7 years after my revelation

Back in 2009 I felt that something was missing from my life. Where was I going? Why I could not see my youth’s dreams become true? What had I done wrong? Here I was, in my mid-40s looking back and feeling I did not have the chance to change the world. Here I was in the start of a great recession for my country Greece, with the whole economy and the social coherency collapsing around me. What could I do ?

What I did was to “feel my heart and think hard”. I had the REVELATION moment. And now, 7 years after that moment I decided to write about it and how it could influence the future.

 

BACKGROUND

I had been an early inventor since my 6, a resourceful entrepreneur since my 8, a young developer by my 12 (1978). I had bet my future education on Computers at 15 and at the same time started my Software Development company before I even got into the University to study Maths and continue with Information Technology. I was studying and at the same time I was an entrepreneur selling my software solutions to financial institutions, professionals like Engineers, Dentists via the Philips Hellas customer channel.

It was already 1985 when a book  about Prolog fell into my hands. I was stunned! I said to myself “this is what you need to do in your life! Artificial Intelligence is the key”.  In fact, all AI books at the time, mentioned Edinburgh University at their first page notes since their authors had studied or lectured at the AI Department of Edinburgh Uni. This was the place to be.

I stopped everything else (including dropping out of my Greek university degree) and focused to methodically increase sales and profit and save money so I could go and study AI in Edinburgh. I was lucky to have a company back then because this was actually funding my great cause! From 1987 to 1989  I worked hard to raise the money to support my 4 year studies in Edinburgh and that made me a better entrepreneur (in my country’s size & standards).

I applied for the Artificial Intelligence / Computer Science joined degree at Edinburgh University and got there in 1989 since my great grades on my A-Levels secured the place as well as first year exceptions from Pure and Applied Maths.

THE “EDINBURGH AI” YEARS

When I arrived at my first AI lecture, the lecturer (which I really don’t remember exactly who he was) asked the whole auditorium a simple question : “You have probably noticed the Cameras above the traffic lights in the City’s streets, right? Can anybody tell me what these cameras are for?”.

Traffic Light Camera
Traffic Light Camera

A spark lit in my mind and I waved at him. “Yes? You! But before you answer the question, could you please tell us your name and where you are coming from?” he said.

I was already in my dream University to study my passion, Artificial Intelligence. I was in the right place! That was my chance to validate that AI would conquer the world!

“My name is Sotiris Karagiannis and I come from Greece” I said. “The reason these cameras are there for, is probably that the images captured are digitized, transferred to a central location, processed by fast CPUs and visual information is extracted. The system should be now ready to proactively detect if the cars in the crossroads are getting queued forming traffic jam conditions and an AI program is deciding to change the lights so the traffic moves along”. That should be it! I was almost sure. After all, I was in Edinburgh, the city considered to be the center of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics.

The lecturer laughed and said “Well, young man, you certainly have a vision for AI and your imagination drives you years ahead. Guys, this should be what the cameras are there for. The reality? The cameras are connected to a central place in the City Police headquarters where officers can monitor them if needed. And this is it!”

I was shocked! How could that be? That was it? So what are all these people in the AI department doing all these years researching Computer Vision and developing algorithms for edge extraction, optical flow recognition and the such?

The lecturer explained that the AI department (formerly known as Department of Cybernetics at Forrest Hill) was actively researching computer vision but that would take time until such automated actions could be performed by machines or other AI programs.

I had to take action. “I have to help this happen faster”, I thought. After 4 years in the AI/CS Department, I was still excited with how things could turn to be in the future and how AI would help humans achieve more one day.

In my final year I had the pleasure of working with Gillian Hayes who was my supervisor of the final year project with title “Optical Flow estimation using Kinetic Depth” where I developed an optical flow simulation environment in C and X11. The simulation was trying to achieve real life speed performance for robotic vehicles with speeds equivalent to a car’s speeds of approx 70 Km/h using techniques derived from how a insect’s eyes perceived distance and optical flow to avoid obstacles.


Instead of dealing with scanned images, edge extraction, pattern matching  which were all computationally expensive  operations, we rather used nature to teach us. This was the sauce on how to avoid collision with obstacles that were approaching with great speeds and predict the size and time to impact based on the optical flow in the back of the retina. Instead of using stereo vision with cameras, we were using small sensors placed on a sphere like an insect’s eye.  (similar research in the Departments of AI/CS was partly funded by some Auto industry companies – I recall that Mercedes-Benz was one of them). The project was a great success and it got me a perfect score adding to my overall degree. It was exciting!

