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.” 


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  2. Good luck! I'm excited to see a new computer vision entrepreneur! Wish you and your company a great success!

  3. Very interesting thoughts. Will certainly follow developments here.

  4. I wish I could be a part of that.

  5. Thanks a lot for the encouraging words!

    We will be starting a crowd founding campaign as well as a developer program very soon; this will allow for a broad spectrum of individuals to get a taste for what we're all about as well as help refine our vision.

    Keep your eyes and ears open for the forthcoming announcement.

  6. Hossein1:58 AM

    Very interesting story to read. Wish you best of luck in the path you are taking.

  7. Although I disagree with the last part about academic research for computer vision, I totally agree on the first part. I totally agree that one has to make a bold move to be exceptional! Best of luck for your new journey!

  8. Thanks, Prof Xiao! Although I realize that that somewhat anti-academic position I've embraced in this post will not jive well with all academics, it is your duty to prove me wrong. I encourage you, Jianxiong, as a propagator of the academic tradition, to create a new sort of researcher with your new lab and position at Princeton -- a bold researcher, one prepared to not only unravel the inner-workings of human visual intelligence, but also one courageous enough to apply what they have learned to novel problems in the real world.

    I have the utmost confidence that individuals such as yourself can instill the right balance of guidance, confidence, and courage within your students to take their ideas to a new frontier. I, for one, have grown out of this ecosystem. My faith in academia is not completely lost, and in the upcoming months and years I look forward to seeing what new mountains you and your fledgling lab will conquer.

  9. Czesc Tomasz,
    Thanks for sharing your vision with me. My mother taught me that "Nothing is impossible," and to erase the t on can't, you can if you think you can. I have faith that you with take your knowledge and experience and turn it into action, making computer vision a household word to benefit society. Our high school Robotics advisor was already excited when I explained to him what you are planning. Ships are safe in port, but that's not what they are made for. You might have turbulent seas, but in the process it will be an exciting voyage and adventure. Good luck! We all are proud of you!
    Bob Borowski, Ph.D.
    Patchogue Medford High School

  10. Tomasz-- great post. In either academics or industry, you need to choose the right focus, without getting caught up in nonsense. I'll be watching for announcements!

  11. Good luck Tomasz! I have followed your blog for quite some time and have found your ideas regarding future of Computer Vision compelling. Very interested in seeing what you come up with!

  12. Great post. I am looking forward hearing your continuing success news and stories :) Good luck!

  13. Thanks Unknown, Rahul and Joe. You know where to find my most recent news, I'm excited to hear your comments after the big announcement.

  14. This reflects in a way the way I've been thinking about computer vision lately. It seems like we have the means to make better interfaces, we're just not using it yet.

    I want to subscribe to a mail list so that I can be kept up to date with development on your front. Is that possible?

  15. Hi Taboen,
    Thanks for your interest! My team is working on getting the mailing list ready so that we can stay in touch with everybody once our big announcement comes out. I will be most likely cross-posting all the relevant content on my blog, so if you subscribe to my blog (via RSS), follow me on Google+, or on Twitter (@quantombone), you won't miss out on any the cool new and exciting content.

  16. Your mother taught you well about about computer great