Data of the people, by the people, for the people

About 150 years ago, the American president Abraham Lincoln gave a very short speech - only a few minutes long - on a battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The occasion was to honor the soldiers who died in a fierce battle at the height of the American Civil War. Despite the brevity of the speech, and the fact that almost nobody understood what Lincoln was saying, it is now perhaps the most famous speech in US history by a US president. It is only ten sentences long, but to condense it even further here, Lincoln essentially said that there is nothing anyone could do to properly honor the fallen soldiers, other than to help ensuring that the idea of this newly conceived nation would continue to live on, and that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not vanish from the earth.”

Why is this such a powerful line? It’s powerful because it expresses in very simple terms the basic idea of democracy, that we the people can form government, and that we the people can make political decisions, which is in itself the best guarantee that the decisions are made in the best interest of us, the people.

So, what does all of this have to do with open data?

Fundamentally, government is about organizing power. The vast majority of us agrees that power should be distributed among the many, not the few. To quote John Dalberg Acton: “Liberty consists in the division of power. Absolutism, in the concentration of power.” That is what democracy is about. And that is the discussion we should have about data. Because data is power. And if liberty consist in the division of power, or in the divided access to power, then that means that liberty also consist in the division of data.

But what does it even mean to say that data equals power?

Data contains information, and information can be used for commercial gains. We all understand that. But the power of data is much more fundamental than that. To understand this, we need to reflect on where we are as humans, at this point in time. We have now entered the second machine age - an age where machines will not only be much stronger, physically, as they have been for centuries, but also much, much smarter than we are. Not just a little smarter, but orders of magnitudes smarter. Most of us have come to terms with the fact that machines will achieve human intelligence. But think about machines that are ten times smarter, a hundred times smarter. How do you feel about a machine that is a million times smarter than a human? It’s a question worth asking, because while we may not live to see such a machine, our children, or grandchildren, probably will. In any case, even a machine that’s 100 times smarter than us is something you wouldn’t want to compete against. You wouldn’t feel comfortable if such machines were controlled by a small elite group. However, if such a machine were an agent, at your service, and if everyone would have such agents, which they’d use to make their lives better, that would be an entirely different story. Thus, when AI - artificial intelligence - becomes very powerful, it would be a disaster if that power were in the hands of a few. We would go back to absolutism, and despotism. We therefore need to ensure that the power of AI is distributed widely. 

There are some efforts, like the non-profit organization OpenAI, that aim to ensure that this is the case. In fact, if you follow the field of machine learning a little bit, a field that is currently at the heart of many of the AI-relevant breakthroughs, then you would see that most organizations are now open-sourcing the code that’s behind these AI breakthroughs. That’s a good thing, because it helps ensuring that the raw machinery to build AI, the algorithms, are indeed in the hands of many.

But this is not enough - not nearly. It’s very important to recognize that the power of AI is not simply in the algorithms; it’s not simply in the technology per se. It’s in the data. AI becomes intelligent when it can quickly learn on large amounts of data. AI without data does not exist. The analog version, the human brain, can perhaps help us to understand this idea a bit better. A human brain, in isolation, can only do so many things. It’s when the brain can learn on data that the magic happens. We call this education, or learning more generally. The brain itself is necessary, but it is the access to data - in the form of knowledge, and education - that makes us the most intelligent individuals to ever walk the face of the earth; of such an intelligence that we can even create artificial intelligence. And to take this analogy one step further, if you learn on small, false, or just generally crappy data, your brain will consistently make the wrong predictions. Coincidentally, this is why science has been such a boon for mankind: the scientific method helps us ensure that our brains get trained on high quality data.

So this is the central idea here: 

The enormous power of AI is based on data. If we want everyone to have access to this power, we need widespread access to data.

Put slightly differently:

Broad open data access is an absolute necessity for human liberty in the machine age.

If we accept this, then the question immediately arises, how do we get there? The fact that AI power is derived from data also means that from an economic perspective, privileged data access is incredibly valuable. Market players with privileged data access have absolutely no interest in losing this privilege. This is understandable - in the information economy, being able to extract information from data that can be used commercially is a matter of life and death, economically speaking. Forcing these players to give up their privileged access to data, which they generally collected themselves, would likely have severely negative economic consequences. It would also be highly unethical - for example, I’d be very upset if we forced Google to open up their data centers where anyone could have access to my data. There has to be another way.

I would like to offer a suggestion for another way. Access to personal data should be controlled by those who generate the data, not by those who collect it. The data generator is the person whose data is collected. In order for the data generator to be able to control access, the collector needs to provide the person a copy of the personal data.

Let’s make an example. Let’s say you use a provider’s map on your smartphone to drive from A to B. As you’re driving, GPS data of your trip is collected by the app maker. The app maker uses this kind of data to give you real-time traffic information. Great service - but you’ll never be able to access this data. You should be able to access this data, either in real time or with some delay, and do whatever you please to do with it, from training your own AI to sharing or selling it to third parties.

Another example. Let’s say you track your fitness with some device, you always shop for food at the same grocery store, and you also took part in a cohort study where your genome was sequenced, with your permission of course. The fitness device maker may reuse your data to make a more compelling product; the grocery store may direct ads at you for new products that fit your profile; and the cohort study will use your DNA data for research. All good - but is it easy for you to combine these three data sources? Not at the moment. You should be able to access all three data source - your fitness data, your nutrition data, and your DNA, without having to ask anyone for permission, for whatever reason. If you’re now asking, “why would anyone want that data”, you are asking the exact wrong question. It’s not anyone’s business why you would want that data - the point is that you should be able to get it with zero effort, in machine readable form, and then you should be allowed to do with it whatever you want to. It's your data. 

In some situations, we’re already close to this scenario. For example, when you open a bank account, of course you will be able to access every last detail of any transaction at any point in time, whenever and wherever you want to, without having to ask anyone. Any banking service without this possibility would be unthinkable. Why isn’t it like this with any service? If I can have my financial data like that, why can I not have the same access to my health data, my location data, my shopping data?

