Thursday, December 31, 2020

Done with 2020

We finally made it to the end of 2020! I found myself thinking recently about how long the year felt and was reminded that Trump's impeachment trial happened at the beginning of 2020 and Biden's upcoming inauguration will take place less than a year after.  It is a bit hard for me to reconcile this observation with how I experienced the flow of time this year.

  • I'll begin with COVID-19 since starting with anything else would seem strange to me. Too many people, including those who started 2020 on a healthy note, didn't make it to 2021.  Over 350k Americans died of the coronavirus, which means that many of us (myself included) lost a friend or family member to this disease.  When this pandemic is over, I hope we can all learn some lessons for the future.  I have my own thoughts on what we did well, what we did badly, etc., but perhaps this post is not the right place for them.  For now, I will simply express hope that the newly made mRNA vaccines turn out to be as safe and effective as predicted.

  • One positive side-effect of the pandemic is that technology allowing people to work remotely seriously improved during the lockdowns.  When I switched to teaching online in Spring 2020, I had to improvise and hated it. But by Fall 2020, I ran two courses remotely, obtained the necessary tools to make the process smooth, and even learned to enjoy teaching online. Many companies had to go remote during this year and are now considering staying completely remote going forward. This may allow more people disentangle where they live and where they work (and perhaps precipitate the collapse of Silicon Valley as the undisputed technology capital of the US). Another positive side-effect, at least for me, was that being locked-down gave me more time with family and allowed time for new hobbies and for more reading.

  • I've been optimistic about the prospect of medical sciences making significant advances in the next few decades for improving human healthspans (and lifespans), but I had been less optimistic about the ability of ML and AI to seriously help in this endeavor. AlphaFold, a product of DeepMind using technology it developed earlier, has made drastic improvement on the problem of protein folding. I was pleasantly surprised by the result and have thus also become more positive in general on the ability of machine learning to have a real impact on medical science in the future. Read about it if you haven't already!
image from DeepMind's Nature article
  • I have been fortunate to advise and graduate wonderful students, and this year was no exception. My student Shelby Heinecke defended her Ph.D. (online!) and began work as a Scientist at Salesforce Research, a rather young lab that has grown impressively over the last several years.

  • I helped draft a letter to the Communications of the ACM expressing concern over the growing cancel culture and pleading for allowing for vigorous argument over ideas.  We released it to the public a few days ago, on December 29th.  The letter was quite anodyne but already caused the predictable reaction, which only served to reinforce the idea that such a stance very much needs to be taken. If you are an established professional in the computing sciences, there is still time to sign it before we send it to the CACM.
    image of CACM open letter

After a long summary for last year, that's all I have this time around.  But I am glad to be done with 2020.  

Here's to a better 2021!

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