Chat: Alain Chesnais Top Global Innovator, Serial Entrepreneur, Executive and Scientist
Alain Chesnais is Past President of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). He served for the two-year term beginning July 1, 2010. Chesnais studied at l'Ecole Normale Supérieure de l'Enseignement Technique and l'Université de Paris VII and XI, where he earned a Maîtrise de Mathématiques, a Maîtrise de Structure Mathématique de l'Informatique, and a Diplôme d'Etudes Approfondies in Computer Science. He was a high school student at the United Nations International School in New York, where, along with preparing his International Baccalaureate with a focus on Math, Physics and Chemistry, he also studied Mandarin Chinese.
Chesnais recently founded TrendSpottr (Toronto) serving as Chief Scientist, which develops web services to identify real time trends in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. He was the CTO of SceneCaster.com from June 2007 until April 2010 and was Vice President of Product Development at Tucows Inc. from July 2005 — May 2007. He also served as director of engineering at Alias|Wavefront managing the team that received an Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for developing the Maya 3D software package.
Prior to his election as ACM president, Chesnais was vice president from July 2008 — June 2010 as well as secretary/treasurer from July 2006 — June 2008. He also served as president of ACM SIGGRAPH from July 2002 — June 2005 and as SIG Governing Board Chair from July 2000 — June 2002. As a French citizen now residing in Canada, he has more than 20 years of management experience in the software industry. He joined the local SIGGRAPH Chapter in Paris some 25 years ago as a volunteer, and has continued his involvement with ACM in a variety of leadership capacities since then.
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To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
Alain, thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.
You recently keynoted at the World Congress in Amsterdam about developments in Graphics, which you have led over many decades. Can you talk about the innovations in the Graphics field and future innovations to watch for?
"....One of the key things we've seen in computer graphics is a dramatic increase in computational capabilities....The idea is that we still have much more that we can do. Getting that increase in speed enables two things: first is being able to do more and second it's being able to do better quality.... "
Where do you see the innovations in the graphics field going? Do you see a Matrix environment, like in the movies, where you can't distinguish it and where you kind of live in this totally immersive world?
"....What I'm looking at more is what you can do with these technologies, to see how you can go and enhance the real world....One of the fields that I'm really interested in is an area called augmented reality. Augmented reality is the ability for you to go out and capture what is out there in the real world and add extra information to it...."
Alain profiles TrendSpottr and his roles there.
"....I'm chief scientist at TrendSpottr....We built a tool that does real-time analytics (as the information comes flowing in we update our evaluations of what the content is).....We've built an ability to filter a topic — from there do the analysis to see what's trending right now in that topic. It's very interesting because we are able to spot the early acceleration phase of viral growth...."
There is some research in terms of providing some predictability and anticipating trends that are occurring in the stock market. Have you been approached by those kinds of companies?
"....Social media reacts to the stock market and not the other way around....Correlation doesn't mean causality and this is a major mistake that a lot of people make, that since they see the correlation they assume they can use Twitter as a predictive measure. We are seeing that it is pretty much the opposite...."
Can the tool be used to plot behavioral trends?
"....It can....but we have to be very careful specifically when you look at statistics; correlation and causality aren't the same thing and you have to be very careful about this...."
Why is your technology at TrendSpottr resulting in dramatic increases in your client base and the demands on the level of service?
"....The major element that has actually pushed our client base up fairly dramatically has been our partnership with Salesforce. We have now integrated our real-time analytics into the Salesforce platform and that's raised awareness in terms of what we do and how you can actually use this to help you understand what's happening in your business in real-time...."
Have any governments approached you in any way either at a national, regional or municipal level?
"....Anybody who is interested in public sentiment has been looking at our tools to be able to see how they might use them....We don't have any governments that I'm aware of currently signed as paying customers, but I wouldn't be surprised if they started using us....I talked a little bit earlier of filtering on subject matter, we can also filter on geo-location, we can run our analysis on a given city or given region...."
In your work at TrendSpottr, what are the challenges posed by Big Data?
"....The key thing is the actual volume of data that we have to handle....The huge constraints: the huge volumes of data and coupled with the fact that we are trying to do this in real-time...."
What is the state of research on computing tools to help make decisions based on real-time analysis of data as it streams in?
"....The approach that we've taken is to go and look at this more as a single processing type of approach. Basically my signal is the stream of incoming data and I want to be able to identify relevant elements happening in that signal...."
What are the upcoming innovations in Big Data?