Once our own data is easily accessible for us, then it will be possible for us to let others access the data, provided we allow it. We can for example give the data to third parties such as trusted research groups, not-for-profit-organizations, or even trusted parts of the government or trusted corporations. At the moment, this sounds very futuristic. But imagine, for example, a trusted health data organization, perhaps a cooperative, where hundreds of thousands or even millions of people share their health data. This would be an enormous data pool that could be studied by public health officials to make better recommendations. It could be investigated by pharmaceutical companies to design new drugs. And, to bring this back to the original thought about AI, anyone could use this data to improve the artificial intelligence agents that will increasingly make health decisions on our behalf.  

Today, we’ll hear many excellent arguments that make the case for open data, highlighting social, political, economical and scientific aspects. My argument is that human liberty cannot exist in the machine age that is run by algorithms, unless people have broad access to data to improve their own intelligent agents. From this perspective, it makes no sense to be concerned about “smart machines”, or “smart algorithms” - the major concern should be about closed data. We won’t be able to leverage the phenomenal power of smart, learning, machines for the public good, and for distributed AI - for distributed power, really - if all the data is locked away, accessible only to select few. We need data of the people, by the people, for the people. 

1 Year Apple Watch

It's now been roughly one year since I started wearing Apple Watch. I must say I find it quite a compelling device. I use it primarily as an activity tracker, and I also really love the calendar. Generally, its tight integration with Apple's ecosystem makes it a real winner for me.

It's hard to objectively justify a device. For sure I have objectively become more aware about how much I move and exercise per day. I put it on more or less first thing in the morning, but when I forget to do that, I quickly have the feeling that something is missing. In other words, it has become part of my daily routine, something only a few devices have managed to do. By comparison, I've tried pretty much all iPads since version 1 and none of them ever managed to become irreplaceable.

I do hope Apple will use its "win by continuous improvements" strategy for the watch as well. It's clear we're at very early days in the wearable space. I'm excited to see what's ahead.

I have only one very urgent request: please fix Siri. ("I'm sorry Marcel, I did not get what you said").

The curse of self-contempt

(I wrote this post almost 9 months ago, but never published it, for reasons that now escape me. Realizing this omission today, I decided to publish it since I haven't changed my mind about the issue).

This morning, a friend shared an article on Twitter, originally published in the Guardian, with the title "Sophie Hunger: Sadly, I don't need a history to be able to exist somewhere". Sophie Hunger is a Swiss musician who, as the daughter of a diplomat, spent large parts of her live abroad (in other European countries). The article is about authenticity, home, and identity. In it, she writes:

"I can't be proud to be Swiss, although I'm predestined to have these kind of feelings. I'm afraid, I'm not an entirely humble person, but I do have the typical European extra dose of self-contempt. Yet, I discipline myself not to feel proud about my country because I know it is a dishonourable kind of feeling. What have I done to be Swiss, and why should it be an achievement? You see, there's a philosophical problem there."

Eight years ago, I left Switzerland - where I was born and raised - to travel the world a bit, and then to permanently move and live in the US. When I left the country I grew up in, I had the exact same feelings that Sophie expressed in her article. Now, having just returned, I see these feelings in an entirely different way: as part of the root of European angst, perhaps the root of European arrogance, and to some extent as a terrible curse: the curse of self-contempt.

Before I go on, let me clarify that I don't think all Europeans are angsty or arrogant. But while in the US, I have often been astounded by the arrogance of some Europeans, criticizing everything - especially the ones who were either just visiting, or hadn't been in the country for long. Even more surprisingly, Americans would usually take it lightly, laugh with the visitors, which in turn infuriated them even more - did they not get that they were being criticized (stupid!), or were they making fun of them (arrogant!)?

The curse of self-contempt is almost entirely absent in the US, at least compared to Europe. Instead, Americans are brought up to be proud of what they achieved, and full of hope for where they can go. It's widely known that American students are off the charts when it comes to self-esteem and self-confidence. And it's easy for the European critic to laugh this off, especially when the stats on important measures like reading ability and math skills are much more average. But I now believe that it's better to be overconfident about yourself, than under- confident. Extremes in both direction are harmful. But in the long run, modest chronic under-confidence is much more harmful than modest chronic overconfidence.

In the culture I grew up, I was taught that "Eigenlob stinkt", which literally means that "self-praise stinks". And that feeling is still part of the national identity - just two days ago, it was the headline of a paragraph in one of Switzerland's major newspapers (NZZ), in an article about the Swiss National holiday. Think about this expression for a moment. It quite clearly states that it is very bad if you praise yourself. How dare you praise yourself? What have you done that is worthy of praise? Let others be the judge to decide who is worthy of praise.

This is the curse of self-contempt - the inability to be content with yourself, or to praise yourself. It is almost unavoidable that arrogance follows. And as Sophie Hunger's paragraph shows, not only are you not supposed to praise yourself, but don't dare to be proud of your country, because it is dishonorable too. After all, you have not done anything to be Swiss, so how dare you be proud? 

This is no critique of Sophie Hunger (the irony would be unbearable). As I mentioned, I had the exact same feelings, and I am grateful that she expressed those complex feelings in a few clear sentences. I am merely pointing out that I now consider these feelings harmful to any one person, and certainly harmful to a society. Of course it's crucial to live in a society where critical thought is possible and even encouraged, and an occasional dose of self-reflection and self-criticism is certainly healthy too. But not to be allowed to be praising yourself, or to be proud of the place you grew up in, that strikes me as highly destructive to the development of healthy people and a healthy population. 

I have no internal conflict feeling proud of what the Swiss, my ancestors, have achieved, while at the same time feeling disgust at some of the dark historical moments, and some current developments. Just like I don't have any conflict to feel happy with myself, without ignoring, and working on, my darker sides. On a higher level, I can also feel proud to be European - part of a continent that has inflicted so much harm to others, and to itself, until 60 years ago, but that has been remarkably peaceful and resilient in the past few decades, and that managed to keep its cool when others (cough, USA, cough) lost their temper for a decade. And I can do this perfectly well while being alarmed by the current inability to find good solutions to deep economic and social problems. Feeling love for something and retaining the ability to see and point out problems, with the goal to improve - these things are not exclusive, but rather depend on each other. 

It is my hope that I can retain this attitude for as long as possible. Just as living abroad for many years has changed me, being back at home will probably change me again over the years. Perhaps this is why I feel compelled to write this, so I can remember in the future. 

