Sunday, December 01, 2013

What my mother taught me about computer vision

“Wake up, Tomek.  Pack your bags.  We’re moving to America.” 

These were the words my mother whispered into my ear as she roused me from a deep sleep.  There was no alarm clock and no preparation (at least not on my behalf). I was eight years old, and it was a typical January morning in Poland.  It was 1992, and beside a brief venture into Czechoslovakia a few years earlier, I had never left Poland before.

I can still remember those words like they were uttered yesterday.  I remember both the comfort of a child being woken up by the reassuring words of one’s mother as well as the excitement of what those words meant.  It was a matter of hours until I would experience my first international flight, my first multi-lane highway, my first supermarket, and get my first dose of American television.

What I learned from my mother is that sometimes, you just have to pack your bags and go.  That is the lesson my mother taught me, and it wasn’t delivered in the form of a university lecture.  It was an action.  An action that would be the single most influential event in my life.  Moving to the Land of Opportunity from Poland wasn’t something you could not be excited about.

There is a certain kind of excitement that occurs when you make such a bold move in your life.  It requires a certain kind of courage, a certain kind of entrepreneurial spirit.  A certain vision for the future and a certain willingness to take a calculated risk.  A vision that might be filled with uncertainty, but when the uncertainty is drowned by hope, any residual fear just melts away.

My mother never taught me anything about quantum mechanics.  She never provided me with extra tutors hat would one day help me get into a good college, no guidance on how to get into a great PhD program, no etiquette lessons on how to become a respected scientist, etc.  But she gave me the courage and confidence to know that if you want something in life and you have the willingness to pursue it, you can get it. The courage that my mother's actions instilled in me have been more influential in my personal development than any single formal source of knowledge so far.  Thanks mom.

Computer vision is all about the future.  It is all about risks.  It requires a certain entrepreneurial spirit that cannot be attained within the comfy confines of the ivory tower.  I see a world where the way we interact with machines is drastically different than today.  I see a future where we are no longer slaves to our smartphones, where automation will allow us to embrace our human side.  A future where technology will allow us to be free from the worries and stresses which saturate contemporary life.  Computer vision is the interface of the future.  It will allow for both machines to make sense of the world around them, and for us to interact with these machines in a much more intuitive way.

But this sort of change cannot happen without a change in attitude.  As of December 2013, computer vision is simply too academic.  Too much mathematics simply for the sake of mathematics.  Too much emphasis on advancing the state-of-the-art by writing esoteric papers and competing on silly benchmarks.  As a community we have made tremendous advancements, but we have to take more risks.  We have to let go of our egos, and stop worrying about our individual resumes.

I no longer believe that the sort of change I want to see in the world is going to happen by itself.  I want computer vision to revolutionize the way we interact with computers.  I believe in Computer Vision the same way I believed (and still do) about America. Computer vision is the technology of the future, it is the technology of opportunity.  But this cannot happen as long as I continue to portray myself as solely an academic figure.  I know that the way I’m approaching life now is much riskier than getting a traditional job/career in the sciences.  It’s strange to admit that my last day at MIT has been much more exciting for me than my first day at MIT.  I am excited.  My fledgling team is excited.  After our product launch, we’re hoping you will participate in our excitement.  I think the fun times are only beginning. The only limits we have are the ones we impose upon ourselves. 

“Wake up computer vision.  Pack your bags.  You’re moving into everyone’s home.”