BACK TO THE GREEK REALITY

I finally got my AI/CS degree in 1993 and instead of following the “obvious” path to pursue AI in Stanford or MIT for a PhD, I decided to move back to Greece. Why? Because I thought that I could have the chance to apply my passion for AI, Robotic Vision and Machine Learning in the auto industry via my connections with Nissan theo_nissan (Greece had a Nissan car factory back then in Volos, where robots were used in the production line). Unfortunately the Greek Nissan factory did not prove to be a viable business in a country that used to be (and still is) treating entrepreneurship like a famine.

And this is how the “AI and Robotics in Greece” dream fell apart and life took over.

However, my second obsession, “the Internet” took over my focus and in 1995 after the completion of my military service I started my next company which was named “Expert.sys” (the name was there to remind me that I should not forget my AI passion). Here is how we were describing our AI software role in the short Internet future (1996):
“Some of the sectors we believe implementation of our Software will have a maximum impact are :

  • Personalized Web Sites and personal Content delivery.
  • Expert Systems and Intelligent Agents on the Internet
  • Automated Marketing Tools providing information found through the Web
    Interactive Multimedia using Internet technology through TV
  • G.I.S. and Expert Information Systems applied in Tourism”

The years from 1996 to 2000 had been the most productive as a young entrepreneur. I invested time and money as well as huge amounts of my personal life in the internet software area, felt the power of competition, made mistakes, learned from them, earned a lot of money, lost some, made friends, bought my own house and started a family. I was expert in Networking, Thin Client computing (Citrix technology), Virtualization (was running an Oracle server in a laptop inside a VM), and Web Software (where I developed the first single page application using what Microsoft called remote scripting).

THE POST 2000 YEARS

And then I needed something else. I needed to go back to AI and start a new company. I met the CEO and upper management of Space and presented them with my plans to start a joint-venture software company developing “Intelligent Fraud Detection Algorithms for the Financial Industry”. The company would develop software to check every transaction with AI and Machine Learning technology, to analyze them and decide if transactions were fraudulent or were traced to be following illegal paths. Unfortunately the plan seemed too adventurous and futuristic to them and they came back with a proposal to start develop technology for Agent Based IT and Security software based on the then “Cloud” model and the SaaS equivalent. We code-named the product “SecureIT” and the development started. Quickly it turned out to become more of an IT Monitoring and Management platform called “dotpulse” or .Pulse. Today .pulse agents run in thousand of systems around the world, collecting vital statistics and proactively and intelligently preventing threats, problems and policy violations in thousands of IT and Network systems in Government  and Financial institutions.

Over these years, I never forgot what my original dream was about. AI was sleeping inside my head. As much as I wanted to apply it, artificial intelligence was actually a second class citizen behind Social Networks, ERP and CRM systems, the Cloud and Mobile technologies. But I knew it would come again in focus when data would be enough to prove we could be making decisions based on AI one day.

2005: KNOWLEDGE IS STILL KEPT INSIDE OUR HEAD

In 2005, I had the pain of trying to find how I could be speaking with a Lawyer, an Accountant, a Doctor or a Mentor in the United States, pick up her brain and still be able to pay her via a secure digital platform for knowledge exchange. No, searching Google for answers was not enough. I needed to ask questions to a real person, present ideas, get answers and all this via a secure transactional digital model. Something like a mediator platform. So why not invent it?  There was it, called “netgotiator – the digital mediator”.
This is an excerpt from the site :

Mediation: An old art, a new perspective:  A new Perspective was conceptualized and brought to life by developing a new and innovative technological method to implement a flexible, extendable and solid framework for the new Digital Era. It’s called “NETGOTIATOR – The digital Mediator”. The name comes from the words “negotiator” and “net” (network) and is exactly what it sounds like “A digital mediator, bringing parties together through networks and telecommunication technology”.

This new entrepreneurial experiment was the basis for a new idea: “what if we could capture all the knowledge exchanged in a daily basis in the world, the fresh one, the one that is generated in the everyday life of knowledge workers, the ones that collaborate, communicate, exchange ideas, meet and discuss, ask questions, present ideas and solutions to problems?”. Bold idea like it seemed, it made me wonder why nobody ever did that before. Skype was there. Millions of people were using it. Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, all this knowledge and still, I could not find a simple way to ask questions to a subject matter expert, record that, bookmark it and pay her through a secure transaction.

2009: NETGOTIATOR PRONOUNCED DEAD

Netgotiator was dead and so was the Greek economy. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, the Greek system collapsed, mainly because our values have never been solid enough to help the country stand in its feet against such a financial hurricane.

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty” – Winston Churchill

I was always thinking of myself as an optimist but here I was, in a great shock after I realized that this crisis would mean at least 15 years of Greece going into a great recession and my family being in the middle of a bridge, not knowing if we should move back and stay with the rest or start moving forward and move across the bridge in unchartered territories.

and there was “THE REVELATION”

 

 

 

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