Jack of all trades

The Swiss National Science Foundation just published an interview with me, in the form of an article (you can read the article in english, french, or german). The last paragraph reads as follows:

So he wears the caps of scientist, entrepreneur, author and musician. Can he manage them all? "I envy those scientists who spend all of their energy on a single pursuit. Being active in a number of different research fields sometimes leads you to think that you lack depth in a number of them. But given that modern science is interdisciplinary, becoming involved in areas outside of one’s comfort zone is also an asset. After all, why choose one approach over another?"

I could probably write an entire book on the idea expressed in this paragraph. Interdisciplinary research has fascinated me from the beginning of my career as a scientist. Doing interdisciplinary science is hard. It's hard because, despite best efforts by the various institutions involved in science, the cards are stacked against you:

  1. A truly interdisciplinary research project is hard to get funded; experts in one discipline won't understand - or worse, trivialize - the challenges in the other disciplines.
  2. A truly interdisciplinary research project is hard to execute; different domains speak different languages, have different theories, consider different issues relevant.

  3. A truly interdisciplinary research project is hard to get published; they don't fit in the neat categories of most journals that are rooted in their disciplines, and there are only a few multidisciplinary journals. Also, point 1.

  4. A truly interdisciplinary research project is hard to get noticed; there are almost no conferences, prizes, recognitions, societies, etc. for interdisciplinary work.

These challenges are increasingly recognized. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing substantial that is being done to address them. And it's not for the lack of trying. It is just simply a very, very hard problem to solve. Disciplines may be arbitrary, but they do exist for a good reason. 

But the key point I tried to address in the interview - and which led to the highly condensed last paragraph cited above - is that the biggest hurdle for doing interdisciplinary science is found in oneself. At least, that is my experience. Doing interdisciplinary science means spending much time trying to understand the other disciplines. You can't do interdisciplinary science without having a basic grasp of the other disciplines. The more you understand of the other disciplines, the more interesting your interdisciplinary research will be. 

And here's the catch: all this time you spend keeping up with understanding at least superficially what's going on in the other disciplines, is time you'd normally spend keeping up with your own field. As a consequence, you are constantly in danger of becoming a "jack of all trades, master of none". I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia entry on the etymology of this term. When it first emerged, it was simply "jack of all trades", meaning a person who was able to do many different things. The negative spin "master of none" was only added later, but it's deeply engrained in our culture. The fact that similar sayings exist in all other languages, as listed on the Wikipedia page, speaks volumes. 

In science, not being perceived as an outstanding expert in one particular field is a real danger to one's career, especially in the mid-career stage. The incentive structure of science is hugely influenced by reputation, which is the main reason scientists are so excited about anything with prestige. At the beginning of your career, as a student, it's clear you're not an expert; at the end, it's clear you're an expert, which presumably is why you survived in the system for so long (exceptions apply). But in the ever growing stretch in between - especially the roughly ten years between PhD and tenure - you definitely do not want to be seen as a "jack of all trades, master of none"

Unless you don't give a damn, which, if you're like me, is what I advise you to do. 

I wasn't sarcastic when I said that I envy scientists who spend all of their time working on a single topic. Focus is something I strive for in everything I do. How marvelous to be consumed by one particular question! How satisfying it must be to point all one's neurons to a single problem, like a laser! What a pleasure to be fully in command of all the literature in your speciality! How wonderful to go back to the same conferences, knowing everyone by name, being friends with most of them. Alas, it is not for me.

I'm drawn to many different fields, just like I'm drawn to experiencing many different types of food. Goodness knows I can get obsessed about one particular food item, spending years trying to perfect it. But that doesn't mean I'm not intently curious at all the other things that surround me. In science, I've decided I find the space between disciplines too interesting to be focusing exclusively on one discipline. 

But this is the catch 22: you need to be able to deal with the fact that you're not as much of an expert in your main discipline as you could be. Are you able to deal with this? 

One advice that I would give, completely unsolicited, like everything on this blog, is to first become very very good in one particular field. Good enough that you find it easy to publish, get funding, get jobs, get invited to conferences, and so on. At this point, you'll be in a much stronger position to branch out. You'll still face all the negative incentives listed above, but at least you have a home base you can return to if things get too crazy.

And when everything goes haywire, always remember:

Open Data: Our Best Guarantee for a Just Algorithmic Future

(Two days ago I gave a talk at TEDxLausanne - I'll post the video when it will become available. This is the prepared text of the talk.)

Imagine you are coming down with the flu. A sudden, rapid onset of a fever, a sore throat, perhaps a cough. Worried, you start searching for your symptoms online. A few days later, as you're not getting better, you decide it's time to go see a doctor. Again a few days later, at your appointment with the doctor, you get diagnosed with the flu. And because flu is a notifiable disease, your doctor will pass on that information to the public health authorities.

Now, let's pause for a moment and reflect on what just happened. The first thing you did was to go on the internet. Let’s say you searched on Google. Google now has a search query from you with typical flu-related search terms. And Google has that information from millions of other people who are coming down with the flu as well - 1 two 2 weeks before that information made it to the public health authorities. In other words, from the perspective of Google, it will be old news.

In fact, this example isn’t hypothetical. Google Flu Trends was the first big example of a new field called “digital epidemiology”. When it launched, I was a postdoc. It became clear to me that the data that people generate about being sick, or staying healthy, would increasingly bypass the traditional healthcare systems, and go through the internet, apps, and online services. Not only would these novel data streams be much faster than traditional data streams, they would also be much larger, because - sadly - many more people have access to the internet through a phone than access to a health care system. In epidemiology, speed and coverage are everything; something the world was painfully reminded of last year during the Ebola outbreak.

So I became a digital epidemiologist - and I wondered: what other problems could we solve with these new data? Diseases like the flu, Ebola, and Zika get all the headlines, but there is an entire world of diseases that regularly kills on a large scale that almost nobody talks about: plant diseases. Today, 500 million smallholder farmers in the world depend on their crops doing well, but help is often hard to get when diseases start spreading. Now that the internet and mobile phones are omnipresent, even in low income countries, it seemed that digital epidemiology could help, and so a colleague, David Hughes, and I built a platform called PlantVillage. The idea was simple - if you have a disease in your field or garden, simply snap a picture with your phone and load it onto the site. We’ll immediately have an expert look at it and help you.

