle, but we have plenty of shades of green of our own here, and the weather in June has been mostly gorgeous. Somewhat annoyingly, it looks like we’re due for the return of more traditional Finnish summer weather just as I’m about to start my vacation, but I’ll take it; I certainly prefer it to the sweaty +30°C days I had to endure toward the end of my summer holiday last year. Having access to my bike again has been a great joy, although I do kind of miss taking a commuter train to a random town or village and going exploring like I used to do in Dublin. I have been expanding my territory by trying out new routes and going further afield than before, but it doesn’t quite have the same sense of adventure to it. 

I was actually planning to travel to England this July; a band I became a big fan of during my tour of duty in Ireland was going to play a concert in Aylesbury near London and I bought myself a ticket pretty much as soon as they became available. Since I’ve never been to London, I thought I’d spend some time there, and I was also planning to visit Oxford as well as Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, the place where Allied codebreakers (among them one Alan Turing) worked during WW2 – a sort of science and technology-themed pilgrimage, if you will. However, because of the pandemic the event has been postponed until an as yet unspecified date in 2021, and besides I don’t think going gallivanting around the UK would be very favourably looked upon anyway, so it’s just as well that I wasn’t an early bird with my travel arrangements. Better luck next year, I hope! 

In Finland the COVID situation seems to be pretty much under control for now, with only a couple dozen people receiving hospital care in the whole country; the figure peaked at just shy of 250 in early April. Life is steadily becoming less restricted, and the nationwide official recommendation to work remotely is being lifted as of the 1st of August. There’s no word yet on how this will affect university policy, but perhaps when July is over, we’ll be going back to the office. Strange thought – working from home really does feel like the new normal already! Of course the pandemic is far from over and there’s no telling when we’re going to be hit by another wave, so better keep that sourdough starter alive for lockdown part two.

The biggest thing I wanted to tick off my to-do list before switching into vacation mode was finishing and submitting the journal paper manuscript that will probably be the last thing I publish on the results of the KDD-CHASER project. With so much else going on, the paper took a while to get into shape for submission, but it’s now in the care of the good people of ACM Transactions on Social Computing, so there’s one thing I (presumably) won’t have to think about until autumn. The notification for my CIKM paper is due on July 17th, but the camera-ready submission deadline is a whole month after that, so if the paper does get accepted, I shouldn’t need to do anything about it while I’m on leave. 

Something that was only very recently set in motion but that I’m quite excited about is a new study course on AI ethics that I’ve started developing with a couple of colleagues after one of them suggested it, knowing that I’m interested in the subject and have some research background in it. I’ll admit I’m slightly worried about exactly how much extra work I’m taking upon myself, but I have a lot of ideas already, and it should make a nice merit to put in my academic CV. The main thing to keep in mind is that we teach engineering, not philosophy, so we want to keep the scope of the course relatively narrow and down-to-earth: we’ll leave debating AI rights to the more qualified and stick to issues that are relevant to today’s practitioners. After two weeks and three meetings we have a pretty good tentative plan already and will get back to the task of fleshing it out in August. 

On the matter of the Academy of Finland September call I’m still undecided. Should I have another go at the Research Fellow grant? I’m not ruling it out yet, but I’m not going to simply rehash the same basic idea, that much seems clear by now. Last year my proposal in a nutshell was “do what I did in Dublin, scaled up”; that made it relatively easy to write, but in retrospect, and other weaknesses aside, it wasn’t a very novel or ambitious plan from the reviewers’ perspective nor even all that exciting from my own perspective. Of course it still makes sense that I’d build on the results of my MSCA fellowship, but I’ll need to do better than follow it up with more of the same. Currently I only have some fairly vague ideas about what that would mean in terms of writing an actual proposal, but there’s still time to find that inspiration, and I’m pretty sure that the upcoming time off is not going to hurt. 

The end of conferences? Perhaps not

After some internal debate, I eventually went on ahead and submitted a manuscript to CIKM 2020. Although it’s a short paper and therefore more or less by definition not supposed to be anything groundbreaking, I still had some fairly serious doubts about it and might well have abandoned it if the submission deadline had not been extended. The extra thinking time was very welcome, since it allowed me to make a submission I believe in and also to think about what the scope of my journal paper should bethe alternative would have been to include the subject matter of the conference paper in the journal paper, but I think the latter will benefit from a tighter focus. 