"....What we have now is the confluence of three elements. First, the availability of large volumes of data, second, the computational power to be able to make sense of it and third, the bandwidth to be able to get the data from one place to another that you can actually handle it. Getting those three together has been enabling all the research we've been seeing in very many labs throughout the world...."
What are the top challenges facing the ICT industry in 2013?
"....I see the challenge as how do we spread the knowledge, how do we spread the know-how and make it so that people in every discipline understand how to use these tools to their maximum effect no matter what they do...."
What do you see as the top opportunities for the ICT industry in 2013?
"....I don't see any limits there at all...."
What computing areas (specialties) or domains having the highest growth rates and why?
"....Everything that we're doing right now in terms of natural language processing, understanding how people talk and how people communicate is probably one of the ones that's nearing maturity and getting to a point where we are starting to do things that are pretty amazing in terms of what we could imagine before....that's where I see the biggest growth...."
You are in this great position to look at what's happening in governments and industry around the world and also in academia. From that perspective of leadership, what policies need to be implemented to foster innovation?
"....Having policies that favour research and innovation and push to make public labs do as much as they can and make sure they have the ability to do their research, that where I see the biggest elements that need to happen. The second element is more related to education. Education is key in this.... "
As a successful entrepreneur, what are your best practices for start-ups?
"....Aim as high as you can....Find an interesting problem, work at it and solve it....Look at your skills, what are you good at, what can you bring to bear to change things....Understand the problem you are solving....Focus, make sure that 100% of your efforts are going to solving that problem...."
What are the secrets to fund-raising?
"....It's basically looking at what you really need and what you need it for....You don't need as much money to get started as you did ten years ago and the reason for that is the ability to go and rent the time you need....You should be using services that let you use computers on the fly and scale up as you need it...."
What qualities make for a successful innovator?
"....To be successful you've got to get people to understand why you are different, what you are doing that's new and what the value is to them...."
What are the top resources that you use that you would recommend that would be of value to our audience?
"....I use TrendSpottr a lot. Basically I've set up filters for the elements that I'm interested in....I read all the major trade journals, I read a lot of the research papers for the conferences for the topics that I'm most interested in...."
Are there areas of controversy that are of interest to you?
"....Looking at subjects to do with open access, trying to see where we are going....We've been looking at various models and that's one of the areas that I'm particularly passionate about and that is understanding how we can do more in making as much of the scientific content that we publish accessible to as much of the world as possible...."
Earlier in our discussion Alain talked about the importance of teaching Computer Science in all domains and gave many reasons for that. He talked about Harvey Mudd College and their very innovative system for engaging students into Computer Science. Alain shares additional experiences and success stories at Harvey Mudd.
"....There are 2 elements that are very noteworthy. First there is a large increase in terms of the numbers of students now signing up to major in computer science. The interesting thing is that these students don't come from your traditional STEM background (historians, people who study literature, etc), so you are getting a wide variety of students coming in, bringing in their own way of looking at problem-solving.....The other aspect that has been absolutely amazing at Harvey Mudd (that I attribute to the change in the way that computer science is taught), is that the number of women who are enrolling in computing is I believe 47 percent, compared to the national average in the States which is either in the single digits or the low teens (depending at which school you're at)...."
You are the immediate past President of the ACM, the world's largest and foremost educational, scientific, professional association well known for their Turing Awards (the Nobel Prize of Computing), their Learning Center, and SIGS such as SIGGRAPH. Can you talk about the internationalization of the ACM, how that is progressing and why this is important?
"....What I've seen happen over the past 30 years is to see the organization go from stating that it wanted to be an international presence, to putting the structure in place in terms of supporting conferences outside of North America, to then going to a structural change where we actually put into place these regional councils that support membership outside the United States and Canada. That's been a very exciting process to watch and to be a part of...."
Why should professionals join the ACM?
"....The key element of what ACM is all about: It's centralizing the relevant content so that computing professionals can stay abreast with all the changes that are happening in our field...."
From his extensive speaking, travels, and work, Alain shares some stories (amusing, surprising, unexpected or amazing).
"....I went to high school at the United Nations International School, and there we had the ability to ask the UN to send a teacher to teach us any language we wanted to learn if we could get ten students to sign up....I managed to convince ten of my friends to sign up and we actually studied Mandarin...."
If you were conducting this interview, what question would you ask, and then what would be your answer?
"....Where do the major challenges still lie in terms of not the technology, but what's important and where we should be taking the technology?...."
Alain, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.
Music by Sunny Smith Productions and Shaun O'Leary