This system works well - but there are only so many human experts available in real time. Can we possibly get the diagnosis done by a machine too? Can we teach a computer to see what’s in an image? 

A project at Stanford called ImageNet tried to do this with computer vision – they created a dataset of hundreds of thousands of images - showing things like a horse, a car, a frog, a house. They wanted to develop software that could learn from the images, to later correctly classify images that the software had never seen before. This process is called “machine learning”, because you are letting a machine learn on existing data. The other way of saying this is that you are training an algorithm on existing data. And when you do this right, then the end product - the trained algorithm - can work with information it hasn’t encountered before. But the people at Image Net didn’t just use machine learning. They organized a challenge - a friendly competition - by saying “here, everybody can have access to all this data - if you think you can develop an algorithm that is better than the current state of the art, go for it!” And go for it, people did! Around the world, hundreds of research teams participated in this challenge, submitting their algorithms. And a remarkable thing happened. In less than five years, the field experienced a true revolution. At the end, the algorithms weren’t merely better than the previous ones. They were now better than humans. 

Machine learning is an incredibly hot and exciting research field, and it’s the basis of all the “artificial intelligence” craze that’s going on at the moment. And it's not just academic: it is how Facebook recognizes your friends when you upload an image. It is how Netflix recommends which movies you will probably like. And it is how self driving cars will bring you safely from A to B in the very near future.

Now, take the ImageNet project, but replace the images of horses and cars and houses, with images of plant diseases. That is what we are now doing with PlantVillage. We are collecting hundreds of thousands of images from diseased and healthy plants around the world, making them open access, and we are running open challenges where everyone can pitch in algorithms that can correctly identify a disease. Imagine how transformational this can be! Imagine if these algorithms can be just as good, or perhaps even better, than human experts. Imagine what can happen when you build these algorithms into apps, and release those apps for free to the 5 billion people around the globe with smartphones.

It’s clear to me now that this not only the future of PlantVillage, but a future of applied science more generally. Because if you can do this with plant diseases, you can do this with human diseases as well. You can in principle do it with skin cancer detection. Basically, any task where a human needs to make a decision based on an image, you can train an algorithm to be just as good. And it doesn’t stop at images, of course. Text, videos, sounds, more complex data altogether - anything is up for grabs. As long as you have enough good data that a machine learning algorithm can train on, it’s only a matter of time until someone will develop an algorithm that will reach and exceed human performance. And here, we're not talking science fiction, in the next 50 years, we're talking now, in the next couple of years. And this is why these large datasets - big data - are so exciting. Big data is not exciting because it’s big per se. It’s exciting because that bigness means that algorithms can learn from vast amounts of knowledge stored in those datasets, and achieve human performance.

If algorithms derive their power from data, then data equals power. So who has the data?  Things may be ethically easy with images of horses, cars, houses, or even plant diseases -  but what about the data concerning your personal health? Who has the data about our health, data which will form the basis for smart, personalized health algorithms? The answer may surprise you, because it’s not just about your past visits to doctors, and to hospitals. It’s your genome, your microbiome, all the data from your various sensors, from smartphones to smartwatches. The drugs you took. The vaccines you received. The diseases you had. Everything you eat, every place you go to, how much you exercise. Almost anything you do is relevant to your health in one way or another. And all that data exists somewhere. In hospital databases. In electronic health records. On the servers of the Googles and Apples and Facebooks of this world. In the databases of the grocery stores, where you buy your food. In the databases of the credit card companies who know where you bought what, when. These organizations have the data on which to train the future algorithms of smart personalized healthcare.

Today, these mainly business organizations provide us with compelling services that we love to use. In the process, they collect a lot of data about us, and store them in their mostly secure databases. They use these data primarily driven by the potential of commercial gains. But the data are closed, not accessible to the public - we imprison our data in those silos that only a selected few have access to, because we are afraid of privacy loss. And because of this fear, we don’t let the data work for us.  

Remember Google Flu Trends that I mentioned a few minutes ago? Last year, Google shut it down. Why? We can only speculate. But what this reminds us of is that those who have the data with which they can build these fantastic services... can also shut them down. And when it comes to our health, to our wealth, to our public infrastructure, we should be really careful to think deeply about who owns the data. I applaud Google for what they have done with Google Flu Trends. I am a happy consumer of many Google services that I love to use. But it is our responsibility to ensure that we don’t start to depend too strongly on systems that can be shut down any day without warning, because of a business decision that's been made thousands of miles away. 

So, how we can strike the right balance between protecting individual privacy and unleashing big data for the good of the public? I think the solution lies in giving each of us a right to a copy of our data.  We can then take a copy of our data, and either choose to retain complete privacy - or we can choose to donate parts of these data to others, to research projects, or into the public domain to pursue a public good, with the reassurance that these data will not be used by insurance companies, banks and employers to discriminate against us.  

Implementing this vision is not going to be easy, but it is possible. It has to be possible. Why? Two reasons (at least). First, our data is already digital, stored in machines somewhere and hence eminently hackable. We should have regulations in place to manage the risks of the inevitable data breaches. Second, we are now running full speed into a 2nd machine age where machines will not only be much stronger than us - as they have been in the past decades - but also much, much smarter than us. We need to continue to ensure that the machines work in our common interest. It’s not smart machines and artificial intelligence we should be concerned about - they are smart and intelligent because of the data. Our concern should be about closed data. We won’t be able to leverage the phenomenal power of smart, learning, machines for the public good if all the data is locked away.

Open data is not what we should be afraid of - it's what we should embrace. It’s our best guarantee that we remain in control of the algorithms that will rule our digital world in the future.


Today I'm forty. 


I'm starring at this number in disbelief, even though I've seen it coming for, say, 35 years. It's not because I feel old (I don't). It's not because I can't believe how fast it's gone (I can). 

It's because I can't believe how lucky I've been. I've lived a life of privilege from the day I was born. 

I was born in what is today the world's wealthiest country by almost any measure. I was born to loving parents who supported me in every decision I've made, who didn't pressure me into any particular direction. I was lucky to meet many wonderful friends across the decades and across the continents, some of whom I've only known for a few months or a few years. As far as I can tell, none of them has ever betrayed me. I have a wonderful wife who supported me in all my decisions, who stuck with me in my low times, and who is simply the best partner and mother to our children I can imagine. I have two wonderful children who make me smile every single day. With the exception of the regular childhood sniffles, they have never been seriously ill.