The conference was originally supposed to be in Galway, Ireland, and the plan was that our paper, if accepted, would be presented by my co-author Alan, who was the supervisor of my MSCA fellowship in Dublinnot that I would mind another visit to Ireland, but obviously travelling there would be a good deal more convenient (not to mention cheaper) for him that for me. Besides, since I no longer have my own funding to spend, I can’t even be sure if the university would cover my expenses. Alan, on the other hand, figured he’ll probably go to the conference in any case, paper or no paper. 

The question of who will travel to Galway and on whose money was rendered moot when it was announced that the conference is going to be a virtual one this year, with pre-recorded video presentations and online discussions. It’s not uncommon for conferences to have the occasional video presentation, but that’s still very much the exception rather than the rulefully online conferences are a rare thing. CIKM would be the first one for me, and while I certainly understand and support the organisers’ decision, I do feel ambivalent about the idea of virtual conferences in general. 

Clearly when there’s a pandemic to be brought under control, hosting an international conference is not the greatest idea: you’ll have people coming in from around the world, shaking each other’s hands and generally spending a lot of time together for a few days, then going back to their respective countries to pass on whatever bugs they picked up from each other. However, even if we ignore the matter of contagious disease, there’s a lot to be said in favour of meeting your fellow researchers virtually rather than physically. As much as I enjoyed my trip to New Zealand last year, I can’t in all honesty claim that it was the most efficient use of my budget, and it certainly wasn’t very ecological. 

A lot of people are saying that COVID-19 has changed some things permanently, that we won’t be going back to all of our old ways even if and when the pandemic is stopped. With regard to remote work in particular, numerous organisations have had it thrust upon them wholesale and have discovered that it’s actually a viable and sometimes preferable alternative to making everyone haul themselves to the office every day. Since we’re all now routinely doing online meetings, and since a conference session is really just a special sort of meeting, it’s natural to ask if there’s really any need for all the hassle traditionally involved in organising a conference. Will such gatherings soon be a thing of the past, now that we’ve been forced by exceptional circumstances to make the transition? 

Personally, I wouldn’t bet on the imminent demise of the non-virtual conference just yet, at least not until we have more experience of how virtual conferences actually work. Online presentations may not be a problem, but there’s more to a conference than presentations, and much of it is bound to be lost when the delegates are not all gathered in the same place. The social aspect will suffer, obviously, which means there’s probably a lot of networking potential lost as well – and I’m saying this as someone who’s definitely not the most sociable and networking-oriented person in the academic world. At a traditional conference the starting of informal conversations and making of new acquaintances happen organically in a way that’s hard to recreate using tools designed for more formal meetings. 

Something that may be even more difficult to recreate in a virtual conference is the level of commitment that comes from travelling to the conference location and staying there for the duration of the conference: being there physically translates quite naturally into being there mentally as well. Sure, you’ll continue to do your emails, and you’ll skip some sessions that are not so interesting and use the time to do a bit of sightseeing, but still, at least I find that it’s easy to make the conference my number one priority when I’ve travelled to another country to attend it. I very much suspect that in a virtual conference it would be much harder to get into that mental state and that I would only attend my own session plus one or two carefully selected others, which I think would be kind of sad and antithetical to the spirit of the event. 

Speaking of sightseeing, I can’t deny that I enjoy travelling to new places and that I would miss the lost opportunities to do so if conference travel were to end altogether. I’m certainly not too old to remember that when you’re a junior (or perhaps even not so junior) member of academia, the prospect of a trip can be a pretty good incentive to get that manuscript finished in time for the conference deadline. How are we going to motivate future generations of researchers if not with tales of exotic conference locations and lavish banquets? 

Splendid isolation

Well, not really, butkinda okay isolationornot entirely without redeeming qualities isolation” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. It’s been five weeks since Finland was placed on lockdown to keep the COVID-19 epidemic from running amok, and a new normal has been established. As I anticipated in my last post, having to stay away from the university campus hasn’t affected my work much – I actually quite like the fact that when I get up in the morning, I’m good to go as soon as I’ve brewed some coffee and brushed my teeth. 

I’ve set up my home office next to a south-facing window, so when the weather is nice it can be rather distracting, but it’s my own choice and the general abundance of natural light more than makes up for any regret I may feel about being stuck indoors. Besides, there’s seldom anything to stop me taking a break and popping out of the house for a while if the sunshine is just a little bit too lovely to resist. Still, I can’t deny that the social isolation is starting to take its toll on me and that I’m very much looking forward to when it’s okay to hang out with people again, whenever that may be. 

