Month: April 2017

My impressions of the 2017 International World Wide Web Conference

The International World Wide Web Conference is a get-together for the world’s web researchers, movers and shakers. It’s an entire week of nerding-out, freaking-out, awkward networking and brain-dumping with everything Web. As luck would have it, the conference was held in Australia this year, so I was able to attend and bask in the warm glow of endless Powerpoint presentations and dizzying chatter about the web.

Keynotes – Automated mail categorization, SKA astronomy data-processing, virtual reality and 3D web.

The three keynotes were all quite different and interesting in various ways. Yahoo Research’s Yoelle Maarek has been working on automated categorization of emails. Apparently this has been a bit controversial in the past, with people tending to revolt and anyone moving their cheese/things in there inbox without asking, but Yoelle’s team has basically learned from this and focused on unobtrusive categorization of just the machine-sent emails. Their algorithms have been mass analyzing the emails going through their servers, marking common patterns as machine-mail (eg. your flight booking, newsletter subscription mail, whatever comes up in thousands of emails), and then placing them in auto-folders accordingly. Some form of this is already implemented in the top three webmail providers. On the Yahoo mobile app, you can also use a “notifications from people only” option to filter out some of these patterns. Yoelle appeared to take privacy really seriously while doing this processing, which is real nice, although this means parsing common email templates for key fields is now easy for the big webmail providers, so I feel like there is at least some potential for some privacy issues to come up around this stuff at some point. Also, I got the idea email is still dead for people-to-people chat and we’re all going to be pressured into using annoying social media if we want to have friends.

SKA - wikipediaAstrophysicist Melanie Johnston-Hollitt gave a nice presentation on the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) and its crazy-large data requirements. If you’ve never heard of the SKA, it’s basically a project to build the largest ever radio telescope array in the desert of Australia and South Africa. Great for studying the universe, not so good for your spare hard disk drive space. I didn’t catch the exact figures, but the data rate involved is basically more than the entire internet’s traffic (yeah, literally all of it), so they have to pull a bunch of tricks to squash/cut it all down to something manageable. I thought this was kind of out-of-place for this conference keynote, but it’s undoubtedly awesome work that everyone loved to hear about.

Probably the highlight of the conference however was Mark Pesce (co-creator of VRML and a big name in the 3D-web/VR space). Mark is quite a dynamic speaker, and although he’s a little bit sensationalist at times, he’s good at painting a kinds of visionary pictures that the conference would have otherwise lacked. He has been working on something called the Mixed Reality Service (mildly humorous acronym MRS). MRS is a bit like a DNS for geographical spaces, to be used either in virtual worlds or in an augmented reality layer over the real world. I haven’t read the specs for this yet, but I got the impression it broadly works along the lines of sending a server a command like “give me all the web resources associated with the following geographical area”, and it passes you back some URIs registered in that space. As far as I gathered, the URI’s could be anything normally found on the web, like for example a HTML document, sound, video, image or data. There’s obviously a lot of potential uses, for example AR glasses querying for information about nearby buildings (“what are the opening hours and services in that building over there”) or safety information (“is this work area safe for humans to walk through without certain protective equipment”).

VR - wikipediaMark pitched this project in a broader vision about knitting reality and the web together, into a more ubiquitous physical-augmented-mixed-reality-web-type-thing. Mark suggested developers and researchers should get on board of what he feels is the start of a new internet (or even human) era. I’m a little skeptical, but with all the consumer VR and AR equipment coming onto the market right now, and the general enthusiasm in the air amongst people working in the area, it’s hard to deny that we’re in the middle of a potentially massive change. There was also mention of the challenges around how permissions and rights would work in a shared VR/AR space. I definitely want to think and probably write more on this topic in the future.

Other cool themes, people and talks

The Trust Factory set of presentations was also quite “big picture” and another major highlight of the conference. I found the W3C people I saw or talked to here to be universally friendly and awesome. They seem to be honestly keen to engage with anyone they can to contribute to the future standards and directions of the web. I particularly liked the work around RDF (open metadata format/standard that will hopefully become broadly used as big datasets becomes more and more important) that they’re doing.

