A Breakthrough Donation for Computer Science

Lance Fortnow has a post summarizing some of the news affecting the CS community over the past month, including updates on various prizes as well as the significant media attention focusing on physics- and math-related topics such as movies about Turing and Hawking as well as Terrence Tao on the Colbert Report.

From his post, I just learned that former Microsoft chief executive Steven Ballmer is making a donation to Harvard that will endow twelve—that’s right, 12—new tenured and tenure-track faculty positions in computer science. This is fantastic news and will have a huge positive impact on Harvard CS.

One thing missing from Lance’s list was news about the Breakthrough Prizes in mathematics and fundamental physics. In case you’ve been living under a rock, these prizes give a very hefty US $3 million purse to the chosen recipients. The winners are all luminaries in their field, and it’s great to see them get recognition for their outstanding work.

On the other hand, juxtaposing Ballmer’s donation and the Breakthrough Prizes couldn’t offer a starker contrast. It costs the same amount—$3 million—to endow a university full professor with appointments in more than one discipline at Duke University. My initial googling would suggest that this is a pretty typical figure at top-tier institutions.

What if, instead of a offering a cash prize to the Breakthrough Prize winners, the reward was an upgrade to an endowed chair at the current institution subject to the condition that the existing position would go to a new tenured or tenure-track hire in the same field? This seems to be a much better investment in science overall because it will help build a community of researchers around the prize winner, and the marginal benefit to this community from associating with the prize winner is likely far greater than any extra incentive the researchers might get within the current system to simply strive to win $3M cash.

Elsevier again, and collective action

We all know about higher education being squeezed financially. Government support is falling and tuition is going up. We see academic jobs getting scarcer, and more temporary. The pressure for research to focus on the short term is going up. Some of these changes may be fair, since society always has to balance its immediate priorities against its long-term progress. At other times, like when comparing the NSF’s $7.6 billion FY2014 budget request to the ongoing travesty that is military procurement, it does feel as though we are eating our seed corn for not very wise reasons.
Against this backdrop, the travesty that is scientific publishing may feel like small potatoes. But now we are starting to find out just how many potatoes. Tim Gowers has been doing an impressive job of digging up exactly how much various British universities pay for their Elsevier subscriptions. Here is his current list. Just to pick one random example, the University of Bristol (my former employer), currently pays Elsevier a little over 800,000 pounds (currently $1.35M) for a year’s access to their journals. Presumably almost all research universities pay comparable amounts.
To put this number in perspective, let’s compare it not to the F-35, but to something that delivers similar value: arxiv.org. Its total budget for 2014 is about 750,000 US dollars (depending on how you count overhead), and of course this includes access for the entire world, not only the University of Bristol. To be fair, ScienceDirect has about 12 times as many articles and the median quality is probably higher. But overall it is clearly vastly more expensive for society to have its researchers communicate in this way.
Another way to view the £800,000 price tag is in terms of the salaries of about 40 lecturers (\approx assistant professors), or some equivalent mix of administrators, lecturers and full professors. The problem is that these are not substitutes. If Bristol hired 40 lecturers, they would not each spend one month per year building nearly-free open-access platforms and convincing the world to use them; they would go about getting grants, recruiting grad students and publishing in the usual venues. There are problems of collective action, of the path dependence that comes with a reputation economy and of the diffuse costs and concentrated benefits of the current system.
I wish I could end with some more positive things to say. I think at least for now it is worth getting across the idea that there is a crisis, and that we should all do what we can to help with it, especially when we can do so without personal cost. In this way, we can hopefully create new social norms. For example, it is happily unconventional now to not post work on arxiv.org, and I hope that it comes to be seen also as unethical. In the past, it was common to debate whether QIP should have published proceedings. Now major CS conferences are cutting themselves loose from parasitic professional societies (see in particular the 3% vote in favor of the status quo) and QIP has begun debating whether to require all submissions be accompanied by arxiv posts (although this is of course not at all clear-cut). If we cannot have a revolution, hopefully we can at least figure out an evolutionary change towards a better scientific publishing system. And then we can try to improve military procurement.

Are we ready for Venture Qapital?

From cnet and via Matt Liefer, comes news of a new venture capital firm, known as The Quantum Wave Fund. According to their website:

Quantum Wave Fund is a venture capital firm focused on seeking out early stage private companies with breakthrough quantum technology. Our mission is to help these companies capitalize on their opportunities and provide a platform for our investors to participate in the quantum technology wave.