I have never been in a hospital as a patient in the past 40 years. I would love to keep this record going for the next 40 years.

I have a wonderful job, a tenured position in one of the world's best and most innovative universities. I'd like to think I had something to do with this - but it's hard not to see how everything has also simply lined up perfectly: a free educational system, wonderful mentors, perfect timing.

In other words, I was lucky beyond imagination.

I'm curious what's in store for me. Statistically speaking, I'm not even at half time. But ever since I've had children, I've been thinking about death more often. I'm not sure why, but there is something about seeing your children grow up that somehow reminds you that for new life to begin, old life must eventually end. I am now keenly aware that my heart could stop beating tomorrow, or that a car may run me over on my ride to work next week. So what? If anyone reads this after I've passed away, I hope they can see that I've had a wonderful life, and that I've been incredibly grateful for it. 

Perhaps I'll luck out even more, and I will see my children grow up to become independent and responsible adults. Perhaps I will see my wife make her dream come true of becoming a winemaker. Perhaps I can one day hold a grandchild in my arms. I will surely shed a tear then. Perhaps I can work on interesting projects for another two to three decades, and try to make the world a slightly better place than it was before. Perhaps I can see thousands of sunrises while marveling at the beauty of the universe, and my astronomical luck to be among the few bags of atoms that understand where they came from and why they are here. Perhaps I can drink thousands of wonderful bottles of wine, with friends new and old, laughing and crying about whatever it is life has thrown our way.

Perhaps not. Perhaps my luck runs out in a few days, a few months, a few years. So be it. Today, I am simply pausing, after having circled around the sun 40 times, somewhere in a distant corner of the universe, to be grateful for what I've had. 

Advice to a student

I was recently asked by a student about advice on what to do, how to plan a career. The student had just completed a degree in biology, but also discovered a love for programming. I wrote a response and decided to publish it here, with very light edits, in the hope it might be helpful for others who find themselves in a similar situation.

The description of your situation very much reminds me of my own, many years ago. So maybe the easiest way for me to give you advice is to tell you how I got out of the confusion at that time.

I became a biology student by the “exclusion principle”. None of my high-school teachers managed to kindle any kind of passion for any kind of subject. For a long time, I thought this was my mistake, that I was just an unexcitable person. Now I know of course that nothing could be further from the truth, and that my biggest challenge these days is to not get too excited about too many things, given that the day only has 24 hours. When it came to deciding what to study, biology simply seemed the least boring. There was something else, too - it seemed the most meaningful. This may sound weird, but in my early twenties, I was in a state of constant, undefined anxiety, about what to do with my life, and the meaning of it all. The only thing that seemed to give me inner peace was to be out in nature, in the woods, or in the mountains. So I ultimately decided to study biology, because that would allow me to spend my professional life out in nature. 

In my second year of studies, I had to take a class called “Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior”. It completely changed my life. First, by introducing me to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which I had heard of, but not grasped with all its implications. It connected my search for meaning and my love for nature in one beautiful idea that is underlying all of life. Second, by showing me that there is a field of biology where one can reason about the big questions of life, using simple math and computers. This was an enormous discovery for me, and to this day, I consider myself first and foremost a theoretical biologist. Indeed, writing “Nature, In Code” was like writing a love letter to this field, the kind of book I wish I had access to when I was younger. 

Despite this discovery, I took a break from university after the second year. I discovered something else that I found just as exciting: the Internet (this was in the late nineties). Not being a programmer, and not having programmed before, I was amazed by the endless possibilities of the Internet, and picked up some basic web coding skills (HTML and JavaScript). I started creating websites, first for friends, then for some businesses. With a high-school friend, I decided to seize the opportunity and start a company, so I quit university. We had a great time, and business was going fine, but after already a year, I realized that I very much missed my just-found true love, the theory of evolution, and I decided to go back to it. Thankfully, we were acquired by another web company in the area that was developing super exciting web tools, and I joined them. This allowed me to work in parallel on both areas of interest, web development and evolutionary biology. I was in heaven. 

Looking back, it’s very obvious to me that these were crucial years. At the company, I learned extremely valuable skills. I learned more coding, more web technologies, and I learned some of the business aspects, too. Most importantly, I learned how to anticipate the future, and how to get some basic working knowledge in domains I knew nothing about. At the university, I learned all about evolutionary biology, but was suddenly in a position where I could use my newly acquired coding skills to do better science. To this day, I benefit tremendously from this experience. And that is why, whenever students ask me if they should join a company, I say yes, especially if it’s a tech company. Even if you later decide that science is where your heart is at, the skills you learn during the time working in tech companies are invaluable.

The world has changed rapidly since then. We now live in a completely digital world, with MOOCs, smartphones, and social networks. It must be overwhelming to grow up in an environment where you have access to absolutely everything, for free. But here’s the catch. You shouldn’t lose sleep over which courses you take, which MOOCs you take, which phones you use, how many followers you have, which schools you went to. In other words, you shouldn’t care so much about what you’re consuming. What you should care about, deeply, is what you’re producing. This view may not be very widespread yet, but it will be. In Silicon Valley and similar innovation clusters, it most certainly is. Any innovative group, team, company I’ve interacted with, it’s the same thing. Your career opportunities will be defined by what you have given, not what you have taken. Put differently, your work is more important than your education credentials. Don't make the mistake thinking that this will only be true later on - it may be even more true at the very early career stage.

As a consequence, I cannot give you any specific advice on industries, research groups, or internships. The advice I would give you is to chose a place where you can start producing, tinkering, expressing yourself. Surround yourself by people who make things. People who put their work out in the open. Creators. Go to meetups, hackathons, coworking spaces, and start contributing. In no time, you’ll find there are more opportunities than you’ve imagined. Try to hang out with people who are smarter than you, and better at whatever it is you want to learn. Intimidation is for fools. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.

If you start building things, your CV will very quickly start to look very impressive. When you learn new coding skills, for example during a MOOC, push your solutions to GitHub. Start working on side projects, and finish them (the latter part cannot be emphasized enough). Even if they seem crappy to you now - you can always go back later and improve on them. This repository of things you’ve done will become much, much more important than your CV. In fact, it will become your CV. Interesting companies and research groups will look at it and love what they see there, because they see that you make things happen, which is really all that matters. But what about the companies and groups that don’t care about that? Easy: ignore them - they are not interesting places anyways.