Last time I talked about how I’d been noticing various small things that I like about being back in Finland, but since then I’ve been struck by a similar variety of things that I miss about Ireland. Presumably part of it is that my first months back in Finland haven’t exactly been the way I imagined, what with suddenly not being able to see my friends and family, but there’s also a general bittersweetness about the fact that I had this wonderful adventure and it’s over now. Funnily enough, it’s often the most mundane things that trigger such feelings; for example, the other day I made myself a pot of Tesco brand Earl Grey – products from the Finest and Free From ranges are available in many supermarkets around Finland – and felt a pang of something akin to nostalgia for doing my shopping at Tesco, hardly one of my top 3 most exciting Irish experiences. 

To be fair, my local Tesco was certainly one of my top 3 most frequently visited places during my time in Dublin, so I suppose that makes it as good a part as any to represent the whole of my two-year stay there. For a fleeting moment it was all contained in that small box of tea bags, the highs and the lows and everything in between – a curious feeling to say the least.  Maybe I should start writing songs again to make the best of the lockdown; I surely have enough subject matter in those two years for an entire rock opera. 

One thing I have already started doing again is baking. I can’t help but feel it’s a bit of a clichéseems like everyone and their cat has started doing it now that they’re spending so much more time at home. I suppose it offers a certain amount of comfort in these troubled times, but for me there’s also a more prosaic aspect to it: I have quite a big surplus of various ingredients in my kitchen cupboard and I’d much rather do something useful with them than just throw them away, so I’ve been looking for recipes that help me get rid of them. Besides, it’s also a good way to bring a small piece of Ireland into my life herelast Saturday I baked a lovely loaf of Irish soda bread for breakfast. Come to think of it, maybe I should have done a full Irish fry-up while I was at it…

Work-wise, the main bit of news is that my proposal to the Academy of Finland was not accepted for funding. That was as I expected, but it was quite disappointing to see how far I was in terms of ratings from making the cut. Trying again is of course an option, but I really don’t know right now if it’s a sensible one – it would take a lot of effort to get from where I am now to where I’d at least have a fighting chance, and there are things I could spend that time and energy on that are considerably more likely to yield some kind of reward. Making a half-hearted attempt with no realistic hope of success, just for the sake of being in the race, doesn’t appeal to me either.

Thankfully, I don’t need to make even a tentative decision right now or in the immediate future. For at least a couple of months I’m just going to let the matter sit in the back of my head; brooding over it is hardly going to help me get a fresh perspective on things. I certainly have plenty of stuff to think about even without the AoF grant, so it’s not like there’s any serious risk of my brain capacity going underutilised. Besides, I need to reserve some of it for personal purposeshow else am I going to discover the secret of the perfect sourdough? 

Research in the time of COVID-19

Goodness me, is it March already? I took February off from blogging to get properly settled back in Finland and my old job, but I guess it’s time to get back on the horse now. I find that not too much has changed here in my absence, which is comforting – same old office, same old people to have lunch and coffee with. Even my old laptop was still here on my return, which turned out to be a good thing since I had to wait a few days for my new computer to be installed, so at least I had something I could use to get some work done in the meantime. 

That was the situation until a few days ago, anyway. Since Friday I’ve been working from home as recommended by the university, and as of tomorrow all educational institutions from primary schools to universities are going to be closed by government decree in an effort to slow down the coronavirus epidemic. I don’t foresee that my own work is going to be dramatically affected by this, but the whole nation switching to distance learning for several weeks is going to be quite an experiment – and this is but one of 19 items on the list of actions presented by PM Marin in yesterday’s press conference. To implement the whole shebang, the government needs to activate emergency legislation intended to be invoked in cases of major threat or disaster, making it all seem particularly historic and momentous. 

The impending end of civilisation as we know it aside, it feels good to be back home. Over the past month and a half I’ve been noticing various little things that I like better here than in Ireland; for example, after two years of doing laundry in unrelenting Atlantic dampness, it seems almost like magic that I can reasonably expect my clothes to be dry the same day that I washed them, or the following morning at the latest! Getting a nice fresh salad with my lunch without having to pay extra for it is another thing I have a newfound appreciation for, although I suppose that says more about the options available at DCU than about Ireland in general. 

My work here is much more of a mixed bag than it was in Dublin, there are many more things now between which I need to split my time. Being able to concentrate on just one thing was certainly great, but there’s a lot to be said for variability as well. I’ve been doing some educational work for a change and finding it unexpectedly enjoyable – it helps a great deal that for now there’s no lecturing involved, since the course I’m partially responsible for is being run as an online course with pre-recorded lecture videos. I quite like preparing study materials and I think I’m not too shabby at it, but I much prefer it if somebody else does the presenting! 