The cnet article clarifies that “quantum technology” means “Security, new measurement devices, and new materials,” which seems about right for what we can expect to meaningfully commercialize in the near term. In fact, two companies (ID Quantique and
MagiQ) are already doing so. However, I think it is significant that ID Quantique’s first listed product uses AES-256 (but can be upgraded to use QKD) and MagiQ’s product list first describes technologies like waveform generation and single-photon detection before advertising their QKD technology at the bottom of the page.
It’ll be interesting to see where this goes. Already it has exposed several areas of my own ignorance. For example, from the internet, I learned that VCs want to get their money back in 10-12 years, which gives an estimate for how near-term the technologies are that we can expect investments in. Another area which I know little about, but is harder to google, is exactly what sort of commercial applications there are for the many technologies that are related to quantum information, such as precision measurement and timing. This question is, I think, going to be an increasingly important one for all of us.

Funding boost for the arXiv

This is fantastic news: starting this January, the Simons Foundation will provide the Cornell University Library with up to US $300k per year (for the next five years) of matching funds to help ensure the continued sustainability of arXiv.org. The funds are matched to donations by about 120 institutions in a dozen countries that are well funded and are heavy downloaders of articles from the arXiv. It is also providing an unconditional gift of $50k per year. Here’s the press release from the CUL.
I think it is pretty remarkable how an institution like the arXiv, which every reader of this blog will agree is absolutely indispensable for research, has struggled to make ends meet. This is especially true given that the amount of money it takes to keep it going is really just a drop in the bucket compared to other spending. Look at some of the numbers: in the last year alone, there were more than  50 million downloads worldwide and more than 76,000 articles submitted. To have open access to that kind of information for a total cost of about $1m per year? Priceless.

Alexei Kitaev wins Fundamental Physics Prize

Alexei Kitaev was just named as a co-recipient of the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize, along with 8 other distinguished physicists. This is a brand new prize which was started by a Russian billionaire named Yuri Milner. More at the New York Times. Alexei is credited in the citation as follows:

For the theoretical idea of implementing robust quantum memories and fault-tolerant quantum computation using topological quantum phases with anyons and unpaired Majorana modes.

This is without question a well-deserved award. I know I’m not the only one who has said, only half joking, that I work on “Kitaev Theory”. A hearty congratulations to Alexei.
There’s more to this story, though! Since the NYT highlights it, there is no dancing around the fact that this is the largest monetary prize in the history of physics: US $3 million! And with big money comes big controversy. From the NYT, my emphasis:

Unlike the Nobel in physics, the Fundamental Physics Prize can be awarded to scientists whose ideas have not yet been verified by experiments, which often occurs decades later. Sometimes a radical new idea “really deserves recognition right away because it expands our understanding of at least what is possible,” Mr. Milner said.
Dr. Arkani-Hamed, for example, has worked on theories about the origin of the Higgs boson, the particle recently discovered at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and about how that collider could discover new dimensions. None of his theories have been proven yet. He said several were “under strain” because of the new data.

Given that this is worth more than the Nobel prize (“only” $1.2 million, usually shared by 3 people) what sort of incentives does this set up? I’m glad that Mr. Milner’s award will go to researchers with breakthrough ideas, but sometimes great ideas don’t agree with Nature! They will have other value, for sure, but is it too risky to reward “radical ideas” over correct ideas? Mr. Milner, who made his fortune investing in internet companies and knows a thing or two about risk, apparently doesn’t think so.
Update: Given that 5 of the recipients were string theorists, it is unsurprising that Peter Woit got there first to add some fuel to the fire.

This post was supported by Goldman-Sachs Grant No. GS98039

After my earlier post about the defense budget, I thought it might be nice if there were some other similar-sized revenue streams that we could tap into other than DoD funding.  It got me thinking… who has the most money? Governments aside (which already have schemes for funding science), it has to be large corporations and big investment banks.
While some large corporations have R & D divisions (e.g. the quantum group at IBM), I’m not aware of any investment bank that has one, despite the large number of physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists that they employ. Could we possibly get a bank to directly fund scientific research? After all, what is the entire NSF budget of $7 billion to a big investment bank? A JP Morgan executive loses that kind of money in the cushions of his couch.
Here is something that could possibly entice one of these entities to invest in physics: using neutrinos to do high-frequency trading. While all those other suckers are busy sending signals overland via satellites and fiber optics, you just take a short cut with a neutrino beam straight through the center of the earth!  My back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests an 18 ms difference to send a signal through the Earth from NYC to Shanghai rather than over the surface. You could make the trade and still have time to enjoy a quick blink afterward.
In fact, a group of physicists at Fermilab have recently done an experiment (arXiv) that demonstrated using a neutrino beam to (classically 🙂 ) communicate through the Earth. The bit rate was low, only .1 bits per second, and the distance was only 240m. I’m sure one of the milestones on their Goldman-Sachs grant is to get that up to 1bps and 1km before the program review.