As a final note, let me just say that I think you are perfectly prepared at this stage for the future, even if you may not feel like it. You have a background in the natural sciences, you really seem to like coding, and you’re not shy to reach out for help when you feel stuck. Honestly, one can’t be in a much better position than that. The world is your oyster. 

Let me close with at least one concrete advice: ask yourself, what would I passionately like to work on during the next 5 - 10 years? It’s good to put yourself in a situation where life may not last much longer after that, to create a sense of urgency. Then ask yourself, where would be the most amazing place to do this kind of work? If you can’t answer the second question, go figure it out - talk to people in the relevant fields, read up on the topic online, go to events. Then, once you’ve found 2 or 3 places that would be amazing, go and ask to join them. If they decline, ask them why, and then go and fix whatever was missing. Keep at it until you are there. 

I hope this is helpful, in some small way, and at some point in time. I wish you all the best.

Creating a European Culture of Innovation

(This is are the prepared notes for a speech I gave at Lift Basel on October 30, 2015)

Good evening.

It's a great pleasure to be here with you. You are among the brightest and most creative innovators in Europe. We meet at a critical juncture. At stake is the future of Europe. And we, the innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, activists, and artists, need to step up and take ownership of this future. Because if we don't, Europe will continue its downward trajectory that it's currently on, and become what it many places it already has transformed into - a museum of history.

Let's not fool ourselves - things are not looking too great. We only need to look at the situations in some of the southern European economies. In many countries in Europe, unemployment rates are still above 10%, seven years after the crisis. But what's worse, you can go almost anywhere in Europe and talk to young people, and with a few exceptions, you will hear them pessimistic about the future of Europe. Many would take the opportunity to leave if it came along. The youth unemployment rates are now so staggeringly high that the problem seems unsurmountable. But is it? Let's take a look a the data.

The information and communication technology sector is now the dominant economic driver of growth. Think Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber. Noticed something? Not a single European company. Only 1 out of 4 dollars in this sector are made by European companies, and all the indicators for the future are pointing down. Some numbers are even more dire: when you list the top 20 global leaders of internet companies that are public, you know how many are European? Zero. And among all publicly listed companies in the digital economy, 83% are American, and a mere 2% are European. 2%!

There's something that's even more worrisome. Software is eating the world, and all sectors of the economy are being disrupted by software, but the software section is where the predictions for Europe are most dire. This is a real problem. The disruptive process is so fast nowadays, if you are not careful and miss a key technological development, you are basically gone within less than a decade. Remember Nokia? The hotel industry is being disrupted by AirBnB, an american software company. The transportation industry is being disrupted by Uber, an American software company. The Swiss watch industry is now being disrupted by Apple, an American software and hardware company. Again, let the numbers speak for themselves: the 200-500$ segment of Swiss watch sales has collapsed by 20% in the past three months. Other domains where Europe has been strong are now existentially threatened. Volkswagen may not survive the disaster they created for themselves. But already before the Volkswagen scandal, it was clear that the most exciting technology for cars doesn't come from Europe anymore, but from the US; from Tesla, from Google, apparently from Apple, and certainly also from Uber. In the meanwhile, we have the new Volkswagen CEO on the record last month saying that autonomous vehicles are a hype. 

Ok, so some of the old European companies are not nearly moving fast enough. What about the new ones, the upcomers, the startups? Let's look at the top ones, the ones whose valuation is more than 1 Billion dollars - the so-called unicorns. Europe has now 40 of them, and the number is growing, which is good. They have a collective value of 120 Billion dollars, which is also good. But that is still less than half of the value of Facebook alone. Put differently, the value of all European high-value tech companies is less than half of your mum's favorite social network. We clearly have a long way to go. And we need to go much faster - to catch up, and then to take the lead.

So where's the problem? Some say it's VC funding, which is only partially true. Yes, the culture of VC funding is probably less mature in Europe than it is in the US, especially for stage A, B and C funding. But money will find its way into good ideas and market opportunities one way or another. Others say it's simply the European market, and European regulation. I think that is an illusion. Look at AirBnB, the US startup that now has a valuation of over 25 Billion dollars. It was started as a three person startup in California's Y Combinator, but it now gets over half(!) of its revenues from within Europe. And by the way, San Francisco is probably one of the worst regulatory environments you can find yourself in. AirBnB is currently facing huge battles in San Francisco, and a Californian judge recently ruled Uber drivers employees, causing a minor earthquake in the booming sharing economy. Indeed, California is probably one of the most regulated of the American States, and yet it does exceedingly well.

I think that the problem is actually quite simple. But it's harder to fix. It's simply us. We, the people. We, the entrepreneurs. We, the consumers. I have lived in the San Francisco Bay area for more than three years. What's remarkable about the area is not its laws, or its regulations, or its market, or its infrastructure. What's truly remarkable is that almost everyone is building a company in one way or another. Almost everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, or supports them. Almost everyone is busy building the future. Indeed, you can almost physically feel that the environment demands it from you. When someone asks you about what it is you are doing professionally, and you don't respond by saying that you're building a company, they look at you funny, as if to say, "then what the hell are you doing here"?

Needless to say, for entrepreneurs, this is an incredibly exciting and stimulating environment. You are one of them. You are part of the ecosystem. And like most of them, you will often fail in one way or another. But since everyone is failing all the time, it's completely normal. You just keep going, you fail better next time, until that one time when you don't.

It's not a trivial point I think. The other day, I was in Turin in Italy, and I desperately needed a coffee. I walked into the next random coffeeshop, where I was served a heavenly cappuccino, with a chocolate croissant that still makes my mouth wet when I just think about it. Was I just lucky? No - all the coffee shops there are that good. Because the environment demands it. Sure, you can open a low-quality coffee shop in Turin if you want to, but you'll probably have to file for bankruptcy before you have the time to say buongiorno. The environment will simply not accept bad quality. In another domain, I had the same personal experience when I was a postdoc at Stanford. Looking back, all of my best and most cited papers I wrote there. I don't think it's coincidence. Every morning, as I was walking across campus to my office, I could sense the environment demanding that I do the most innovative work - if I didn't, then what the hell was I doing there?