Besides blogging, research has also temporarily taken a backseat in my professional life while I’ve been working on things that need to be finished more urgently, such as the final technical report of my MSCA fellowship. I also have quite a large number of conference papers to review in quite a short time, but once I’m done with those, there should be time in my calendar for working on papers of my own again. Besides the journal paper I’m already writing, submitting a short paper to CIKM 2020 is now on the table, but I’ll need to give some thought to whether I have enough unpublished material left for two papers or if I should stick with just the one. 

In the projects I’ve been assigned to, I spent the first few weeks mostly just studying documents and participating in meetings, but now that I have a decent understanding of what’s going on, I’ll need to start pulling my weight. The theme of one of the projects is actually not that far from what I did in Dublin and I’d be very interested to get to work on it for real, but the current funding is just for a preliminary investigation that will enable us to prepare a proposal for the actual research. It is refreshing, though, that for once I’m officially getting paid for grant writingmore often I find myself doing such things when I’m really supposed to be either working on something else or not working at all, and considering how often those efforts eventually come to nothing, this “small project to plan a bigger one” scheme certainly feels like an improvement. 

So long, farewell

So, the day has come – after two years, it’s time for me to say goodbye to Dublin! I almost added the word “finally”, but decided against it, because it really feels like this came sooner than I thought it would. They say that time seems to pass more quickly when you’re older because relative to how long you’ve already lived, the years are getting shorter and shorter; I guess there may be something to that idea, but even so, five percent is an appreciable fraction and that’s roughly the portion of my life so far that I’ve spent in the Fair City.

My January, as I expected, has been anything but uneventful, with loads of wrapping-up to do before I can board the plane home with a clear conscience. Finishing the trial has been a big part of it, obviously – just a couple of weeks ago I had to spend a panicky afternoon fixing a bug that was seriously threatening to make a mess of the experiment in the most crucial phase of it. Admittedly, that bug was only there because of some shoddy design on my part and could easily have been avoided with a bit of forward thinking, but still, I take a certain amount of pride in how quickly and effectively I dealt with the problem once I realised that it was happening and couldn’t be eliminated or circumvented in any way other than developing and deploying a new version of the server.

To be honest, I almost welcomed the unforeseen coding job, since that at least was something that was entirely in my own power to do. What I found far more stressful was the waiting – waiting for the study participants to do their part, hoping that they won’t take too much time to do it when your time is running out, knowing that you can plead with them but you can’t actually make them do anything. It turns out that one of the many transferable skills you develop as a researcher is a form of diplomacy: composing emails that convey a definite sense of urgency while avoiding any overt attempts to make the recipients feel guilty.

I have to admit that finishing the trial came rather too close to the deadline for comfort; even as the last week of January arrived, I was still missing several responses to the feedback survey that I really needed everyone to complete because in a small-scale study like mine was, every participant’s contribution really counts. I also can’t say that the results were everything I hoped for, but then, if I’d known exactly what to do and how to do it right from the beginning, it wouldn’t have been research. Looking back at all the stuff I managed to get done over these past two years, I guess on the whole I can feel pretty good about myself.

Although the fact that I’m leaving DCU and going back to Finland set a hard deadline by which certain things needed to be finished, the project isn’t really coming to an end yet, not in the sense of me not doing any more work on it. The Commission will be expecting a final report within 60 days of the end of the project period, and I’m already working on a journal manuscript that will be largely based on the results of the trial and will hopefully become the capstone publication of the project. Another conference paper or two wouldn’t hurt either, but that’s going to require some research work that goes substantially beyond what I achieved in Dublin, and I don’t know yet how much time I’m going to have for that in Oulu.

Outside of work, my time has been mainly occupied by packing my bags and saying my farewells – to the people I met here, to the places I liked to go and to the things I enjoyed doing. I’ve had no more time to go travelling further afield, but I’ve done my best to tick a few more items off my list of things to see and do in the greater Dublin area, such as interesting walks I hadn’t done yet; I’m particularly glad that I had the chance to check out Dublin’s cool new tiki bar that opened just a couple of weeks before my departure. Last week I joined the DCU Campus Choir for one more session and brought with me a box Finnish chocolates, which seemed to go down very well. A new bass joined the choir and a new tenor as well, so I trust that the male voices will continue to hold their own without me.

Although I’m happy to return home, inevitably there’s some sadness as well, because it’s a good period of my life that I’m leaving behind. I’m fairly sure that Ireland hasn’t seen the last of me yet, but I’m not sure when my next visit will be, and I don’t know if all of the same people will still be here then. Even leaving my Dublin apartment makes me more wistful than I would have expected, considering that it’s barely big enough to even call an apartment, but it was my home for long enough for me to get settled and there are many good memories associated with it. May the next tenant be equally well served by it.