Matt Hastings wins a Simons Investigator 2012 award

The Simons Foundation has just announced the recipients of the Simons Investigator awards for 2012. These awards are similar in spirit to the MacArthur awards: the recipients did not know they were under consideration for the grant, and you can’t apply for it. Rather, you must be nominated by a panel. Each award winner will each receive $100,000 annually for 5 years (and possibly renewable for an additional 5 years), and their departments and institutions each get annual contributions of $10,000 and $22,000 respectively.
This year, they made awards to a collection of 21 mathematicians, theoretical physicists, and theoretical computer scientists. There are a lot of good names on this list, but the one that overlaps most with the quantum information community is undoubtedly Matt Hastings. The citation for his award specifically mentions his important contributions to quantum theory such as the 1D area law and the stability result for topological order (joint with Bravyi and Michalakis). However, it doesn’t mention anything about superadditivity of quantum channels!
Here is the citation for those of you too lazy to click through:

Matthew Hastings’ work combines physical insight and mathematical power to make profound contributions to a range of topics in physics and related fields. His Ph.D. thesis produced breakthrough insights into the multifractal nature of diffusion-limited aggregation, a problem that had stymied statistical physicists for more than a decade. Hastings’ recent work has focused on proving rigorous results on fundamental questions of quantum theory, including the stability of topological quantum order under local perturbations. His results on area laws and quantum entanglement and his proof of  a remarkable extension of the Lieb-Schulz-Mattis theorem to dimensions greater than one have provided foundational mathematical insights into topological quantum computing and quantum mechanics more generally.

Congratulations to Matt and the rest of the 2012 recipients.

Rounding Error in the Defense Budget

I recently (and somewhat belatedly) came across the following news item:

NASA gets two military spy telescopes for astronomy

The gist of the article is that the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) just donated two telescopes with greater optical capabilities than the Hubble space telescope. For free.
Ironically, NASA may not have the budget to actually put the telescopes into space and run them. This is sort of like if someone sees that you’re parched with thirst, and they decide to give you a bottle of wine that they aren’t interested in drinking anymore, because presumably they have much better wine now. But you’re too poor to afford a bottle opener.
The Hubble cost a lot of money to build. The low-end estimate is USD $2.5 billion, but that is probably an underestimate by a factor of 2. That’s a lot of money, but it will barely buy you a week in Iraq, if you’re the US military.
Let’s assume that the cost to build those telescopes was approximately the same as the Hubble. This means that the cost of the two NRO telescopes combined is about the same as the entire $7 billion budget of the NSF for FY2012.
Of course, US science does get money from the Department of Defense. But the “pure” science budget for the entire US is just a rounding error compared to the total DoD budget.

Look Ma, I'm a Financial Journalist!

In this Saturday’s New York Times, in an article titled The Chasm Between Consumers and the Fed, I found the most amazing chart:

Of course I am not a financial journalist, so I have absolutely no understanding of the gigantic amoeba-like-shaded-area in this chart. But it looks very cool and very much like it represents something about which the article has much to say. Sadly, however, the New York Times does not provide the methodology it used in obtaining the amazing fact that six of the points can be grouped together while those other two points are excluded from the party. What astounding mathematical finance model did the Grey Lady use to come up with this plot (I’ll be it involves Ito calculus)?
Frustrated by the lack of transparency, I decided that it would be best if I tried to come up with my own methods and models for obtaining this graph. My first attempt, after scouring the economics literature and using some advance methods (related to integrating over Banach spaces) was the following

As you can see this model seems to pick out the overall rate of return as the defining characteristic. After much great reflection, and reacquainting myself with some obscure results from the theory of hyperbolic partial differential equations and new deep learning techniques from machine learning, I was able to tweak my model a bit and obtained the following

Now this is a beautiful plot, but it clearly does not reproduce the graph from the New York Times. What exactly, was I missing in order to obtain the giant amoeba of correlation?
But then I remembered…I’m not a financial journalist. I’m a physicist. And so, I took a look at the stats notes I took as a physics major at Caltech, quickly plugged in some numbers, and obtained a new, reality based, version of the plot

Well it’s not the New York Time plot. But I like it a lot.

George Soros Meets Kochen-Specker

I’ll admit it: I like reading George Soros’ books. I mean, here’s a guy whose made a godzillion dollars in the financial markets, has been behind political destabilizations/stabilizations worldwide, taken on a U.S. president (can you guess which one?), and yet, in spite of this, can write a book in which he talks his own brand of….philosophy and how it relates to life, the universe, and the current financial crisis. Whah?
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