The presentation by David Hyland-Wood (Ephox and Tinymce guy) on Verifiable Claims was extremely informative. Verifiable Claims seems really important, basically because it allows credentials (eg. basic identity, personal info and so on) to be passed around in a way that provides both highly reliable (good for security) and protective of privacy (which the conference has reinforced is near non-existent on the web right now). David gave the partly metaphorical example of showing your ID to a bouncer at a nightclub, then using your credit card at the bar, and having your identity stolen because you handed of birthdate, photo, financial details to an untrusted party. VCs appear to be a method to solve this by allowing you to digitally say (in this example) “I’m 18”, then allowing the club would query a trusted third party “is this guy really 18?”, who then verify this. This happens without you handing over all sorts of unnecessary details like your birthdate, and in a way the club can verify without just taking your word for it. I haven’t had a look at the technical side of how it works, but with the right consumer and/or legislative pressure to back it up, this appears like it could prevent billions of dollars in ID theft and a whole lot of intrusive invasions of privacy. Dave and his wife Bernadette (who also does a whole bunch of stuff in this space) were also really friendly and fascinating to talk to generally.

I missed out on Bytes and Rights, but I did talk a little with someone from Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA, Australian version of EFF) who was exactly like all the EFF/EFA stereotypes you might imagine, and appeared to be doing well engaging folks with their campaigns. Several guys from consumer magazine Choice were also there. I was surprised how switched on they were. They’ve recently developed a nifty little VR app called CluckAR that allows you to point your camera at “free range” eggs and see some nice animations to show how actually free range they are, based on a fairly comprehensive and accurate dataset they’ve gathered on the topic. It sounds like they’ve got a lot more plans for this sort of web-based product-info system coming in the future.

There was way too many talks/papers to list, but a few that I thought were quite nice included:

  • A really cool concept of a gamified legal simulation to teach skills in self-representation. This is to try to make up for the shocking and increasing shortage of legal aid. The presenter tells me he will post more details of on in the future on his game design/review blog. I think this is a really great project and I hope it draws some support and/or funding.
  • In India, if you can’t afford to train the large number of community workers needed in rural areas, you can always write some custom software that let’s you efficiently organise conference calls on people’s feature phones instead. Very nice.
  • There’s work to automatically detect sockpuppets, suicidal tendancies, language associated with bad dietary requirements and pretty much anything else you can think of on social media, with mixed results. The sockpuppets could be indentified by fingerprinting without IPs, which is probably overall a good thing, even if its a bit scary.
  • Electronic Arts is working on modelling and quantifying optimal levels for dynamic difficulty adjustment (ie. make it easier if you fail lots) in games as a sort of evidence-based blueprint to hand to game design teams. Kind of fufills the stereotype of EA as a mechanistic mass-production game behemoth, but was quite interesting and I’m pretty sure I’d be doing the same if I was them.
  • There was some cool work on people cooperatively doing 3D design from their mobile devices, though this is still early days and a little clunky.
  • AI, AR and language processing is at the point where you can build a graphical, immersive natural language simulation for training workers in soft skills, like educational environments or for health-workers interacting with patients. Seems too expensive for most organisations to organise and localise just yet though.
  • One group was working on a cool way to break up Twitter echo-chambers by analyzing the best ways in which polarized groups would listen to tweets from opposing camps. Echo-chambers are a growing problem so I thought this was great.

The papers are all available on the www2017 website, so I’ll let you dig up whatever you’re specifically interested in there.

 

General impression

The location of Perth was apparently considered a risky choice, but the conference got a record number of paper submissions. From what I’ve read of previous conferences there might have been slightly less big names in attendance (only slightly though), but one of the isolated cities in the world was still able to pull a lot of interesting people.

The conference was dominated mostly by the more technical topics of the web – data analytics, standards, privacy, security, search, data mining, semantic web and so on. If you’re a web designer, you’re probably not missing too much here (with a couple of interesting exceptions), but if you’re into the web in general there was enough info to drown in. I did find that many of the papers were fairly (unnecessarily?) heavy on the maths and statistical, sometimes appropriately, but sometimes not so much.