So this is my message to you. I'm asking you to create those environments, both by doing the best and most innovative you can, but also by demanding the same from everyone else around you. These two things go together; they create a virtuous circle. Since everyone knows what doing the best and most innovative work means, allow me to share some thoughts on the latter part - demanding it from everyone else. 

It means that we are not accepting the status quo. It means that we continuously ask ourselves, our collaborators, our co-workers, and our leaders, how we can do better. It means that we put our wallet where our mouth is - that we stop buying products from companies that don't innovate, and that we support those that do. That we embrace technology, quickly adopt new tools, buy from startups. It means that we speak up, in person, on social media, on blogs, etc., when we see conservative, backwards thinking. And let us not be afraid to speak up even when we seem to be alone in our views. In fact, that may be the most important time to speak up. Recall the child, in the emperor's new clothes, who ridiculed the king for not wearing any clothes at all - her initial remarks sparked a chain reaction, with everyone else suddenly feeling comfortable pointing out the obvious.

It also means letting go, and disassociating from people who are not moving forward as fast as you'd like. This may sound harsh, but really, it isn't. In my career as both a scientist and as an entrepreneur, I have seen the painful moments when people realize much too late in the game that they were on the wrong track. You can undo many things in life, but you cannot roll back time. Last year, I started a company with a friend from Stanford, and we got into the famed Y Combinator program. We failed so hard, I can't even begin to describe it. We didn't even get traction. The partners at YC dropped us like a hot potato. At the time, I felt incredibly frustrated - I thought it was their role to help us get on track. But in hindsight, I realized that they were doing us an incredible favor, and letting us fail fast, instead of letting us morph into one of those Zombie startups that end up going nowhere, but suck up all the energy and time of their founders for too long. Time they could spend exploring the next idea. Time they could spend with family and friends.

And this brings me to another point about demanding excellence and innovation. I hope it was clear that I've spoken exclusively about work. I do not for a moment believe that excellence and innovation demand making inhuman sacrifices. They do demand very hard work, dedication, and commitment, for sure. But what do you want to be written on your graveyard? "He created a billion dollar company" or "he was the most wonderful father and friend anyone could imagine"? Ideally both, of course. But you are going to have regrets. Choose them wisely. 

There is also something that we shouldn't do, but unfortunately is a very common European tradition. It's to complain, and wait for politics to step in. To think that if only we had the right political conditions, we would be just like Silicon Valley. Don't get me wrong - there is much that can be improved. Politics can make things harder, and it can make things easier. But it cannot on its own create innovation. It can support it a little bit, and it should. And if you are working in the political sphere, working to make life easier for startups and innovation, I say: all power to you! I support you, I will vote for you. But to the rest of us, I say: just do it. Don't ask for permission, ask for forgiveness if necessary. If you are waiting for permission, you will wait for the rest of your life. Most rules exist for a simple reason: to protect incumbents. Don't ask for permission, just go and do it. 

My final point on this topic is probably the most important one, and it is about you. I strongly believe in role models, and I believe that the only way for Europe out of the current mess is to have strong role models. Role models are absolutely essential. Take a look at Facebook. It's easy to quantify the economic value that Mark Zuckerberg has created through the company. But think about the entire generation of high schoolers and college kids he inspired. Think about all the companies that were, and will be, started by young people who want to be the next Zuckerberg. The next Sergei or Larry. The next Steve Jobs. They were all in their early twenties when they started their companies. I bet the value of simply having these role models - measured by the companies they inspired - approaches or exceeds the value of the companies they themselves created. 

I've had my own share of role models, right here in this very town. I used to work in two software startups -  before they were called startups - that have both gone on to become very successful. The first was called Bidule, which later morphed into Day Software. Its technical founder, David Nüscheler, is perhaps the closest equivalent to Mark Zuckerberg that we have in Switzerland. An ETH dropout, David co-founded the company and brought it to IPO in the year 2000. A decade later it got acquired by Adobe for over a quarter billion dollars. The second company was called obinary, which later turned into Magnolia. In 2003, the two co-founders Pascal Mangold and Boris Kraft realized their company was faltering, and so they decided to take a huge risk and develop a new product which has gone on to do extremely well. They just moved into a brand new building specifically designed for the company, which now employs close to 100 people. 

What these founders have in common is that they were smart, and took a chance when they saw an opportunity. They didn't wait for a more mature VC market, for better political conditions, or for anyone's permission. They just went a built these companies. We need to talk more about them. We need to celebrate them. We need to make sure they want to work here, not anywhere else. Many people who have worked for these two companies have since left and started their own companies. And that's of course how you build a thriving startup environment. Not by government mandate, but by letting smart people innovate, by letting them get back on their feet when they stumble, and by celebrating them when they succeed, because if they do, we all do.

And so we need you to be our role models. We need you to show what's possible, beyond what we believe is possible. It may not be easy, because you may still find yourself in an environment that does not demand innovation - or worse, even in an environment that actively dismisses it. I am here to ask you, please keep going, keep creating the future. When you are being dragged down by the doubters, by the know-it-alls, but the why-do-we-need-thisers, please know that there are many like me, cheering you on, waiting for you to be even more daring. Not everybody gets to be at this podium, not everybody gets the chance to have your attention. But I'm telling you now, we are here, and we need you to pull us into the future.

It is not going to be easy. As George Bernard Shaw so pointedly said: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." Paul Graham, Y Combinator co-founder, advises to "Live in the future, then build what's missing." It is probably the shortest and best recipe of innovation I've ever come across. But living in the future means you will appear a little crazy, and a little arrogant. You are living in the future, after all! And what's worse, many of your contemporaries don't just want to live in the present, they'd prefer to live in the past. The history of humanity is one long fight by those living in the future against those living in the past. To some extent, it is remarkable that we have actually come as far as we have. Every single human invention had to struggle - even things that everyone now takes for granted. From creating timezones to washing our hands between operations, to communicating through phones: Every single human invention that you see around you was once considered stupid, useless, unnecessary, dangerous. But those unreasonable inventors kept going, because they lived in the future, and saw what was missing.

