Sunday, September 21, 2014

Unfiltered Access

It happened last season. When Franck and I decided to program Season 1 of the Paris Machine Learning meetup, we initially thought the whole thing would run out pretty quickly. Indeed, our interest was to get people to talk about algorithms as opposed to specific web/langage technologies as is usually the case in technical meetups these days.

Over the course of the Parisian Winter, we both realized that people who came to the meetups were not scared by difficult subjects. In fact, the feedback suggested attendees were sick of dumbed down stories on important topics. While the presentations were probably less heavy than usual academic talks, quite a few academics even told us they liked the format. Deep down, it really was a moment of nostalgia. Those instances reminded people of how great they were when they were learning in their earlier years. They remembered how exceptional those moments were, they craved for these unique times. The meetups brought back that message: You are not stupid, you are decrypting the world and you are not alone.

Over the Parisian Spring, we realized something important. Some of the best people in the world could not come to Paris. Not that they did not want to, but, much like long distance runners, most have reached the Zone and they don't want to deviate from it for some limited exposure. We realized that there had to be a better way, so we started with Skype or hangouts to get them to speak to our audience for 10 to 15 minutes remotely.

Another realization crystalized at meetup #10. I had seen a video of Brenda McCowan who was talking about what her group was doing in Dolphin communication - a faraway concern to people who's livelihood is to predict the next click. Putting this in context of our meetup's theme, that work is hard Unsupervised Learning, it's the stuff of exploration, think Champollion but with animals and no Rosetta Stone: we had to get her on the meetup schedule. Because Brenda is very busy and because this was probably an unexpected invitation from some crazy French guys, she kindly accepted a five minutes Q&A from our crowd on Skype after we had locally played the video that had been recorded earlier by the good folks at NIMBioS. The untold promise was that it would be one of the least impactful event in her professional life: answer technical questions for five minutes from folks 8,000 miles away who had just seen her earlier academic pitch. In the end, the exchange lasted longer.

I am sure I am not the only person in the audience who realized this but for the first time in our lives, when we were asking questions to Dr. Brenda McCowan, we were becoming actors of a really technical National Geographic feature film... "sans" the post-production , "sans" the dumbing down of a traditional filtered Q&A, "sans" the delicate narrative of a show. We, the meetup audience, whose inner 9-year old kids had given up on our own dreams of talking to Flipper when we decided to be serious and eventually have jobs, realized we were having a technically insightful conversation with the one of the few people on Earth who had the interest, knowledge and means of potentially understanding Dolphin communication. For a moment, more than a hundred "wiser" 9-year old kids were back in business.

Props to NIMBioS, Brenda McCowan, , Skype, TheFamilyHopWork, DojoCrea, for making this unique moment happen.

In light of the success of the Paris Machine Learning Applications Group, I just started two new meetups in Paris: 
Credit Photo: Hans Hillewaert - The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum.
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