P.S. The Science with Arctic Attitude blog of the University of Oulu recently published a post I wrote about my time in Dublin. If you didn’t see it yet, you can check it out here.

Almost there

Today marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Finnish parliament, celebrated in my country as Independence Day. In Finland it’s a public holiday of hallowed status, and if I were home I might be uncorking a bottle of wine right about now to treat myself to a glass while preparing something special for dinner. However, in Ireland it’s of course just a regular Friday, so instead I’m sitting at my desk at DCU; it’s the second year running that I’m working on this day, and only the third time in my life. Really the only thing distinguishing this from a normal working day is that my playlist has consisted exclusively of works by Finnish classical composers.

Even though the date enjoys no special significance here, I felt that this would be an apt time to reflect a bit on my upcoming return to Finland – there really isn’t very much time left now, less than two months from now I’ll be starting at my old university again. My trial is proceeding roughly according to plan; some gentle nudging of the participants has been required, as well as emergency repairs of the classic “turn it off, then on again” variety, but there seems to be no imminent danger of everything falling apart. The first big batch of sleep data uploads should be completed well before Christmas, and after that there shouldn’t be anything much happening until January, so I should be able to get some good rest and relaxation in between.

I’m definitely going to need that rest and relaxation, because January is likely to be pretty much a constant flurry of activity. Not only do I have the project to wrap up, but also my life in Dublin in general, and when you stay somewhere long enough to make it your home, you tend to accumulate stuff that you then have to decide what to do with when you move again. I’ve tried to keep mine to a minimum – the minuscule size of my apartment has helped me there – but living out of my suitcase for two years would have been a bit too extreme, so there are various items that I’ll need to get rid of, one way or another, before I leave. Anyone interested in free household stuff put your hand up!

Looking back, it’s a little bit hard to believe that it actually has been two years since I moved to Dublin; the time seems to have passed much more quickly than I anticipated. Of course, in the beginning there was a lot of uncertainty about everything and a lot of new stuff to come to terms with, but after a while I got used to the idea that this is my life now and settled into my new routines. Perhaps I even managed to make myself too much at home, because I was slightly taken by surprise by the realisation that if I’m going to do some more exploring before my return, now would be the time. These past few weeks I’ve been putting my Leap Card and tramping shoes to good use in various small coastal towns near Dublin, and I have a weekend in Sligo booked for next week.

So then, what will happen when I do go back to Finland? It looks like I’m going to have a job there at least for the rest of the year, which is what I was cautiously expecting, so I’ll have a nice soft landing and can get settled without immediately having to worry about finances. I don’t know yet what exactly I’ll be doing to earn my salary – presumably there is some ongoing research project to which I’ll be expected to contribute, and also some lecturing, but hopefully I will also have time to keep the ball rolling and work on my own ideas. Ideally, I’ll get one more KDD-CHASER paper submitted for review by end of January, but at some point it’s going to need revisions, and there are others that I want to write once the trial is done.

After the end of KDD-CHASER, I guess the next big milestone is coming up in April/May when I get the decision on my Academy of Finland Research Fellow application. As I wrote before, the most likely outcome is that I won’t get the grant, and assuming that I don’t, I’ll have to do some fairly serious thinking about my options. I came to Ireland with the thought that I wasn’t quite done with academia yet, but what about now? The MSCA fellowship was an opportunity to build something of my own, and of course it would be a shame to just forget about it, but do I necessarily need to be in an academic environment if I want to keep building on it? Going international was perhaps an overdue career move – is it time to make another one sometime soon?

Whatever happens, I think I’m going to be happy to be back home. It was always the plan to come back after these two years, and while there have been some changes during this time, one thing that hasn’t changed is that Finland is still where I consider my home to be. I do find, however, that going through with all this has expanded my comfort zone quite a lot: I still vividly remember the mixture of excitement and panic I felt when I got the notification that the MSCA fellowship had been awarded, but now I’m entirely open to the idea of working abroad again at some stage. I don’t think it’s something that I’ll actively pursue in the near future, but hey, who knows?

A FRUCTful journey

So, the FRUCT25 conference is done, and with that, presumably my last appearance at an international conference during my MSCA fellowship. My itinerary for the remaining time is pretty straightforward: a month in Dublin, then to Finland again to celebrate Christmas and New Year, then back to Dublin for another month and then it’s a wrap. No more conference papers, time to turn my attention to writing journal articles and final reports.