This statistical focus was a little culturally bounded. The Chinese and Japanese delegates tended to favor maths and stat-heavy approaches (they also seem to have a lot of platforms to get massive data sets), whereas the Americans, Aussies and Europeans I saw tended to be a bit more mixed between math/stats and a more conceptual focus. There was quite a few interesting presentations from Indian delegates, us Aussies gave a very good account of ourselves, and there were lots of presentations from a multitude of other countries, but the Americans and Chinese dominated the conference papers in terms of raw numbers. It’s no surprise US is extremely strong on tech, and China is clearly not messing around in throwing resources and researchers at being a world power in science and tech. I think other countries often fielded some surprisingly great people and ideas though. Regardless of country almost everyone was very polite and had something to contribute.

I would have liked to see something around the relation between the end of web privacy, employment and freedom of speech, but didn’t notice anything addressing this theme. Overall I’d also say the conference could have used a little more focus and discussion on the big picture “vision” of the web, though there was enough highlights like the VR/AR discussion to keep things interesting.

AI-risk fail

At one point I got talking to a Google machine learning researcher for 10 minutes or so. Afterwards, being very loosely on the periphery of the Existential Risk / AI-risk crowd (I’m not convinced of the singularity but I think AI-risk is worth thinking about), I had a thought I might have missed doing my part in actually talking to someone in the field about AI risk. Luckily (or so I thought at the time), I was late to a conference meal and when I took one of the only seats remaining, I realized I was at a table with the same Google AI guy again. I casually tried to bring up AI-risk as a topic in a very neutral way, pretty much saying something like “how about those CSER people / AI-risk / and that whole singularity thing?”, hoping to get a sense of the appropriate way I could develop the conversation. The guy was pretty cool about it, we had a brief back-and-forth with a few jokes, but I strongly felt something annoyed or upset him about the topic. His general response was along the lines of “oh that? That’s kind of a philosophical question. I’m just trying to get my stuff working!”. He left shortly after (had somewhere to be, apparently), leaving me wondering if I had either looked like a singularity fan-boy or secretly part of some Luddite uprising. His colleague was really friendly and cool about everything, suggested that it’s a cliché thing for non-researchers to bring up, and that it’s a kind of strange thing to be bugged about when you’re just a smart dude struggling to get a PC to answer a simple question. I can totally understand that feeling, even though it’s an important topic in my opinion.

In hindsight I’d say I did more harm than good. I did learn something about a AI-dev perspective, but I probably nudged AI-risk a bit in the direction of “stupid stuff the general public ask about” for this guy. I’d say the lesson here is to not to casually chat about this topic with a researcher you just met unless you have loads of status (I was effectively a pleb at this conference), can demonstrate really good knowledge, and spend a lot longer getting to know the person. I’d also suggest trying to be generally less clumsy than I was. I think I was prepared to discuss the topic properly, but I ended-up coming across like a bit of an idiot.

Nerds = awkward; conferences = awkward; nerd conference = funny

I also found it darkly amusing observing many awkward moments for me and others at the conference. People have a limited window to connect with some really impressive and knowledgeable people in their field, so there’s a whole lot of amusingly obvious physical positioning to be “incidentally” stopping at the same drinks table as this person or that person. My impression is people also try not to spend too long with or get tangled up with people who aren’t really the person they want to be talking to. I definitely got “blanked”/ignored a couple of times (I wasn’t really the most interesting person there, so that’s fine), and I probably was a bit tight with my attention to cool people who I’d normally be really pleased to be hanging out with. I’m really glad I stuck out the awkwardness because I ended up talking with some awesome people, and I’d encourage anyone else feeling a bit lost at this sort of conference to do so too.

The language barriers make for even more awkward hilarity. Sometimes someone would just have no idea what someone else said. There was multiple instances of nodding and smiling and saying “yes yes” to lengthy questions that definitely required something than a “yes” or “no” answer, often in front of large groups of observers. Everyone was really cool and friendly with each-other about this, even near the end of the week when everyone was feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.

There was some rather amusing nerdy singing and dancing at the conference too (putting aside some much more skillful aboriginal dancing at a dinner), which I won’t go into in case you ever get a chance to experience it first hand. The next conference (apparently just called the Web Conference from now on) will be in Lyon in France. The French threw in just as much tourism pitch into as us Aussies did for our conference, but were naturally really smooth in their delivery. I think the relaxed Aussie style worked really well though, and it seems like it made for a successful conference that combined a relaxed atmosphere and a buzz of new ideas.

 

Thoughts/corrections? Email me!

Please note I don’t use my actual name on this blog.

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