So please, let us all live in the future and build what's missing - here in Europe. I am worried sick that the easiest way for me to live in the future is to buy a ticket to San Francisco. Just like the easiest way for Americans to relive the past is to buy a ticket to Europe, rich in history. I'm asking you to become even more ambitious, more daring, and more demanding, both of yourself, but most importantly also of your environment.

Thank you very much.


"You know, these are the rules".

How often have you heard someone say this? Me, too many times. I have nothing against rules per se. I am certainly not fond of breaking them, even if it is sometimes necessary. But there is one thing that people often forget about rules.

They are manmade.

This sounds trivial, but it is has profound consequences. The most important is that because rules are manmade, they can be changed. People often cite rules as if they were some ancient wisdom, or even natural law. They are not - somebody made them, and it's up to us the change them. If the rules work against you, you must change them. If you can't change them, you are in the wrong system, and you should leave (e.g. your workplace). It's harder if the system is political, and the rules are the law, but it's possible - see this fascinating 16 min talk about voice and exit

The second important consequence is that most people may actually disagree with a rule, in which case it might not be enforceable (again, this depends on the context). Think about a rule - any rule. Do you know when it was established? No matter how far back in time the rule was put in place, we now know much more about the world than people did back then. Thus, it's quite possible that the rule doesn't make sense anymore, based on the data we have now. It's for this reason that I have some respect for rules: when they were put in place, they must have made a lot of sense, and we should always assume that there was a good reason back then. At the same time, we should never stop questioning whether the rule makes sense today - and change it if the answer is no.

This brings me to the third consequence: the rule was put in place to defend and protect someone's interest. This may have been the interest of the majority of the public; the interest of a company; the interest of a lobbying group, etc. It may not be your interest. The rule may not be there to make your thrive, and in that case you need to change it.

Steve Jobs, with his uncanny ability to simplify complexity, said it best:

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and you're life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.”

Dear Volkswagen: you are probably doomed (but not because of diesel)

What a week it's been. You've admitted to the world that you have sold 11 million vehicles that are much more polluting than what you advertised them to be. You've admitted that you've installed software in your cars that specifically detects when a car's emissions are being measured (i.e. the engine is running but the car is not moving) in order to fake the measurements. You've set aside 6.5 billion Euros to deal with this scandal, and have replaced your CEO.

This episode will go down in corporate history as a textbook example of large-scale industrial fraud for a number of reasons. First, there is the fact that the mechanism of deception was software-based. Second, you haven't just duped millions of people into buying a product they would never have bought had they known the truth - in the process, you've contributed to massive pollution that's affecting everyone's health, not just that of your customers. Third, the betrayal of trust is at an unparalleled scale - you've sold polluting machines specifically to a group that's sensitive to environmental issues. Many who bought a VW diesel bought it precisely because they assumed it to be less polluting than the competing products. Fourth, we're not just talking about selling candy - we're talking about products that cost tens of thousands of dollars. In other words, we're talking about tens of billions of dollars of products sold under completely false advertising.

Frankly, it's hard to see how you can come out of this alive. The fines you will have to pay will be in the tens of billions of dollars. The class action law suits will be equally high. Many of your top executives will go to jail. You currently have 30 billion euros in cash reservers, which probably won't even begin to cover your liabilities. And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only are the 11 million people you lied to less likely to buy another VW in the future, but you've probably also lost everyone else who was considering buying one. As someone who just recently bought at VW diesel - my first VW ever, and almost certainly my last - I can of course only speak for myself. But everyone I've talked to feels pretty much exactly as I do. And if after some more independent analysis, the numbers come back and they are even close to what we currently read in the press (10-40x more pollutants than advertised), I will sell the car immediately even if it is at an almost total loss.

Such a shame. You've spent all this energy over the years and decades to make people like me buy your products. And just as you seem to succeed, the world comes crashing down on you. I feel particularly sorry for the vast majority of your employees who are completely innocent, but who will lose their jobs over this. I feel sorry for every world-class German engineer whose reputation you are dragging down with you, and who doesn't deserve any of it. 

Some cynics say that's just the name of the game. In a couple of weeks, no one will talk about it anymore. They couldn't be more wrong. Every time VW diesel owners start their engines, they will think of how you betrayed them. I've noticed it myself - even though there is less press on the scandal with every passing day, I actually get angrier with every passing day. This is not just a temporary thing. For the first time in my life, I am willing to join groups who take legal action against a company.

But there's hope. As the saying goes, a crisis is a terrible opportunity to waste. 

There is one, and only one reason why I would consider buying a VW in the future: massively beat Tesla at their game. Abandon all fuel-powered development today and invest every single cent into long-range electric cars, and build the electric charging infrastructure throughout Europe and the US (and the rest of the world). In addition, the development of the self-driving car has to be your top priority. The car of the future has no human driver in it, and of course you know this (anyone at VW who doesn't, let go of them immediately). Lobby your government and that of the EU to change regulation that allows for safe self-driving vehicles the day they roll out of your factories. Since you are in an existential crisis, and with you the millions of jobs that indirectly depend on you, they'll listen. 

The strategy can be summarized in two words: batteries & software. Everything else is gone. It may be difficult for some of the more traditional, non-software engineers (like your ex-CEO), to embrace the very thing - software - that brought you down to your knees. But there is simply no alternative. Europe is already lagging behind in the software-powered technological revolution. Aggressively start hiring the most brilliant software engineers away from Tesla, Google, Apple, and Uber to make your new strategy come true. If any resources remain, give them to those universities that are building - or expand existing - world-class software engineering curricula.

So why the title of this post? Because all of this is probably not going to happen. The new CEO, Matthias Müller from Porsche, thinks autonomous vehicles are an unjustifiable hype. I wish I was kidding, but I'm not: the VW board thought that the best person to replace the guy who oversaw the cheating software scandal (or was unaware of it) is a guy who seems to have even less appreciation of the ongoing software revolution. As far as I can tell, now VW CEO Matthias Müller is the only CEO of a large car maker who has gone on record saying that autonomous vehicles are a hype. 

Unless Müller makes a 180 degree turn, it's quite obvious to me that VW is doomed. They may survive as the Foxconn of car making - a pure hardware manufacturer with extremely low margins and mostly terrible, low wage jobs. If that's what they want, they are on the right trajectory. But for Europe, this is extremely bad news, as another major economic player will go down the road of Nokia, and the economy will suffer badly.