Considering how many times I’ve landed at Helsinki airport in the recent past, it was a little bit strange to realise that it had been over a year since I last visited the actual city. Despite this being November, hardly a time when anywhere in Finland is at its best, it felt nice to be walking the streets of my country’s capital again. I’ve never lived there, but I’ve spent plenty of time there and it feels very familiar to me, almost like a second home – or perhaps a third one, now that Dublin has been my second home in a very real sense for the past couple of years.

The main reason why I like to visit Helsinki regularly is that quite a few of my friends have ended up living there over the years, and I made sure to reserve plenty of time for seeing them. Normally on a conference trip I would do some touristy things, but in this particular case I felt little need to go sightseeing, although I did scout out some bars and restaurants in advance so I could go check out some interesting ones that I hadn’t tried before. On the flip side of having such easy access to my usual social circles, I also didn’t feel much of an urge to socialise with my fellow conference delegates, although I did have a pleasant chat with a few of them over some wine and snacks at the combined social event and poster/demo session.

The conference itself was a rather low-key and low-budget affair in comparison with the lavish IEEE CEC, but the scientific programme was solid enough, the proceedings will be available on IEEE Xplore and the event is recognised by various national rating systems as a perfectly respectable one. The full title of the conference is “Conference of Open Innovations Association FRUCT”, and it doesn’t really have an easy-to-define theme apart from innovation involving information and communication technologies. FRUCT itself stands for “Finnish-Russian University Cooperation in Telecommunications”, and there is a certain degree of geographical theming in the sense that the events normally alternate between Finnish and Russian locations and most of the participants tend to come from these two countries. However, at least in Helsinki there were delegates also from various other parts of Europe and Asia; according to the official facts and figures, the total number of countries represented by the authors of accepted papers between them was 28.

Shortly before travelling to Finland I sent out an ad looking for volunteers to join the trial I’m running to test the results of the work I’ve done in Dublin. This resulted in a rather busy period as quite a few people were eager to sign up and I needed to get everyone to give their informed consent and start collecting data before I went away. Now that I’m back I find myself in a bit of a lull, since the data collection phase doesn’t require much active involvement from me. This gives me time to do things that are not so central to the success of my project, such as writing this blog and reviewing papers for a 2020 conference I’m in the programme committee of. I also reprised my guest lecturer role from last year, since I was invited to do so by a colleague and I only needed to make some very slight revisions to the slides I used in my previous lecture.

This relatively quiet period won’t last forever, of course. When the data from the trial starts to roll in I’m surely going to have my hands full, so I have no doubt that when I start my end-of-year break, I will do so with a feeling that I really deserve it. Meanwhile, things are already getting busy with my main extracurricular activity, the DCU Campus Choir. Our Christmas concert is approaching fast, with only three regular rehearsals left before it, so we have some extra ones booked and there’s also a fair amount of homework to do. The concert will be in All Hallows Chapel on Monday the 9th of December starting at 19:30, with free admissiontickets just €5 and followed by a mulled wine and mince pie reception. Do join us if you’re in Dublin!

Rule of three

I recently got a paper accepted to the 25th FRUCT conference in Helsinki, around the same time that another one was published at the 16th CDVE conference in Mallorca, presented by my co-author and co-PI Alan. With the one I presented in Wellington in June, that makes three, not counting the one I gave a talk on in the PAP workshop at last year’s ECML-PKDD in Dublin. The latter didn’t appear in the workshop post-proceedings because of the preliminary nature of the results discussed in it, so it doesn’t really count as a proper publication.

There’s something pleasing about that number three; it makes me feel like I’ve crossed some kind of threshold here. It is, of course, traditionally a very special number, appearing over and over in the stories we tell, the speeches we give, the designs we create… That list right there is a case in point – giving just two examples wouldn’t have been enough, whereas adding a fourth would have been superfluous. There seems to be something inherently satisfying about it when significant things come in threes.

For me, the special significance of this particular three is that it’s been quite a while since I was last able to concentrate on a single research topic long enough to produce several publications on it. In the years following my doctoral graduation, and to some extent even before it, I had a few false starts, working on projects that were good learning experiences for me but in all honesty would probably have been better handled by someone with less learning to do. Sometimes these efforts resulted in one-off papers, sometimes not even that, and none of this was giving me a real sense of advancing either my own career or my field of research.

Against this background, when I started my current project it was potentially yet another false start for me, another new research topic to eventually file under “well, it was worth a shot”. There was a key difference though – this time I had won the funding for the research in my own name and with my own idea. I therefore felt more acutely than usual the need to prove that I’m worthy of such an investment, both to myself and to the funder. This, together with the knowledge that for the next two years I would be working on my own project and nothing else, helped me achieve a depth of commitment that had mostly eluded me between finishing my dissertation and being awarded the MSCA fellowship.

So, the reason for this sense of accomplishment is that while a paper or two can easily be dismissed as a fluke, three has the makings of a pattern: looks like I really am onto something here. It’s not that three papers is enough to make me happy about the results of the project, and I’m certainly not going to have much time for resting on laurels during these last few months, but it’s a welcome boost of confidence, telling me that there probably will be more publications and, further down the line, perhaps more funding as well. I’m no stranger to the impostor syndrome, so especially after a prolonged unproductive period it’s good to get some evidence that maybe I actually am sort of competent at what I do.

There is also another, rather more banal reason why I’m happy that the latest paper got accepted to this particular conference. Had it been rejected, I presume that eventually it would have been accepted somewhere else, but my project will end on 31 January and almost certainly the next opportunity to publish would have been sometime after that date. FRUCT is thus pretty much my last chance to spend the money in my expense budget, and even after that there’s going to be a fairly hefty surplus. Besides, while Helsinki in November may not be the most exotic or enticing travel destination, I have lots of friends there that I very much look forward to catching up with, and I’m also going to take a short holiday to visit home for a few days.

As my time in Ireland approaches its inevitable end, I’m determined to make the best of what’s left of it by exploring places near me, relatively speaking. Last weekend I visited Limerick city, and for the upcoming bank holiday weekend I’m hopping over to Edinburgh to see one of my favourite bands live at Queen’s Hall. Once I’m back from Scotland, I’m away to Finland almost immediately, and once I’m back from there we’ll be well into November already. I’ll probably want to take a little break from travelling after that, but I’d still like to make at least one more weekend trip before I go home for Christmas. I haven’t been to the northwest of the island yet – Sligo might be nice?

Now what?

The September call of the Academy of Finland closed this week; I submitted my application for the Research Fellow grant, and I must admit I’m having mixed feelings about it. Obviously, I’m relieved to have finished the proposal on time and happy to have a work-free weekend ahead of me for a change, but beneath the pleasure of a well-earned rest there are definite undertones of “meh”. Considering the next stage of my career, getting the fellowship would be quite a big deal – the prospect of €5k per month for my own salary for five years plus up to €400k for research expenses is certainly nothing to sneer at – so why doesn’t it feel that way to me?

I guess part of the reason is that you always tend to feel a bit empty after finishing an effort like this, in a dull, “now what?” sort of way. There’s also the fact that I’m simply tired from the final push: it’s not easy to get excited about anything when you feel like you’ve done a week’s worth of work in half the time and then worked another half-week on top of that. Anyway, the funding decisions aren’t due until sometime next spring, so there’s hardly much point in getting excited now – not to mention that statistically, it’s not very likely that I’ll get the grant, so it’s not exactly a rock-solid foundation to base my plans for the future upon.

The slim odds are a big part of why, for quite a long time, I found it hard to drum up any sort of enthusiasm in myself for getting to work on the proposal. Of course, by putting it off I probably just managed to make my chances even slimmer – there was no time to have my application looked at by anyone else, and very little time even for myself to do any substantial rewrites. As a result of this, I don’t know if I can honestly say that I did my best, but I guess I did what I could in the time I gave myself to do it, and of course it’s always the case that you have to strike a balance between such things and everything else going on in your life.

So yeah, it all comes down to priorities ultimately: sure, the fellowship would be a really nice thing to get and I’m sure I’ll be enormously excited if I do get it, but I find that I don’t want it badly enough to have everything else I care about take a back seat for weeks on end. After all, there’s always next year, and then I’ll have a draft proposal to build on, presumably some useful feedback from the review panel, and also plenty of time to get further feedback from the people at the university whose job it is to help researchers prepare applications. Refereeing is always a bit of a crapshoot anyway, sometimes you get lucky with who’s assigned the task of judging your worthiness and sometimes you don’t.

Besides, the quality of the proposal isn’t even the most important criterion in this call – it’s the qualifications of the applicant, so there’s only so much I could have accomplished by putting more hours into perfecting the proposal. By the next call I’ll have wrapped up KDD-CHASER, which means I’ll have more preliminary results and hopefully more publications as well, so that will help with both the proposal and the qualifications. As a matter of fact I just submitted another manuscript last week, so if all goes well, I’ll get to make one more conference trip before the project is over.

Speaking of other things going on in my life, there is some interesting stuff afoot both on and off duty. In KDD-CHASER, the live trial of our software platform is now underway; deploying the platform has involved working with AWS EC2 virtual servers, which is pretty cool, since I always enjoy a chance to get my hands on technologies I haven’t previously used. Meanwhile, the DCU Campus Choir has started its autumn term, and boy, does it feel great to be singing again! This term we’re apparently doing Vivaldi’s Gloria RV 589 in its entirety, which I’m particularly excited about – it’s a beautiful piece, and also a bit of a challenge that I’m more than happy to accept. Stay tuned for concert dates!

Job security

There’s an old joke about how you can distinguish between theoretical and practical philosophy: if your degree is in practical philosophy, there are practically no jobs available for you, whereas if it’s in theoretical philosophy, it’s not even theoretically possible for you to find a job. I was reminded of this the other day when I was having a lunchtime chat with a colleague who had recently learned of the existence of a vending machine that bakes and dispenses pizzas on request. From this the conversation moved to the broader theme of machines, and particularly artificial intelligence, taking over jobs that previously only humans could perform, such as those that involve designing artefacts.

A specific job that my colleague brought up was architect: how far away are we from the situation where you can just tell an AI to design a building for a given purpose within given parameters and a complete set of plans will come out? This example is interesting, because in architecture – in some architecture at any rate – engineering meets art: the outcome of the process represents a synthesis of practical problem-solving and creative expression, functionality and beauty. Algorithms are good at exploring solution spaces for quantifiable problems, but quantifying the qualities that a work of art is traditionally expected to exhibit is challenging to say the least. Granted, it’s a bit of a cliché, but how exactly does one measure something as abstract as beauty or elegance?

If we follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion, then it would seem that the last jobs to go would be the ones driven entirely by self-expression: painter, sculptor, writer, composer, actor, singer, comedian… Athlete, too – we still want to see humans perform feats of strength, speed and skill even though a robot could easily outdo the best of us at many of them. In a sense, these might be the only jobs that never can be completely taken over by machines, because potentially every human individual has something totally unique to express (unless we eventually give up our individuality altogether and meld into some kind of collective superconsciousness). However, it’s debatable if the concept of a job would any longer have a recognisable meaning in the kind of post-scarcity utopia seemingly implied by this scenario.

Coming back closer to the present day and my own research on collaborative knowledge discovery, I have actually given some (semi-)serious thought to the idea that one day, perhaps in the not-too-far future, some of the partners in your collaboration may be AI agents instead of human experts. As AIs become capable of handling more and more complex tasks independently, the role of humans in the process shifts toward the determination of what tasks need doing in the first place. Applying AI in the future may therefore be less like engineering and more like management, requiring a skill set that’s rather different from the one required today.

So what do managers do? For one thing, they take responsibility for decisions. Why is this relevant? The case of self-driving cars comes to mind. From a purely utilitarian perspective, autopilots should replace human drivers as soon as it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that they would make roads safer, but while the possibility remains that an autopilot will make a bad call leading to damage or injury, there are other points of view to consider. Being on the road is always a risk, and it seems to me that our acceptance of that risk is at least partially based on an understanding of the behaviour of the other people we share the road with – a kind of informed consent, so to speak. If an increasing percentage of those other people is replaced by AIs whose decision-making processes may differ radically from those of human drivers, does there come a point where we no longer understand the nature of the risk well enough for our consent to be genuinely informed? Would people prefer a risk that’s statistically higher if they feel more confident about their ability to manage it?

On the other side of the responsibility equation there is the question of who is in fact liable when something bad happens. When it’s all humans making the decisions, we have established processes for finding this out, but things get more complicated when there’s algorithmic decision-making involved, and I would assume that the more severe the damage, the less happy people are going to be to accept a conclusion that nobody’s liable because it was the algorithm’s fault and you can’t prosecute an algorithm. In response to these concerns, the concepts of algorithmic transparency and accountability have been introduced, elements of which can already be seen in enacted or proposed legislation such as the GDPR and the U.S. Algorithmic Accountability Act.

This might seem to be pointing toward a rather bleak future where the only “serious” professional role left for humans is taking the blame when something goes wrong, but I’m more hopeful than that. What else do managers do? They set goals, and I would argue that in a human society this is something that only humans can do, no matter how advanced the technology we have at our disposal for pursuing those goals, because it’s a matter of values, not means. Similarly, it’s ultimately determined by human values whether a given course of action, no matter how effective it would be in achieving a goal, is ethically permissible. In science, for example, we may eventually reach a point where an AI, given a research question, is capable of designing experiments, carrying them out and evaluating the results all by itself, but this still leaves vacancies for people whose job it is to decide what questions are worth asking and how far we are willing to go to get the answers.

Perhaps it’s the philosophers who will have the last laugh after all?